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New investigation into death of Father Kapaun could quicken path to sainthood

Catholic Diocese of Wichita

The Wichita Catholic Diocese plans to explore whether Father Emil Kapaun died a martyr in a North Korean prisoner of war camp.

The Wichita Catholic Diocese is once again trying to prove that Father Emil Kapaun, the Army chaplain who died during the Korean War, was a martyr.

If successful, the move would hasten Kapaun’s path to sainthood in the Catholic Church.

The Vatican previously rejected a request that Kapaun be declared a martyr in 2015. But the diocese said new evidence, discovered when Kapaun’s remains were identified last spring by the Department of Defense, could sway that decision.

“Some of the information was from the Department of Defense,” said Father John Hotze, who has investigated Kapaun’s cause for sainthood for more than 20 years. “And now we know that the Department of Defense had it and before we just did not have that evidence ...

“It's just one of those things of being in the right place at the right time and them not knowing that we needed it and we not knowing that they had it. So things are just falling into place.”

Kapaun is from Pilsen, a small town in Marion County. He died in a North Korean prisoner of war camp in 1951 at the age of 35.

He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on the battlefield. Days later, when American forces pulled back after being attacked by Chinese troops, Kapaun stayed behind to care for the wounded soldiers, even though he knew he would be taken prisoner.

In the POW camp, he stole food to help feed his fellow prisoners. He tended to the sick and washed the clothes of prisoners too weak to do so. He also held religious services, which were forbidden by the guards, and was punished for doing so.

During a brutally cold winter, nearly half the prisoners died, including Kapaun. Hotze said that’s why the Vatican rejected an earlier request for martyrdom, saying there wasn’t enough proof that Kapaun died for his faith.

“You can kind of understand where they're coming from,” Hotze said of Vatican officials. “I mean, they were saying that they're … in the POW camp and that really the North Koreans and Chinese wanted them all dead.

“What we are trying to do is say that they wanted ... to hurry along Father Kapaun's death because he was a Catholic priest.

“So we think that we do have enough evidence so that they might … change their opinion on that.”

Kapaun’s fellow prisoners have adamantly maintained that Kapaun was killed because of his faith, which helped them survive brutal treatment from their captors. They have said that Kapaun, in failing health, was taken by guards to a place the prisoners called the “death house,” where he died days later.

The prisoners have said it was a deliberate effort to isolate and kill Kapaun, the camp’s leader.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints has given the Wichita diocese permission to present a new case that Kapaun should be declared a martyr. The group, composed of cardinals, is in charge of the sainthood process and passes along its recommendations to the pope.

A recent example of martyrdom was Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. He was killed in his church in 1980 by a right-wing militia after criticizing the country’s military dictatorship.

He was declared a martyr by Pope Francis in 2015 and three years later was named a saint.

In 1993, Pope John Paul II declared Kapaun a “Servant of God,” the first step toward sainthood.

The Wichita Diocese has been waiting on the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to declare him venerable, the next step.

If Kapaun is declared a martyr, he would skip that stage and become beatified. That would leave him a step short of being canonized a saint.

Kapaun’s remains were identified last spring after lying in an unmarked grave for nearly 70 years at a war cemetery in Honolulu. He is now interred in a crypt inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Wichita.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, serving as small station representative, a volunteer coach for League 42 and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.