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Ellinwood residents make Fr. Kapaun pilgrimage
kapaun pilgrimage

ELLINWOOD — On May 30, three Ellinwood residents, Mel and Mary Waite and Nathan Staton were part of the 275 pilgrims that walked the entire 60 miles from Catholic Church of the Resurrection Parish in Bel Aire to Pilsen. This was Staton’s third pilgrimage, and on June 1 he was joined by three of his children, Chioggia, Cabrini and Brisco. The 60-mile trek across Kansas is significant because that was the number of miles walked when Captain Emil Kapaun was captured in Korea and walked to the prisoner of war camp at Pyoktong, North Korea.

As J.P. Brunke, one of the lead organizers of the Fr. Kapaun Pilgrimage, explained, “The purpose of the pilgrimage is to raise awareness of the life and servitude to the people of Kansas and the military by Fr. Emil Kapaun.” A farm boy in the Bohemian German community of Pilsen, Kapaun was known as a hardworking, fun-loving young man, with a deep faith. He entered the seminary in high school and was ordained a Catholic priest June 9, 1940. As a priest in the Wichita Kansas Diocese and was a pastor in several parishes, including Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Timken, Kansas.  

He felt called to serve as a military chaplain and entered the U.S. Army Corps in August 1944, serving in Burma and India. He left the Chaplain service in July 1946 and did graduate work at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. In 1948, he rejoined the army’s chaplain service, and was ordered to Korea from Japan in July 1950, one month after North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. As a Chaplain, he was known for bravely rescuing men from the battlefield, working alongside the men, and bringing the sacraments and comfort to his soldiers. He was captured at the Battle of Unsan and died at the age of 35 in the North Korean Prisoner of War camp. 

His remains were not identified until March 2021 in Hawaii. His remains were brought to Wichita and interned in The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.  

Many people who knew him considered him a hero and a saint, and began asking for his intercession shortly after his death. He is on the path to sainthood in the Catholic Church, being declared a Servant of God in 1993. This path to sainthood requires eyewitness accounts of the person’s virtues, plus miracles, in which no explanation of a cure or healing can be scientifically explained, in which the intercession of the deceased Fr. Kapaun was implored. Several of these miracles will be presented at the Vatican this summer.

One of the alleged miracles to be investigated is that of Nick Dellasega, who walked every step of this year’s pilgrimage with his wife and 1-year-old son, Joseph. Nick had collapsed while running a marathon in 2011. As proved by the records on the defibrillator used to shock his heart, he had no heartbeat for a prolonged time. Nick told his story with the pilgrims at one of the lunch breaks during the walk.  

Chase Kear, a pole vaulter who smashed his skull during practice in Hutchinson in 2008, is now fully recovered and a new father. His parents, Paula and Paul Kear, shared with the pilgrims the story of Chase’s miraculous recovery one evening at the Kroupa farm. His parents told how he was not expected to live, and how they and many people prayed for Fr. Kapaun’s intercession for their son’s healing.

As a pilgrim, one has much time during the journey to walk with other pilgrims and hear their reasons for joining the pilgrimage. The first pilgrimage started by Fr. Eric Weldon and took place in 2008 with a group of five walkers who walked the whole distance. This year marked the 16th pilgrimage, with 275 pilgrims the first day. The pilgrims came from 23 states, and all had a story of how Fr. Kapaun had touched their lives and had given them the desire to honor him by making this pilgrimage.

The ‘Jeep Mass’

Mel Waite, one of the Ellinwood pilgrims, wore an ACTS T-shirt with the iconic photo of Fr. Kapaun celebrating Mass in Korea, using the hood of his jeep as the altar with a young man kneeling in prayer before the jeep. Peggy Schuler Lockwood, a fellow pilgrim, came up to him and told him that she was that young man’s daughter. Her father, Pfc. Patrick J. Schuler, was Fr. Kapaun’s assistant/driver/bodyguard. A men’s prayer group from the state of Maine, who had taken part in a Kapaun’s Men’s Bible Study, drove to Kansas to walk and honor Fr. Kapaun. Joe, a 77-year-old grandpa from Kentucky had made the pilgrimage previously, but returned this time with his three oldest grandsons. Another pilgrim, Kevin, was 6 months old when his dad, whom he had never met, was killed in Korea. Chaplain Kapaun had written a very loving letter to the family, telling how his dad was brave, honest, and an upright, faith filled man. Kevin had traveled from New Mexico, walking down the Kansas country roads with a noticeable limp, not sure how many miles he would be able to walk. Yet, he was a part of the group, searching for more “nuggets from God” to be learned from people who had known the holy chaplain.

Mass was celebrated each day, and the journey allowed for plenty of opportunities for prayer, reflection and meeting new friends. At different stops along the way, other pilgrims joined for part of the walk. By the time the pilgrimage ended on Sunday, June 2, there were 325 pilgrims marching the final eight miles of the journey to St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pilsen, an unincorporated community in Marion County. A Mass was held with the overflowing crowd participating from the basement of the church. As the pilgrims said their good byes, most had tired bodies, aching legs, and feet, but spirits that had been renewed through their shared pilgrimage journey. They could relate to this humble farm boy, and had literally walked through his stomping grounds, drawing closer to his Lord and this Kansas hero.


Special to the Tribune