NOTE: This is a repost of a KSN story that aired in February 2012. Helen Kapaun died in 2016.
WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Very few people can say they actually knew Father Emil Kapaun, a Kansas war hero from Pilsen. He is being considered for sainthood.
His sister-in-law, Helen Kapaun, shared her memories of him with KSN. His picture hangs above her chair as if he’s watching over her.
“He would help me do it spiritually, and I’d get it done,” she laughs.
As his sister-in-law, married to Father Kapaun’s only brother, Helen brings unique insight into his life, including how little we know about his name. She said it is pronounced “kuh-PAWN,” not “KAY-pun.”
She says Bishop Mark Carroll pronounced it “KAY-pun” at the dedication of Kapaun Mt. Carmel High School in 1957, and it stuck. But after years of trying to correct the mispronunciation, even she has somewhat given in.
She says Father Kapaun suffered greatly as a prisoner of war. The short film “The Good Thief” documents his time in a prison camp.
Kapaun was an Army chaplain when he was taken prisoner in Korea.
“I don’t know how he could go through that pain and suffer that much,” Helen said. “He was like Christ.”
Kapaun risked his life to save his fellow soldiers, sneaking them stolen food and standing up to their captors, all the while telling them to continue to pray and stay strong in their faith.
“We knew he was doomed. He was doomed,” Helen softly cried. “For the hospital was not a hospital at all but a death house.”
Helen wrote to Father Kapaun when he was at war.
“He said you don’t know how fast you can jump into something when the bullets are going around you,” she said of one of his letters.
But she did not fully understand what he went through until she spoke to his fellow soldiers and read what they wrote, including a Saturday Evening Post article in 1953, two years after he died.
“I’d start crying, and I couldn’t finish the story,” Helen said.
When she thinks of Father Kapaun now, it isn’t all tears and sadness. Instead, she recalls the times before the international attention placed on getting him declared a saint and getting him the Medal of Honor. She remembers a very special day in October of 1948.
“That was quite an honor to have a brother-in-law to have our marriage Mass,” Helen said.
She says she had no idea how little time they would all have together.
“I regret that we did not get down there on Christmas,” she said. “That is one thing I do regret.”
Christmas would have been the final time the family would all be together. However, she says the Kapaun brothers did see each other one more time, just before Father Kapaun went off to war.
“My husband shook hands with him and felt that it would be the last time. He had that feeling,” Helen said.
Father Kapaun died on May 23, 1951. In the years since, countless Catholics have prayed to him, and thousands of documents have been compiled as part of the investigation into whether he should be declared a saint.
After a special blessing at the cathedral in Wichita, the box of documents and evidence was sent to the Vatican to determine if Father Kapaun should be elevated to sainthood. If he is declared a saint, he would only be the fourth American-born saint in the Catholic Church.
“I mean, it’s very hard to be a sister-in-law of a saint,” Helen laughed. “If that happens, people will judge you whether you want it to be or not.”
She jokes that she hopes to be able to live up to half of what Father Kapaun did. She says Father Kapaun also had that sense of humor. She describes how he would feel about all the attention being placed on his selfless life.
“He would say, ‘Aw shucks,'” she laughs.
The BBC also interviewed Helen for an article it was putting together online about Father Kapaun.