Avery Gerleman and Chase Kear, both lucky to be alive, might soon become catalysts for canonizing a Kansas war hero into Roman Catholic sainthood.
The Rev. John Hotze, from the Wichita diocese, said that Vatican officials have spoken so positively and so often to him about the Father Emil Kapaun investigation that he thinks they might decide by the end of this year whether to speed up Kapaun’s candidacy for sainthood.
“They have said encouraging things,” Hotze said of Vatican investigators.
The Vatican is sending its investigator — Italian lawyer Andrea Ambrosi — to Wichita again in September, Hotze said. Hotze did most of the work compiling Kapaun’s Korean War heroics and life story for the Vatican. Ambrosi will come here to accept more evidence collected in Wichita about alleged miracles involving Gerleman, now 19, and Kear, now 24.
There will be a celebration in St. Mary’s Cathedral downtown marking the visit on Sept. 28 and 29, Hotze said.
No matter the Vatican’s decision, Gerleman said, she will never change one habit she took on since her near-death experience in 2006. Nearly every night, she prays to God and Kapaun, asking for protection for her family, “and anyone in a hospital.”
Two of Kapaun’s old friends, still alive and rooting for him, also might help speed up Kapaun’s canonization, Hotze said.
Mike Dowe of Houston and William Funchess from Clemson, S.C., were Army officers and prisoners in the North Korean village of Pyoktong where Kapaun, a U.S. Army chaplain, died of starvation and illness. Both have said the Chinese camp guards murdered Kapaun in May 1951 — isolating him from other prisoners and withholding food and water — in part because of his faith.
“I don’t know how you can be more of a martyr than that,” Dowe said Friday.
If the Vatican, after studying the POW stories, declares Kapaun a martyr, that could prompt the Vatican to automatically beatify him, reducing the time and requirements usually needed in the long process toward canonization and sainthood, Hotze said. For one thing, declaring him a martyr would eliminate the need to prove a miracle to get him beatified.
But Hotze said he thinks Kapaun’s candidacy now has two good miracles, waiting to be proven, if needed — Gerleman and Kear survived what their doctors said should have been fatal medical crises. Their families and friends prayed to God and Kapaun, asking him to intercede in heaven on behalf of their loved ones.
Gerleman in 2006 started spitting up a lot of blood and spent weeks in a coma, suffering from what doctors said should have been a fatal auto immune disorder where her antibodies tried to destroy her internal organs. Medical scans during her 87 days in the hospital showed severe damage to her lungs and internal organs.
But she said this week that she’s about to start running 10 miles a day, in the July and August heat, to prepare for her second season of soccer at Hutchinson Community College.
“It’s crazy,” Gerleman said of her survival. “It’s just nuts, how it happened.”
Kear, of Colwich, survived what doctors said should have been a fatal pole vaulting accident during track practice at Hutchinson Community College in 2008, when he missed the landing pit and crushed his skull.
For Ambrosi, Hotze has prepared documents and signed affidavits from the doctors and many other medical personnel involved in helping Kear and Gerleman stay alive.
In the POW camp
If Kapaun does eventually become just the fourth American-born saint, those who knew him in Korea said he earned it with his actions in the POW camps.
“He is certainly deserving of being declared a saint,” said Funchess, a Protestant, from his South Carolina home. “He frequently put himself at great risk going across the barbed wire fence from one compound to another to get to the POWs who needed his help.”
Kapaun, he said, washed their dirty clothes, gave them extra food to survive “and prayed with them, in their little shacks, or outside, or on the steps of that bombed-out church in Pyoktong. He pretty well defied the guards whenever he saw the opportunity to help a POW in need.”
Kapaun in the last six weeks of his life became sick and crippled with a blood clot in his leg, Funchess said. Funchess saw many frightened, starving POWS come into the shack they shared, asking to pray with Kapaun, who complied, though he was too weak to stand up.
The guards tried to stop prisoners from praying anytime they saw it happening, Funchess said.
“They were very anti-Christian,” Funchess said. All this was part of the reason they finally had him carried off and isolated to die, he said.
Medal of Honor
Vatican officials have stayed in touch with Hotze in the two years since he sent them 8,268 documents to confirm Kapaun’s heroism. Most of the documents involved the battles Kapaun served in and his heroism in keeping hundreds of Allied troops alive while they starved and suffered in POW camps.
News that President Barack Obama awarded Kapaun the Medal of Honor in April, the nation’s highest award for military valor, impressed the Vatican further, Hotze said. They told Hotze the Kapaun story is being talked about a lot among church hierarchy.
Kapaun was a priest and U.S. Army chaplain who grew up in Pilsen, in Marion County. He was ordained a priest at what is now Newman University and returned to serve as parish priest in Pilsen. He served as a chaplain in World War II and returned to Kansas after the war. He rejoined the chaplain service in 1948. He was 35 when he died in North Korea in 1951.
The Vatican several years ago declared him a “Servant of God,” the first step to sainthood. Church rules for many years were that the next step would be to find “miracles” and proof enough of his goodness to declare him “Venerable,” which would lead to beatification. Another miracle after beatification was needed for a person to become a saint.
When the Vatican’s Ambrosi was here in 2011, mystified doctors told him that they couldn’t scientifically explain why Kear and Gerleman survived.
Gerleman’s two primary doctors, both Protestant, said her case was the most mysterious recovery they had ever seen. They told the Vatican that the disorder should have killed her, or should have left her with failed kidneys and severe damage to other organs, including her lungs.
But scans done after she recovered found no scarring. It was, they said, as if there was no evidence of burning after a fire.
The most important truth of her involvement in the Kapaun story, Gerleman said this week, is that “God answers everybody’s prayers.”
Gerleman is about to start her sophomore year at Hutchinson Community College, where she is a defender on the soccer team.
“No one ever gets past her to score,” said her father, Shawn Gerleman.
Last year, she said, she played all the way through every game. She said she wants to become a nurse, inspired by the example of Kapaun and by the many people who worked for months to save her.
Kear now sells guns in the sporting goods department of the Wal-Mart store in Goddard. He’s been taking online courses at Hutchinson Community College.
One of the thrills of his life, he said, was to attend the Medal of Honor of ceremony at the White House. He drank Champagne, danced with other Kapaun friends and shared the experience with Dowe, Bob McGreevy, Herbert Miller and other POW friends of Kapaun.
After he recovered from his pole vaulting accident — which at the time caused a large, deep crater in his head — Kear wondered whether God had some purpose in saving him. But he thinks now his mother, Paula, was right when she said four years ago that his survival had already served a purpose.
“Maybe it was just meant to show people: ‘Look what happens,’” Kear said. “‘Have faith. Believe in something.’”