ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BRENDA CONYERS
The community of Pilsen and St. John Nepomucene Church of Holy Family Parish were well prepared to meet the nearly 1,500 people who gathered to remember Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun, and to witness the unveiling of a statue erected as a memorial to his work as chaplain during World War II and especially during the Korean War.
At 1:45 p.m., just minutes before the beginning of the mass, McConnell Air Force Base provided an fly-over from the north that dipped gracefully over Pilsen and flew in front of the more than 100-year-old Catholic church.
The processional began with the officers of the Knights of Columbus adorned in full uniform leading Bishop Eugene Gerber and more than a dozen priests down the aisle to the front of the church.
The church’s sanctuary was filled to capacity, as was the downstairs area, which had been set up with a large screen closed-circuit television.
Edwin O’Brien, archbishop of Military Ordinariate, was unable to attend the mass because of flight problems, but did attend the statue unveiling.
Gerber was the celebrant of the mass with a number of priests, including Steve Gronert, pastor of Holy Family parish, as concelebrants assisting him.
The offertory hymns, sung by the Pilsen choir, were two traditional Czech hymns, sung in the original language: “Zdravas Maria, Bozi Rodicko” (“Hail Mary, Family of God”) and “Tisickrat pozdravujeme Tebe” (“A Thousand Times We Welcome You.”)
The presentation of gifts was made by members of Kapaun’s immediate family.
The original attendants of Kapaun’s first mass, which was held in Pilsen, served as attendants at Sunday’s mass and presented replicas of the original symbols they carried years ago.
These attendants were Robert Navrat, Eugene Vinduska, Frank Stika, Delores Bezdek Stroda, Margie Vinduska Stroda and Patsy Meysing Waner. Leonard Navrat is deceased and Marion Navrat was absent.
Following the mass, the public moved outside for the unveiling of the statue.
Father Richard Stuchlik, formerly of Pilsen, was the master of ceremonies for the outside portion of the program.
Maj. General Robert J. St. Ogne Jr., commanding general of Fort Riley, offered a military address, in which he said he admired Kapaun “more than any other hero I have studied or learned about.”
Chaplain Lt. Col. Lawrence Barry of the First Calvary in Fort Hood, Texas, gave the history of the office of chaplain, explaining its historical beginning and evolution to the office it now is, as well as the honor Kapaun brought to the office.
In his closing remarks, Barry read verses from a poem written about a dying soldier who sought the presence of his chaplain to bless him and to be with him during his final minutes of life because the soldier was assured of the chaplain’s compassion for him.
Following Barry’s address, all Korean War veterans were asked to assemble around the sculpture for military honors.
Three loud shots rang out into the silence as the flag was folded in preparation for presentation to Kapaun’s brother, Eugene.
Tears streamed down the faces of men and women alike as the two buglers played the familiar Taps.
Eugene Kapaun and Father Paul Oborny unveiled the bronze statue of Kapaun helping a wounded soldier.
The sculptor, Daniel Hunt, assistant professor at Kansas State University, offered a few remarks, sharing his gratitude to the committee for allowing him to do this work, for the help he received from his students and for the inspiration he received from his study of Kapaun.
O’Brien also shared his appreciation of Kapaun’s work, urging the people gathered to continue to be proud of Kapaun and to carry on his work.
Bill McCalin, a fellow prisoner of war with Kapaun, shared some of his memories of his times with Kapaun.
He remembered how Kapaun foraged a piece of tin to make a pot and each morning built a fire to melt the snow and to heat water. Kapaun would then wake the boys and tell them the hot water was ready.
McCalin also shared how Kapaun gave his food to those he thought were more in need of the nourishment than he was, that Kapaun would tear his clothes to offer more warmth to those who were cold, and that he would sneak out to steal food for everyone and then pray the Lord’s Prayer for protection before coming back in.
McCalin said whenever he read about “a man of the cloth,” he would go through a mental exercise of comparing that man to Kapaun, a “rare and gracious person.”