Hawaii Mass Is Send-Off for Remains of War-Hero Priest to Return to Kansas

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Hawaii bid aloha to Father Emil J. Kapaun, a U.S. Army Korean War chaplain and candidate for sainthood Sept. 23.

Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva celebrated an evening Mass in the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace honoring the priest who died 70 years ago in a North Korean prisoner of war camp.

The occasion was the transfer of Father Kapaun’s remains from Punchbowl’s National Cemetery of the Pacific to his home Diocese of Wichita, Kan., where a tomb has been prepared for him in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Among those who were in Hawaii to accompany the remains back to Kansas the next day were Bishop Carl A. Kemme of Wichita; Scott Carter, coordinator of the Father Kapaun Guild; Father David Lies, vicar general of the diocese; Ray Kapaun, Father Kapaun’s nephew; and the priest’s niece, U.S. Air Force Maj. Kristina Roberts.

Father Kapaun is remembered for his selfless and courageous service attending to soldiers on the front lines of battle and, after he was captured in 1950, caring for and bolstering the morale of his fellow prisoners of war while he endured a brutal captivity. He died in prison May 23, 1951.

The U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced March 4 of this year that it had identified the priest’s remains among those of unidentified soldiers long interred at the national cemetery.

In the cathedral, Father Kapaun’s remains were contained in a polished dark wood closed casket. Barely noticeable was a metal “dog tag” ID with his name punched on it attached to the rear handle by a small chain.

A small table held a folded and framed American flag. On the floor by the table was a simple arrangement of lilies; on the other side, a lit paschal candle.

Ray Kapaun said the return of his uncle’s remains left him “extremely emotional” and that he could hardly believe he was witnessing the return home of his long-lost relative.

He said the identification of the remains earlier this year was the “biggest surprise.”

“It was not expected,” he told the Hawaii Catholic Herald, Honolulu’s diocesan newspaper. “I am very proud but very humbled” to be related to so saintly a man.

He said Father Kapaun was considered a saint by many long before his remains had been found. He said his reputation grew with each story told of him by fellow POWs who had witnessed his fearless charity.

In welcoming the congregation, Bishop Silva noted this was the second time the bones of a saintly priest had been unearthed from a Hawaiian grave and given a cathedral sendoff back to his homeland. The first was St. Damien in 1936.

Everyone in the cathedral, including priests and bishops, was masked because of the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing allowed only about 75 people in the church.

Fourteen priests, including a number of military chaplains, concelebrated.

The liturgy included hymns in Hawaiian, English and Latin led by a single cantor. Members of the extended Kapaun family read the readings and presented the offertory gifts.

The homilist was Father Wayne Schmid, a priest of the Diocese of Wichita and a chaplain himself for more than 20 years who said he owed his vocation to Father Kapaun.

He said he had drawn inspiration from Father Kapaun ever since he read a book about him in high school.

“Father Kapaun is a saint for our times,” he said. “He is a model to be emulated by priests, by chaplains.”

“He has been an influence on my life the way he lived his life totally and completely” for Christ, Father Schmid said. “No task was too low for him.”

“He was Christ’s presence wherever he was called to serve,” he said. “Father Kapaun ministered as Christ ministered. He treated everyone equally and all the same. What better example for the world today.”

In remarks after Communion, Bishop Kemme thanked Bishop Silva for arranging the Mass to “send us back to Kansas with the grace of the sacrament.”

He called it “a momentous and historic occasion for our diocese.”

“How blessed I am to be here,” he said. “Six bishops (before him) had longed for this day. We have been praying for this and it has come to pass, the answer to our prayers.”

He said that thousands of people have been anticipating the return home of Wichita’s saintly hero. Father Kapaun is “truly a hero now all over the world,” he said.

Bishop Kemme noted that this was his first trip to Hawaii and joked that he discovered Kansas and Hawaii have nothing in common—except that now both are the “land of saints,” a reference to Hawaii’s St. Damien de Veuster and St. Marianne Cope.

Of Father Kapaun, the bishop said he was “confident in his powerful intercession,” which will be needed for the miracles required for his beatification and canonization. He said the potential saint already had blessed Hawaii with his decades-long anonymous rest at the National Cemetery of the Pacific.

Ordained a priest for Wichita June 9, 1940, Father Kapaun served as a U.S. Army chaplain in World War II and the Korean War with the rank of captain.

Father Kapaun’s sainthood cause was formally opened in 1993, giving him the title “Servant of God.” His case is being reviewed by the Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes in Rome.

More information about Father Kapaun's life, ministry and sainthood cause can be found at https://frkapaun.org.

—CNS

Downes is editor of the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Honolulu.