Until she married Bob Neuwirth and joined the parish at St. John Nepomucene Church in Pilsen, the only thing Rose Mary Neuwirth knew about Emil Kapaun was that James Whitmore portrayed the long-dead priest in a 1950s made-for-television movie.
But she has now seen the pope (twice, from a distance) and heard Mass alongside the tomb of Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Basilica. And she has said yet another prayer or two for Kapaun.
Besides the farm work with Bob, Kapaun has for the last 18 years been her life’s work. When it became clear somebody needed to lead all things Kapaun, she took up the role.
She’s lucky to be here in Vatican City, Neuwirth said. Not only because she took a break from farming to see Siena and Florence and Assisi and Rome. And not only because she saw the pope talk and bless the crowd from one of the Vatican windows on Sunday.
She has had colon cancer this year – a couple of ambulance rides, four hospitalizations, two surgeries, much of her intestinal tract removed. So she will turn 74 next week feeling lucky to be alive and to see 18 years of unpaid relentless work begin to eventually mean something important.
She did not come here just to sightsee, but to pray. Along with her and 94 other Kansans on this trip to Rome is Wichita Bishop Carl Kemme, who lobbied the Vatican on Monday to canonize Kapaun as a saint.
Being here has brought my religious faith back to life. It has helped even more to bring Father Kapaun to life for me.
Rose Mary Neuwirth
If sainthood happens – and diocese leaders think it eventually will – it’s also likely that Neuwirth and other elder Pilsen women will finally get some help in turning Pilsen into a Catholic shrine.
Getting her some help will be a good thing, said Marilyn Tajchman, a Wichitan and Neuwirth’s friend.
“For a long time now, whenever all sorts of things needed to get done about Father Kapaun, the word was, ‘Just call Rose Mary.’ ”
Taking care of visitors
For years now, when thousands of people tumbled off charter and school buses in Pilsen to see Kapaun’s hometown, they did so in a community unequipped to handle them – except for Neuwirth and a few other volunteers.
Pilsen, in Marion County, is a tiny spot in the road: No public restroom, no paid guides, no gas station, no one designated to show people the hometown of a national hero and possible saint. Rose Mary and Bob Neuwirth, married 54 years, live on a farm three miles outside of town.
So the bus riders and the hundreds of others arriving by car would usually be greeted by Neuwirth if they had called ahead. If no one had called, then maybe Millie Vinduska, the 85-year-old woman living across the street from the church, would come out of her house and offer in her Czech-inflected accent to show people the church and the house where Kapaun once lived and prayed and worked.
Neuwirth, Vinduska and a few other local women are the people who sweep out the church and bake cookies for church gatherings. In the last two years, they also have shown people Kapaun’s Medal of Honor, handed to the Kapaun family by President Obama in 2013.
Wichita Diocese officials like Father John Hotze have said that if Kapaun is canonized, Pilsen will likely become a Catholic shrine attracting many thousands, and that the Catholic Church will fund improvements needed to handle the crowds.
But Kapaun is not yet a saint – the Vatican said this week it could take many, many years – so there’s little church support for Pilsen so far. Last year, 5,000 people showed up in Pilsen to learn about Kapaun.
“There were probably a lot more,” Neuwirth said. “We try to keep records about visitors, but oftentimes when people show up without calling, Millie goes out of her house if she sees them, and takes them around and doesn’t bother to tell us about it or count how many. So it could be a lot more.”
Pilsen residents and Catholic diocese officials like Hotze have said Neuwirth did enormous amounts of work to help the visitors and raise money for the Father Kapaun Guild, an organization that preserves his memory.
She raised thousands of dollars with ideas she pitched about selling Father Kapaun T-shirts, making handmade Father Kapaun rosaries and other items. She gathered and printed locally produced Kapaun poems and fliers.
On Monday, just before Kemme went off to the Vatican to make Kapaun’s case, Neuwirth showed him the back of her Kapaun T-shirt, with the biblical quote from the Gospel of John: “Greater love hath no man …”
She organized meals where hundreds of people would show up for Father Kapaun Day and eat kolaches, the pastry that Pilsen’s Czech community loves.
When something needed to get done with money, it was often Rose Mary and Bob Neuwirth’s money – thousands of dollars over time, she said.
5,000 Estimated number of visitors to Pilsen last year
“I don’t know how much because I don’t even want to know,” she said.
“It was worth it,” Neuwirth said. “We like to show the schoolchildren around because Father (Kapaun) is a great model for how to live a life.
“And the charter buses, sometimes those would be veterans, and when the Korean War veterans have showed up and listened to his story, they get tears in their eyes. And that makes you realize how important it is to do all this.”
‘Do for others’
Kapaun is not just a memory and a name in Pilsen or in many parts of Kansas or Wichita. Many of the local Catholics, three generations removed from the Korean War, pray to Kapaun asking for his intercession to help the ill or the afflicted.
Neuwirth’s friend Marilyn Tajchman was baptized by Kapaun; her parents were married by him. She and her husband, Marcel, are also taking part in the Kansas pilgrimage to Italy.
They started life in Pilsen and prayed to Kapaun for years, including when both of them were losing their previous spouses to illness.
Kapaun, Marcel Tajchman said, is a living presence to these people, “even when the outcome you pray for isn’t what you get.”
Neuwirth doesn’t want to talk about her illness or how much doing what amounts to a full-time job for no pay for 18 years might have cost.
“The whole purpose of Father Kapaun’s life was to do for others without ever expecting anything in return,” she said.
So for her this trip, in spite of the annoyance of feeling weak, has been joy: Pope Francis waving to thousands, and thousands waving back at him. Seeing Kemme steel himself to give a good pitch to the Vatican cardinals.
There’s also the joy of watching the Tajchmans accompany her and seeing how in love those two are. They were childhood friends in Pilsen long before their previous marriages, and met again – at Father Kapaun Day in 2012.
Most of all, Neuwirth said, this trip and the memory of the possible saint she has prayed to for decades have filled her again with the joy of her faith.
“Being here has brought my religious faith back to life,” she said. “It has helped even more to bring Father Kapaun to life for me.
“I can’t do near what he did, can’t serve in a war or do as he did for others. But I can have faith.”