By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Conception Seminary College can add another title earned by its alumni:
Recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor earned by a member of the U.S. armed forces.
On April 11, President Barack Obama bestowed the honor posthumously on Father Emil J. Kapaun, just one month short of the anniversary of the Army chaplain’s death in a North Korean prisoner of war camp on May 23, 1951.
Father Kapaun, who served in both World War II and Korea, was a 1936 graduate of Conception Seminary College in Conception, Mo., before his ordination as a priest for the Diocese of Wichita, Kan.
The White House ceremony, in which the president presented the medal to Father Kapaun’s nephew, Ray Kaupan, culminated a process that began in 1953 when soldiers released from the same prison camp in Pyoktong, carried with them a crudely carved four-foot cross that they had made to honor Father Kapaun, as well as the priest’s ciborium that they had labored to hide from prison guards for two years.
Then they told to the assembled press, not their own stories of survival, but the story of the inspiration to survive of Father Kapaun. One of the prisoners, Ray Dowe Jr., wrote his own account, “The Ordeal of Father Kapaun,” which was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1954.
Father Kapaun was assigned to the Third Battalion, Eighth Cavalry Regiment, First Cavalry Division when the unit was overwhelmed by Chinese Communist forces at Unsan.
Not wounded in the attack, Father Kaupan could have fallen back, but he stayed with wounded troops and was captured as he was giving the last rites to a dying man.
Defenseless, Father Kapaun then saw a Chinese soldier aiming his rifle at the head of a wounded American soldier. The priest calmly pushed the rifle aside, then helped the man not only to his feet, but through an 87-mile forced march to the internment camp.
At the camp, Father Kapaun endured physical torture for a faith that he refused to cease practicing. His health beginning to fail, Father Kapaun would often share his meager rations with soldiers who were in even worse health than he was.
He would sneak back and forth from mud hut to mud hut within the prison compound to lead his fellow prisoners in prayer, whether or not they were of his Catholic faith or of no faith.
And on Easter Sunday, 1951, two months before his death, Father Kapaun led a sunrise service as the prison guards could only watch.
As his health continued to fail, the guards finally took their chance and sent him into isolation in a death house without food or water, leaving him to die.
As they led him away, Father Kapaun told his fellow prisoners, “I’m going to where I’ve wanted to go. And when I get up there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you.”
Then he turned to his captors and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
“This is the valor we honor today, an American soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all, a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so that they might live,” President Obama said, nearly 62 years later.
In 1956, the Diocese of Wichita opened Chaplain Kapaun Memorial High School in Wichita. In 1971, the school was merged with Mt. Carmel High School and remains today as Kapaun Mt. Carmel.
In 1993, the Vatican recognized Father Kapaun as a “Servant of God,” an initial step toward canonization. The Diocese of Wichita formally opened the canonization cause in 2008 at a ceremony at St. John Nepomucene Church in Pilsen, Kan., Father Kapaun’s home church.