Traffic to Pilsen increasing with Kapaun acclaim

In the search for new attractions to draw visitors and their dollars to Marion County, the answer is sometimes closer than we think.

This is becoming increasingly obvious to the members of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pilsen, because they are the center for worldwide pilgrimage for members of the Catholic faith and veterans of the Korean War.

This attraction is the memorial for Father Emil Kapaun combined with a human hunger to visit his boyhood home area, and to discover anything about him as the church works through a process that may declare Kapaun a saint.

The memorial euologizes Kapaun with statuary of his service in the Korean War.

Increased visitation to Pilsen led members of the community to ask the Marion County Commission earlier this year if it couldn?t do more to maintain and upgrade the Pilsen Road, now known as Remington Road, that takes visitors from U.S. Highway 56 to the church and memorial.

Father Hien Nguyen, headquartered at Holy Family in Marion, said at times the Pilsen Road ?becomes very dangerous? for the visiting traffic to Pilsen because of problems such as potholes. He said mowing the grass more often would help the situation,too, because sometimes visibility is poor.

Rose Davidson, Holy Family Parish secretary, said it seems there are an increasing number of phone calls from all over the world inquiring about visiting Pilsen, especially on the two declared Father Kapaun days: the first Sunday in June, and again on Veterans Day.

?We can have chartered buses or school buses come in,? she said, ? and there have been visitors all the way from Rome. The Korean War veterans come, and there gets to be fewer of them all the time.?

Church members Nellie Vinduska and Rose?mary Neuwirth lead tours of the church and the memorial at Pilsen, and are sought out for their personal memories of Father Kapaun and the Pilsen community.

Vinduska confirmed that the church attracts large crowds, particularly on the Father Kapaun days, and sometimes only standing room is left.

She said St. John Nepomucene is supposed to have a maximum seating capacity for mass of 650 persons, but held 750 for the June celebration this year. In November, she said, bad weather held the crowd to 300.

At the dedication of the memorial in 2001, Neuwirth said 1,500 people filled the church and its basement.

Even on days when there are no celebrations, Vinduska said she gets groups of nine to 15 persons touring the memorial and church.

Vinduska said she remembers Father Kapaun as a remarkable person who ?was good clear through. The more people who get to know about Father, the better.?

She was a 14-year-old girl in her first year of high school when Father Kapaun was still a priest at Pilsen, and he coached her class in sports.

?He would play the games with us, and be our referee,? she said.

As a grown woman, Vinduska and her husband moved back to Pilsen from Wichita at a time when Kapaun?s parents had moved from their farm into Pilsen to be near the church. She often visited with them following Kapaun?s service in the Korean War, and heard their family stories.

Father Kapaun was born in Pilsen on April 20, 1916. He was ordained as a priest for the Diocese of Wichita on June 9, 1940. He entered the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps in 1944, and left the service in 1946. During his first stint of service, he was a second lieutenant in the Burma, China and India theater of World War II.

He re-entered the Army in 1948, and was sent to Japan.

In July 1950, he was ordered to Korea, and on Nov. 2 of that year he was taken as a prisoner of war. He was with the 8th Calvary, one of the first units to be sent to Korea to help defend South Korea when the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel.

During the fighting, Kapaun was known to use the hood of his jeep as an altar for mass?until it blown out from under him. Then he used a bicycle, and was known to help retrieve wounded troops from battlefields.

He even had his pipe shot out of his mouth twice during engagements with the communists.

For his service and death in the war, the Diocese and the Vatican have begun a formal process that could lead to Father Kapaun?s canonization. In 1993, they announced that Father Kapaun would receive the title, ?Servant of God.?

Vinduska said one of the periodic visitors to Marion County is a lawyer from Rome for the Vatican, Andrei Ambrosi, researching Father Kapaun?s writings for correctness and two confirmed miracles associated with him that would be necessary for naming him a saint.

A church statement says, ?In the seven months in prison (as a prisoner of war), Father Kapaun spent himself in heroic service to his fellow prisoners without regard for race, color or creed. To this there is testimony of men of all faiths.

?Ignoring his own ill health, he nursed the sick and wounded until a blood clot in his leg prevented his daily rounds. Moved to a so-called hospital, but denied medical assistance, his death soon followed on May 23, 1951.?

Vinduska said Korean war veterans and their families have come into the church and her home to share stories of Father Kapaun while learning more about him themselves.

She said they have testified about the father trading his watch for a wool blanket for a fellow prisoner. He used skills learned growing up on the farm to turn scrap corrugated iron into a tub where he could bathe fellow prisoners and wash their clothing.

Father Kapaun?s reward from his captors was to be given ?the worst hovel? to live in, according to Vinduska.

Vinduska said a prisoner told her there were several hospital facilities in the P.O.W. camp, including the ?death? hospital where nobody came out alive. That?s where Father Kapaun was sent, she said.

The ex-prisoner told her, Vinduska said, that in his final moments, Father Kapaun said, ?I am going to see Jesus now. I have been working toward this all of my life.?

Vinduska said that many of the faithful realize that the life of Father Kapaun starting from when he was a little boy who played at being a priest to his probable final official martyrdom exemplifies their realization that there was ?a saint among us.?

This realization is the reason there will be a continuing stream of visitors to Marion County, according to members of the church.

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