The Michelangelo hotel is a short walk from St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
Carl Kemme, the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, walked from the hotel to the Vatican in only minutes on Monday. Kemme was raised a farm boy. He came here to tell a story about another farm boy, Emil Kapaun.
He had slept hardly at all in the Michelangelo, going over in his head how he would explain to Angelo Cardinal Amato in a few minutes why Kapaun deserves sainthood. He walked stiffly, right up to the Square’s pillars, when someone he knew suddenly shouted: “Don’t let us down!”
A line of Kansas pilgrims who had come with Kemme burst out laughing.
Never miss a local story.
Kemme laughed too, and glared at the speaker, Kemme’s own diocese development director Mike Wescott.
“Who do you work for?” Kemme demanded in mock irritation. And then Kemme stared back at the pavement he was crossing, going over what he would say.
“Perfection is acquired through our efforts,” Kapaun once told his congregation. “And if we try to become saints, someday we will be saints.”
But Kemme was about to find out that sainthood isn’t quite that easy.
Kapaun’s own journey has crossed much of the world and has taken 99 years, from his birth in 1916 in Kansas to now, in Rome.
Photographer Travis Heying and I were in Rome with Kemme this week, where he asked the cardinals with Congregation for the Causes of Saints to consider Kapaun for sainthood.
Travis and I have told the Kapaun story for The Eagle since 2009 in photos, in digital and newspaper stories, in Travis’ video documentary, in a book and now in videos and stories we dispatched this week from here. It’s the most uplifting story we’ve ever worked.
That’s an odd thing to say about a story based mostly in a prison camp, where Kapaun and more than 1,000 fellow prisoners died in the North Korean winter of 1950-51.
Kapaun lived a hard life: Farm kid. Priest. U.S. Army chaplain. Korean War battlefield hero. Prisoner of war.
Some of the POWs say the guards deliberately starved him to death for standing up for his Christian faith and for opposing the Communist indoctrination that camp commanders forced on prisoners.
But he radiated happiness in all those roles, as a priest in Pilsen and Timken, Kan., and as a chaplain in India, Burma, Japan and Korea.
He made people feel upbeat, even under fire, even when surrounded by death in that camp. His POW friends – including Bob Wood, William Funchess and Mike Dowe – always felt peace and comfort when the priest came around, even as they shivered and buried hundreds of friends.
Travis and I flew and drove all over the country for our stories; through Maryland and Pennsylvania and across New York to Lake Ontario. We went to Clemson, S.C., Houston and O’Fallon, Mo. We went to the White House, and now to the seat of St. Peter.
We heard stories sad and inspiring, profound and purely funny. Many of the stories surprised us.
Travis and I have covered tragedies and comedies, sinners and serial killers, violent men and sex crime victims. We are almost never surprised.
Kapaun still surprises us.
A worldwide story
Two and a half years after Kapaun died, the Chinese guards released his prisoner friends at the end of the Korean War.
They told his story to reporters. The wire services told it on front pages everywhere. Dowe told Kapaun’s story to generals at the Pentagon and wrote a recommendation for a Medal of Honor. The Army turned it down.
But in 2013 Travis and I watched the president of the United States tell Kapaun’s story at the White House and hand the Medal of Honor to Kapaun’s family. The Secretary of Defense told his story at the Pentagon a day later.
Kemme told the story to cardinals inside the Vatican earlier this week.
Kapaun’s story has been told in Korea, where a chapel is named for him, and in Germany, where there’s a monument to him.
No sincere prayer is ever wasted.
Father Emil Kapaun
It is still told in the church in Pilsen where Kapaun said Mass as a priest, and at the seminary near St. Louis where he studied for the priesthood. It is told at Newman University in Wichita, where the mural of Kapaun hangs in St. John’s Chapel where he was ordained a priest.
It is told in the Czech Republic, where Emil’s father, Enos, was born. The book Travis and I wrote about Kapaun was translated into Czech.
Kapaun was a Catholic chaplain who talked Protestants and agnostics into praying the Rosary with him in the prison camp. He got shell-shocked soldiers to carry wounded men for miles, though the soldiers stumbled from exhaustion.
He gave away his own food to starving prisoners to make them stop stealing food from each other. He rallied the weak and the sick to defy Communist brainwashers.
He did much of this while saying nothing – no orders, no yelling, no sermons. He led by action. Other chaplains might walk up to the 19-year-old soldier digging a latrine and ask whether he wanted to pray. Kapaun would walk up with an extra spade and help dig.
It was hard to believe the Kapaun stories at first. For every story, we asked for proof.
In Herbert Miller’s living room near Pulaski, N.Y., in the fall of 2009, Miller told us his ankle was shattered by a grenade during the battle of Unsan. He played dead in a ditch. An enemy soldier saw he was alive and put the muzzle of his rifle to Miller’s head.
Kapaun interrupted that execution, shoving the enemy soldier aside and picking Miller up.
I asked Miller for proof. So Miller pulled out his Army photos, his military records.
Then I asked him to pull off his shoe and sock.
Miller grinned. He pulled off his shoe and sock and pulled up his trouser leg.
His lower leg looked torn as though gnawed by a beast. There were pits in Miller’s flesh where grenade fragments had torn through his calf. His skin was marked from toe to knee with red, black and blue discolorations.
He grinned again.
“Does that look like proof?”
Kapaun and the cow
In 2011 I went looking frantically for a funny story about a cow. No Kapaun story makes me grin like that one.
The story tells how at age seven little Emil tricked the Kapaun family milk cow. We had heard the cow story by 2011, but only third-hand.
But one day I tricked Father John Hotze into helping me find anyone who had heard the story from Kapaun’s parents.
We rode all over Chase and Marion counties. But at door after door I struck out.
Hotze finally directed me to a nursing home in Marion. He said we might not hear anything at all from the woman living there. She was frail and failing – and 104 years old, he said.
Inside we found her: Amelia Vinduska.
Her son stood beside her wheelchair. He said his mother could barely hear, that we must talk loud – and she might not answer.
I spoke loud.
“Do you remember Father Kapaun?”
Five minutes of yelling. Her eyes never opened.
I felt embarrassed.
But then I leaned down and yelled:“Tell me about Father Kapaun and the cow.”
And her eyes opened.
Three weeks later, I would Google to double-check the spelling of her name – and find her obituary.
But the story tumbled out as she grinned at me:
“Bessie and Enos had a cow,” she said.
“Bessie liked that cow.”
It was Bessie’s job to milk. But when Emil turned seven, Bessie taught him to milk the cow so she could help Enos work the farm.
The morning after Bessie taught him, she left with Enos.
Emil tied the cow to a post and tried to milk her. But the cow backed away – once, twice, three times.
“Emil was not Bessie. So the cow wanted nothing to do with Emil.”
So Emil walked into the house, Amelia said.
“He put on Bessie’s dress.
“And then he walked back into that yard.
“And he milked that cow.”
‘I guess I’ll talk’
Every time some big problem would crop up in reporting the Kapaun story, as big problems always crop up during projects, the problem would go away. Poof.
In 2009 we planned to fly to Washington, then drive to Cumberland, Md., to interview former POW Robert McGreevy. He had agreed to tell us about Kapaun.
I called McGreevy the night before our flight. He said my first call to him days before had made his Korean War nightmares worse. He said he no longer wanted to talk.
Father Emil Kapaun was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously in 2013
I didn’t worry. Instead, I told McGreevy we would fly to see him anyway – if only to shake his hand.
“You’re coming here for nothing then,” McGreevy grumped.
I did not tell our editors. I didn’t tell Travis, though this meant he might carry bags of cameras and lenses across half of America for nothing. I just assumed things would work out, like all other Kapaun things.
We rolled up to McGreevy’s house two mornings later. A guy with white hair and big shoulders glared at us from his porch.
I told Travis what McGreevy had said. Travis spun on me, startled and anxious.
“So you’re here anyway, damn it,” McGreevy called out. “Well … come in. I guess I’ll talk.”
In early 2013, I called Wood and nearly all of Kapaun’s surviving POW friends and told them Kapaun’s family would receive the Medal of Honor at the White House.
“You are invited,” I told them one by one.
Every one of them let out a happy shout.
And every one of them denounced President Barack Obama.
“Will I have to talk to that #@!*&?” McGreevy growled.
“Obama is a socialist,” Wood explained. “All the camp guards were socialists. We don’t like socialists.”
But weeks after Wood said this, he and eight other surviving POWS met Obama at the White House.
At the medal ceremony, Obama retold Miller’s near-execution story from the East Room podium. He pointed the other POWs out. He brought soldiers to tears re-telling how Kapaun suffered and struggled, and how the old soldiers there tried so hard to save Kapaun’s life.
It was an unforgettable thing, watching the guys listen. Except for Dowe, they all looked frail. They had lived quiet lives. Their neighbors had little idea these old men had been starved and fought heroically in terrible battles.
Obama handed the Medal of Honor to Kapaun’s nephew Ray. Ray choked up.
And after that, the POWS shook the hands of generals and colonels, senators and House members. McGreevy, a former corporal, shook hands with the Army Chief of Staff.
One of Obama’s senior speechwriters had traded dozens of emails with me the previous week, fact-checking Kapaun information for the president’s speech. He appeared before me in the Red Room minutes after the speech.
I’ve never been hugged by so many beautiful women in my life. The most beautiful of all? Michelle Obama.
Former POW Robert McGreevy on his visit to the White House
He asked whether he could meet the POWs. He looked star-struck.
I took him to the POWS one by one. The speechwriter spoke of gratitude and appreciation. And the stern Dowe replied with warmth and grace, telling him point by point why he liked the president’s speech so much.
McGreevy sat stunned in a hotel lobby after we came back from the White House. Obama had taken them into the Oval Office, he said.
“I’ve never been hugged by so many beautiful women in my life,” he said. “The most beautiful of all? Michelle Obama.”
In that lobby I walked over to Miller, handed him a copy of our Kapaun book and asked him to sign it.
Miller’s hands had shaken a lot in recent years, a result of war injuries, he said. He now struggled to sign.
Stan Finger, an Eagle colleague whose parents were married by Kapaun, reached over and held the book covers open so Miller could steady his hands.
A moment later, Ray Kapaun walked into the lobby, came right to Miller – and handed him the Medal of Honor. You deserve to hold this, he told Miller.
Miller held the medal and smiled at dozens of camera lenses.
His hands did not shake.
‘The Lord is My Shepherd’
In 2009, Travis and I drove to Houston, where Dowe told us how the prisoners were all so weak by May 1951 that they could barely stand up.
But when the Chinese guards came to haul a sick Kapaun to his death, Dowe and Funchess stood up to fight. They shoved the Chinese and shouted until Kapaun told them to stop.
In Clemson, S.C., days after we saw Dowe, Funchess pulled out his worn-out prison camp New Testament and read us the 23rd Psalm in his gorgeous and slow South Carolina accent, with Travis recording it on video.
Funchess had lived in terror of the anti-Christian guards. But after Kapaun died, Funchess began to read the 23rd Psalm aloud to other prisoners every night, in the same huts where Kapaun had led Catholics and Protestants and Jews and agnostics in saying the Rosary. Sometimes he’d read the psalm over and over, with prisoners bowing their heads and saying it with him.
In several screenings of Travis’ documentary since then, I have watched people cry when Funchess reads the psalm.
Farm boy in Rome
Just minutes before Wescott yelled at him on that short walk to the Vatican offices, Kemme had borrowed a cellphone in the Michelangelo lobby and read a Kansas.com story with eyewitness testimonies, given two weeks ago by Dowe, Wood, Miller and three others about why Kapaun deserves to be a saint.
“There was no doubt,” Wood said in the story.
Kemme studied their words slowly, committing the gist of their words to memory; he would tell Amato what Kapaun’s friends said.
And then he made that walk, and met Amato, and Amato’s staff. No matter what Kemme said, they smiled and rebuffed any chance that the rest of Kapaun’s journey would be short. It might be years, they said.
Kemme brought up what the POWs said, and would that be appropriate to give to the Cardinal’s office, he asked?
No, they said. Be patient. Pray.
Dowe, writing later from his home near Houston, was not pleased.
“I guess that’s just God’s will,” he wrote.
He and his friends Wood and Paul Roach had lived to see their friend get the Medal of Honor, but it was clear now, as they all approach 90, that they won’t see their friend attain sainthood.
Dowe, as a survivor of that terrible death camp, knows better than anyone that life is not fair. He had written and spoken for decades for Kapaun’s cause; he had prayed nearly every day.
But if his old friend could talk to him now, he possibly would say what he once said to his church congregation in Pilsen: “No sincere prayer is ever wasted.”
Kapaun, relentlessly modest, would also probably tell Dowe that the fuss and effort spent on the medal and on sainthood was not something he had ever wanted.
All he ever wanted was to be what he was: a child of God.