This June, Catholics from throughout Kansas and beyond will participate in the 15th annual Father Kapaun Pilgrimage, a 60-mile trek across the plains that starts outside Wichita and ends in the priest’s tiny hometown of Pilsen. What began with three people in 2009 has since become a four-day event that draws hundreds of participants each year.
Father Eric Weldon, a priest of the Diocese of Wichita and a longtime K of C chaplain, started the pilgrimage as a way to honor Father Emil Kapaun’s grueling 87-mile march with fellow prisoners of war to a camp in North Korea in 1950.
“I always think about how many miles he walked to that POW camp,” Father Weldon told reporters last year. “I thought, ‘What if I just do something for three days?’ He did it for more than three weeks under threat of death with no food in bitter cold. Surely we can do something here in Kansas to commemorate who he is.”
Over the last five years, the number of participants has steadily increased, with last year’s event attracting more than 300 people. Pilgrims march between 8 and 22 miles a day, with periodic stops for “Father Kapaun Stations,” reflections on his life compiled by Father Weldon. Rosaries and silence mark other portions of the walk. The group camps each night at sites along the way. Mass is celebrated daily, and the pilgrimage ends with Mass at St. John Nepomucene Church in Pilsen, the parish where Father Kapaun grew up and first served as a priest after his ordination in 1940.
Tim Baxa, grand knight of Father Kapaun Council 3423 in Pilsen — one of 23 K of C councils and assemblies named in the chaplain’s honor — has never actually made the pilgrimage. That’s because he and a group of brother Knights are busy ensuring that the parish is ready to host the closing Mass. Their responsibilities that day include setting up basic care stations for pilgrims, coordinating parking for visitors and providing the luncheon that follows.
“It’s a great thing when we have these pilgrimages,” Baxa affirmed. “It takes something that’s almost become ordinary to us and reminds us how extraordinary it is. When they arrive, the pilgrims are in awe.”
Scott Carter, coordinator of the Father Kapaun Guild for the Diocese of Wichita, who has made the pilgrimage multiple times, said that devotion to the priest from Pilsen is growing.
“It’s been amazing to see the uptick in recent years of people interested in Father’s cause for canonization and asking for prayers,” said Carter, who joined the Order in 2010. “It runs the spectrum from older retired veterans to young schoolkids who want to dress up as Father Kapaun for Halloween or All Saints’ Day, and not only across all 50 states but in other countries as well.”
Father Kapaun was declared a Servant of God in 1993, and the Diocese of Wichita officially opened his cause for canonization in 2008. In addition to promoting the pilgrimage to Pilsen each year, the Father Kapaun Guild fosters devotion in a variety of ways: sending out prayer cards and booklets, developing the Guild’s website and social media, and organizing special Masses and events. The Guild also promotes Kapaun’s Men, a growing spiritual formation group that strives to pray daily and live out the chaplain’s virtues.
Rob Knapp, president of Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School in Wichita, is an enthusiastic supporter of Kapaun’s Men.
“Using Father Kapaun’s virtues, we have awakened the faith of literally thousands of men, within our diocese and literally around the world,” said Knapp, who is a member of Magdalen Council 10408 in Wichita. “There’s a Kapaun’s Men group in Korea and Germany right now.”
He also underscored that young people are powerfully attracted to Father Kapaun’s courage and faith.
“Our students here at Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School are deeply moved by his life,” Knapp said. “His remarkable faith in the face of his captors, who tried to get him and his fellow prisoners to renounce their faith in God, is something our students consistently report that they want to emulate. A devotion to Father Kapaun helps them have the courage to live out and pass on their faith, even in a culture that encourages them to abandon it.”
One of Father Kapaun’s most fervent admirers is Father Matthew Pawlikowski, who retired from the Army Chaplain Corps as a colonel in 2020. His devotion is so great that he has made it a kind of personal mission over the years to present dramatic readings of the 1954 Saturday Evening Post article “The Ordeal of Chaplain Kapaun” by Mike Dowe.
He has walked the Father Kapaun Pilgrimage three times and plans to do so again in June. One year, dressed in a vintage Army uniform, Father Pawlikowski gave a performance akin to a one-man play before a rapt audience of pilgrims.
Now a civilian chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, as well as chaplain of the school’s Msgr. Cornelius George O’Keefe Council 8250, Father Pawlikowski shares Father Kapaun’s story — and his witness of loyalty, leadership, service, courage and humor — with as many young soldiers as he can.
“At the Catholic Plebe Retreat for incoming cadets we have offered different topics each year, but they always insist that we maintain ‘The Ordeal of Chaplain Kapaun’ as a centerpiece,” Father Pawlikowski said. “At the other end of the spectrum, at the capstone course on officership for our senior cadets, I have told ‘The Ordeal of Chaplain Kapaun’ to a mix of faiths and those holding no faith; his story never fails to inspire and always brings at least a few to tears.”
Father Pawlikowski even knows of several young officers who have given the name “Emil” to their children.
Carter welcomes these signs of increasing devotion, which have been especially pronounced since the return of Father Kapaun’s remains in September 2021.
“I’m more encouraged than ever that the Holy Spirit is behind the movement and increased activity,” Carter said. “But we must keep praying and sharing the story.”
JOHN WOODS is a freelance writer and editor. He is a member of St. Agnes Council 2548 in Rockville Centre, N.Y.
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