WICHITA, Kan. -- Thousands of people turned out Wednesday in Wichita to honor a Kansas priest as he was laid to rest 70 years after he died in a prisoner of war camp during the Korean War.
Mourners filled Hartman Arena for a funeral service for the Rev. Emil Kapaun and later lined streets to watch his body being carried by a horse-drawn caisson from Veterans Memorial Park to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where he was interred.
“We are here today to provide for father what was not provided for him 70 years ago, a mass of Christian burial,” Bishop Carl A. Kemme of the Wichita diocese told the crowd.
Speakers extolled Kapaun's Christian love and his courage during his days as a prisoner or war, which he spent providing comfort to his fellow soldiers. They also said it was appropriate that his body had finally returned to the state where he was born.
"Uncle Emil, welcome home. Home at last," said Kapaun's nephew, Ray Kapaun during the service.
He praised his uncle's fellow POWs who survived the war and the people of Pilsen, where Kapaun was born, who he said helped keep the priest's story alive in the decades since his death.
Kapaun, an Army chaplain, was captured in 1950 near Unsan, North Korea, while tending to fellow soldiers. He died in May 1951 at the POW camp while continuing to minister to fellow prisoners. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2013.
In 1993, the Catholic church named him a “Servant of God,” the first step of a lengthy process that could lead to canonization.
During the funeral, the Rev. Matthew Pawlikowski read a statement from Col. Mike Dowe detailing how Kapaun volunteered to stay behind to care for the wounded before he was captured. He said at the prisoner of war camp, Kapaun stole food, volunteered to bury the dead so he could provide clothes to survivors and continually encouraged them to hold onto their faith.
Dowe said Kapaun was intentionally left to die in a structure known as “the death house” by the Chinese Communists who ran the camp “not because of politics, not because he was a soldier but because he was a shining light in the darkness living out his faith as a Christian. They martryed him.”
Kapaun's remains were positively identified in March and returned to his family last week during a ceremony in Hawaii. The body was flown back to Kansas, where more crowds gathered Saturday for a memorial service in Pilsen before his remains were returned to Wichita.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly proclaimed Wednesday Father Emil Kapaun Day in the state. She said in a statement that “He served with honor and dignity, I hope his return home brings relief and closure to his family and his community.”