Fr. Emil Kapaun: The Good Thief

By Lawrence P. Grayson   
Fr. Emil Kapaun
Fr. Emil Kapuan, a decorated
war hero, was declared a
Servant of God.
On Easter morning, March 25, 1951, the Catholic priest mounted the steps of a partially destroyed church, and turned to face his congregation, some 60 men – gaunt, foul-smelling, in tattered clothing. 

Fr. Emil Kapaun raised a small, homemade, wooden cross to begin a prayer service, led the men in the Rosary, heard the confessions of the Catholics, and performed a Baptism.  Then, he wept because there was no bread or wine to consecrate so that the men could receive the Eucharist.

The U.S. Army chaplain, with a patch covering his injured eye and supported by a crudely-made cane, may have been broken in body, but was strong in spirit.

The following Sunday, Fr. Kapaun collapsed.  His condition was serious – a blood clot, severe vein inflammation, malnutrition – but the Chinese guards in the North Korean prison camp would allow no medical treatment, not even painkillers.  After languishing for several weeks, he died on May 23 and was buried in a mass grave.

Emil Kapaun was born on April 16, 1916 to a poor, but faith-filled farm family on the prairies of eastern Kansas.  Life was hard and even children had to learn to be resourceful as mechanics and carpenters and to care for the animals during bitter winters and brutally hot summers.  With a strong desire to become a priest, he attended Benedictine Conception Abbey to complete high school and college, continued his studies at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, and was ordained in 1940.

Heroic Chaplain

Fr. Emil Kapaun
Fr. Kapaun celebrates a field
Mass on the hood of a jeep.
When the United States entered World War II, he asked to become a military chaplain.  His bishop initially refused, but later relented.  Fr. Kapaun enlisted in 1944 in the Army, served for two years in Burma and India, then returned to civilian life.  Two years later, he reenlisted and was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division in Japan.

In June 1950, a North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel, and advanced quickly toward Seoul, South Korea.  The U.S. intervened militarily, with the 1st Cavalry Division executing an amphibious landing to block the advancing army.  The enemy onslaught was severe and the U.S. units soon were in retreat.  Fighting was intense.  Fr. Kapaun, with his soldier-parishioners in danger, was tireless.  He moved among the GIs, ignoring enemy fire, comforting the wounded, administering the last rites, burying the dead, and offering Mass whenever and wherever he could.  On one occasion, he went in front of the U.S. lines, in spite of intense fire, to rescue a wounded soldier.

By August, the U.S. troops had been pushed to the southern end of Korea, near the port of Pusan.  Then, on September 15, 1950, the war took a radical turn when U.S. troops landed at Inchon behind the invading army.  The North Korean forces fled northward, with the Americans in pursuit.  Within a few weeks, the 1st Cavalry Division had crossed the 38th parallel.  Unknown to them, China, which had secretly moved a huge army into North Korea, was about to enter the war.

Fr. Emil Kapaun

Fr. Kapaun holding a pipe shot
out of his mouth by an enemy

Fearless in Danger

The night of November 1 was quiet.  Fr. Kapaun’s battalion, having suffered some 400 casualties among its roster of 700 soldiers, was placed in a reserve position.  Chinese troops, however, had infiltrated to within a short distance of them.  Suddenly, just before midnight, there was a cacophony of bugles, horns and whistles, as the enemy attacked from all sides.

Fr. Kapaun scrambled among foxholes, sharing a prayer with one soldier, saying a comforting word to another.  He assembled many wounded in an abandoned log dugout.  All the next day, he scanned the battlefield and, some 15 times, when he spotted a wounded soldier would crawl out and drag the man back to the battalion’s position.  By day’s end, the defensive perimeter was drawn so tightly that the log hut and the wounded it contained were outside of it.  As evening came and another attack was imminent, the chaplain left the main force for the shelter so that he could be with the wounded.  It was soon overrun, and Fr. Kapaun pleaded for the safety of the injured.  Approximately three-quarters of the men in the battalion had been killed or captured.

Admirable Self-Sacrifice

Hundreds of U.S. prisoners were marched northward over snow-covered crests.  Whenever the column paused, Fr. Kapaun hurried up and down the line, encouraging the men to pray, exhorting them not to give up.  When a man had to be carried or be left to die, Fr. Kapaun, although suffering from frostbite himself, set the example by helping to carry a makeshift stretcher.  Finally, they reached their destination, a frigid, mountainous area near the Chinese border.  The poorly dressed prisoners were given so little to eat that they were starving to death.

For the men to survive they would have to steal food from their captors.  So, praying to St. Dismas, the “Good Thief,” Fr. Kapaun would sneak out of his hut in the middle of the night, often coming back with a sack of grain, potatoes or corn.  He volunteered for details to gather wood because the route passed the compound where the enlisted men were kept, and he could encourage them with a prayer, and sometimes slip out of line to visit the sick and wounded.  He also undertook tasks that repulsed others, such as cleaning latrines and washing the soiled clothing of men with dysentery.

Unwavering Faith

Fr. Emil Kapaun
Fr. Kapaun (right) helping a wounded soldier.

Fr. Kapaun’s faith never wavered.  While he was willing to forgive the failings of prisoners toward their captors, he allowed no leeway in regard to the doctrines of the Church.  He continually reminded prisoners to pray, assuring them that in spite of their difficulties, Our Lord would take care of them.  As a result of his example, some 15 of his fellow prisoners converted to the Catholic Faith.

Fr. Kapaun’s practice of sharing his meager rations with others who were weaker, lowered his resistance to disease, and eventually to his death.  For his heroic behavior, he received many posthumous honors, including the Distinguished Service Cross and Legion of Merit, had buildings, chapels, a high school, and several Knights of Columbus councils named in his honor, and is currently being considered for the Medal of Honor.  In 1993, the Pope declared Fr. Kapaun a “Servant of God,” and his cause for canonization is pending.

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For Further Reading:

The Story of Chaplain Kapaun, Fr. Arthur Tonne , Didde Publishers, Emporia KS, 1954
A Shepherd in Combat Boots, William L. Maher, Burd Street Press, Shippensburg, PA, 1997
A Saint Among Us, The Father Kapaun Guild, Hillsboro Free Press, Hillsboro, KS, 2006

About the author: Lawrence P. Grayson is a Visiting Scholar in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America



+15 # Dave Mattozzi 2011-08-08 18:27
God bless the heroic Father Emil!
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+18 # Virginia Dolajak 2011-08-08 21:35
There is a wonderful DVD on his whole story and a young athlete that was cured by his prayer, which is now cause for study for sainthood. I recommend it highly!!!
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+11 # Milagres Pereira 2011-08-08 21:54
Thanks be to God in every situation, every time God raises humble heroes.
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+15 # Karen Rodriguez 2011-08-09 00:08
Fr. Emil please interecede for us with your prayers and for our families. Help us to be strong soldiers for Christ as you were in Jesus'name I pray.
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+11 # Rupert 2011-08-09 06:54
Wonderful soul, a real saint.
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+15 # Rupert 2011-08-09 06:55
A real martyr, a real saint.
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+4 # Francis 2011-08-09 11:06
A Kansas native!
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+5 # Rick nicholson 2011-08-09 11:19
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+8 # Joe Monte 2011-08-09 11:33
What a story! Never heard it until now. Quiet hero and saint
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+8 # Samuel Di Muzio 2011-08-09 11:34
Always a feeling of joy when reading about Father Kapaun.
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+8 # Quincy Alderson 2011-08-09 12:08
this is truly an amazing story. May God reward Fr. Emil.
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+9 # Anne Price 2011-08-09 12:23
A truly heroic Man and servant of God. Let him be an inspiration to all.
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+11 # J. Alan Green 2011-08-09 12:29
We, in the Wichita Diocese, are proud of our native son and believe his cause for sainthood to be a glorious one! Please pray for his canonization and feel free to ask for his intersession! Kapaun Mount Carmel High School is named for him as is KApaun / Holy Spirit Radio (KAHS 1360 AM)! Father Kapaun, pray for us!
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+15 # Daniel 2011-08-09 12:29
Extraordinary! Even after the first deployment, he could have settled down to a more peaceful life as a parish priest. But I am sure those men were glad he didn't.
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+18 # amanda curran 2011-08-09 12:34
I found this story not only humbling but extremely motivating. It reminded me that we have no greater thing and no greater gift to give to God than self and the smallest acts of mercy in God's hands can be transformed into jewels. Father Emil personifies everything that is needed in a person of faith, strength, conviction, passion, dedication, determination and a little bit of zeal. This stroy has uplifted me and reminds me that nnothing is impossible when we dare to try!
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+17 # Ray Heyob 2011-08-09 12:51
Thanks for the article on Fr. Kapaun. My family and I just watched an documentary about him this weekend. Also just read a similar article at National Catholic Register.

It's truly a blessing to have a growing number of (relatively) modern day saints, and to hear from who served with Fr. Kapaun witness "in their own words."
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+16 # Nancy Hyver 2011-08-09 12:53
How strong he was to remain dedicated to his vows and to Our Lord Jesus Christ! I would hope that more Catholic priests and laymen/women would be as dedicated to
Jesus and His Church. We still need Fr. Emil!!
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+12 # Rose Mary Arendt 2011-08-09 13:21 - on this website there is a prayer of intercession to Fr. Emil for your needs. He was a real martyr indeed.
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+8 # charmaine atkenson 2011-08-09 13:39
Father Emil Kapaun, pray for us!
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+7 # Paul J. Koola 2011-08-09 13:48
His life and death is very enlightening
and encouraging. God bless him.
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+7 # Paul J. Koola 2011-08-09 13:50
It is very enlightenibng and encouraging story. We need more priests and laymen of this caliber. God love and bless all of us.
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+4 # Angela G 2011-08-09 14:21
Quoting Virginia Dolajak:
There is a wonderful DVD on his whole story and a young athlete that was cured by his prayer, which is now cause for study for sainthood. I recommend it highly!!!

How do we find this video?
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+8 # Janis Anderson 2011-08-09 14:25
Why have I never heard of this heroic priest before? Father Emil, please pray for us.
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+8 # Edward J. Mignone 2011-08-09 14:30
What a humble and saintly priest. This is the kind of priest we need today to give other religious such a beautiful example. It even makes Our Lord feel so good and blessed to have such a true saint as Father Emil.
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+13 # Janie Guerra 2011-08-09 15:10
Fr. Emil as a soldier yourself please pray for all our military men & women. give them the strength you had to be able to bear any hardship.
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+13 # patty 2011-08-09 15:22
thank you for sharing this story. It is a witness of God's love through the extraordinary situations. May his spirit have eternal rest.
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+14 # Mathew Driscoll 2011-08-09 15:45
If no one else, GOD will always love and respect him. Just an all out great man.
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+16 # Gary McCray 2011-08-09 16:14
Praise and thanks to God for watching over us with holy people such as Fr. Emil.
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+20 # Cathy Ludwick 2011-08-09 16:39
Fr Kapaun is an amazing Catholic hero, a model of bravery much needed in our country and world today. I knew of him from my high school, Kapaun Mt Carmel. Also, the canon lawyer, Fr Hotze, who prepared the paperwork, is one of my parish priests and a family friend. I have come to praise God more through His gift to us of Fr Kapaun. It is God-led that you are highlighting his story. Thank you and God bless all you do.
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+23 # Rodolfo R. Calvillo 2011-08-09 17:04
Fr. Emil, we ask your intercession for all our men and women serving throughout the world, particularly those whose lives are in ever present and imminent danger. Your unselfish example and dedication to our Lord, provides hope and inspiration for all of us. God bless you always. Thank you for all you have done and continue to do.
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+20 # Antonio Moral 2011-08-09 17:34
He could be one of those unknown soldiers and hero, yet God chose him to be known for his heroic deeds and deep faith in Catholicism for others to emulate.
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+28 # Liam Keyes 2011-08-09 18:07
I had never heard of Father Emil until now. He really kept the flag flying and joins a select band of Catholic Chaplains who braved death to bring the sacraments to the Troops. In the same note but a different theme. In four weeks time, we will commemorate the 10th Anniversary of 9/11. The First official casualty was Father Mychal Judge O.F.M. While giving the last rites to a wounded Firefighter, the steel and concrete came crashing down on them. Tragic of course but what a beautiful way to go and meet the Lord and his Blessed Mother.
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+30 # Steve 2011-08-09 19:24
A real hero. Why isn't he held up as a role model instead of rap singers, Lady Gaga
and President Obozo?
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+6 # John F Siple 2011-08-10 00:25
A true hero and man of God! I was a contentious objector without a fight during Vietnam, and cry at the suffering & more of our men and the enemy. I sometimes wonder if I were a coward. When I read of men like this priest, I praise God, marveling at his taking of his cross with glory in his wings. Thank you, Fr. Emil.
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+10 # Robert Florin 2011-08-10 01:27
A true inspiration to us all, a real saint among men. God Bless Him.
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+15 # Becie 2011-08-10 01:44
Just today I learned that Ft. Brag is going to allow an atheist concert at which Hawkins will speak (depraved man who hates Catholics and espouses Darwinism. Compare this travesty to Fr. Kapaun. It reflects what is wrong with our world!
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+12 # Thomas Leewe 2011-08-10 06:07
Another example of God uding ordinary men and women to perform extraordinary service in His name and for our well bieng. Men like Father Emil are the ones who share faith in God with others and bring glory to God and good things to man.
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-6 # Teresa 2011-08-10 06:17
When the Christians are in trouble the priests don't even bother. Instead of saving them they hide and do not care. Instead parishioners try to save the priest and the church. Priests should take the example of Father Kapaun.
Let us pray for the priests who do not walk in the right path.
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+6 # dennis 2011-08-10 07:05
I love great stories as this. It was a very interesting reading as it put insight into the Korean war, and some of it's heroes. It probably shouldn't help us decide on what products we buy ( and where they come from )... but then again, it might.

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+11 # Margaret Jackson 2011-08-10 07:07
The making of great man is not what you have in wealth to give but what you give of yourself for the love of God. Fr. Emil is such a man.
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+10 # dennis 2011-08-10 07:11
This was a terrific story, and I love how Fr. Emil showed true courage under fire. This short story puts a little insight on some of the real heroes of the Korean war. It also shows how ruthless the Chinese can be. It probably shouldn't effect our decisions when we are buying a product, and where it was made...., but then all in consideration, it might.

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+10 # Margaret Jackson 2011-08-10 07:16
I read the story twice what an inspiration to all. I will forward to my friends. Thank you for sharing and giving us a true hero and one of God's Faith warriors.
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+12 # Marie 2011-08-10 07:26
Fr. Kapaun, please pray for our son-in-law. He's in the army, not Catholic, and will deploy soon. I don't ask for his physical well-being but for the salvation of his soul, so that he can lead his family to Heaven. I implore you to help lead him to The truth.
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+7 # James Fox 2011-08-10 17:29
Please give more details on the DVD.

(22 Angela G 2011-08-09 14:21
Quoting Virginia Dolajak:
There is a wonderful DVD on his whole story and a young athlete that was cured by his prayer, which is now cause for study for sainthood. I recommend it highly!!!)
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+9 # Thaddeus Pereira 2011-08-10 23:02
What an inspiring story about Fr Emil. This is what the misguided youth of UK need to hear.
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+9 # Thaddeus Pereira 2011-08-10 23:05
The story of Fr Emil is truly inspiring. This is th stuff saints are made of and whom we desperately need in our times all over the world.
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+15 # myrtle miller 2011-08-11 00:13
Father Emil
Please pray that we will be blessed with a President who loves our nation and will be the leader we need at this time in our nations' history. And thank you for your example of love and duty in a very trying time. And please pray that what was taken from me when I was going for Nursing will have to be restored. Thank you for your faithfulness. For love of God and country.
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+16 # Lycie Barber 2011-08-11 17:47
My dear father+ was converted to Catholicism while a WWII prisoner because of a priest like him, who so impressed dad by giving his meager rations to the men and not stealing from the men as did other clergymen.
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+12 # Rev. Freddie L. Cort 2011-08-14 07:56
God bless you. I am inspired by this story, and moved to compassion and self-sacrifice, a code of honor that i live by in present times. I will more than gladly share this story on my facebook wall for my numerous and their numerous friends to see. A true Saint. I would like to know more about the canonization for Father Thief...a nickname that fits perfectly, for he stole many souls for the Lord leading by example and self-sacrifice in like manner as our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. God bless us, everyone.
Rev. Freddie L.
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+8 # Lorraine 2011-08-14 16:18
A true inspiration to all of us as Christians. There are Persecuted Christians in our world today who need us to be like Fr Emil - selfless and an example of what God's love is all about. we must pray for Fr Emil together with our fellow Christians who today at this minute are being persecuted for their belief in Our Lord, please include them in your prayers.
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+6 # michael sheehan 2011-08-18 05:20
Fr.Emil has a high place in Heaven and is interseding for all of us who pray and ask him for help. God bless you Fr.Emil.
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+3 # Margaret Jackson 2011-09-06 19:21
Very inspiring man. One to be with love called Saint.
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+5 # lay chu 2011-10-26 01:20
this is good
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+5 # Fr. John R. Shedlock 2011-11-24 07:13
More than ever, our young soldiers need a contemporary spiritual model of holiness in order to validate their freedom to choose a "holy peace" rather than a "holy war". Fr. Kapaun is that model and chose to validate his priesthood by serving his country and ministering to his soldier-flocks, risking his own physical health in order to save a soul for Christ. His heroic integrity and spiritual commitment were weapons to "fight the good fight" in the words of St Paul. He became another apostle who followed in the footsteps of Chirst and succeeded at the cost of martyrdom. No doubt the song of his own heart sang the Salve Regina!
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+5 # Carol Voss 2012-01-23 07:59
Having grown up in the late sixties and early seventies, and having attended Catholic school all my life, I'm curious as to why the stories of such brave Catholic military chaplains weren't proclaimed to us at the time by the good Sisters! It seems that post Vatican II, we heard much more about anti-war sentiment, and this in a conservative Catholic school, rather than such inspiring and heroic self-sacrifice to proclaim the Word of God. Just wondering--why? Seems that catechesis really missed the mark on this.

God bless Fr. Emil, and I will pray for his cause.
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+2 # Anita 2013-04-11 13:53
Fr Kapaun was my parish priest right before he re-enlisted in the army. He was such a wonderful inspiration to all of us and we hated to see him leave. My mother wrote numerous letters to him when he was in the army and we have letters that she received from him. We treasure those letters and consider them relics.
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+1 # Diane 2013-04-13 14:35
Father Kapaun was an exceptional man who put God, country, and fellow man before himself. I now ask this selfless man to intercede on my behalf for a miracle for my daughter who was diagnosis with a malignant brain tumor. I so need his help. I ask that who ever reads this prays to father on my daughters behalf. Thank you.
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+1 # Erich von Marbod 2013-04-14 12:04
Man of God
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+2 # Fr. John Ostdiek 2013-04-14 16:21
I served as a part-time chaplain at an Army Hospital for 6 years, after Fr. Kapaun died. I have some inkling of his superb - even saintly - care of the sick and dying soldiers. Truly he set the bar high. May his memory always encourage chaplains!
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+1 # Sylvester 2013-04-18 09:28
All we need today is another 5 Fr Emil Kapauns and that would be enough to convert the entire world...
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+1 # Brian 2013-06-05 16:14
I have only recently heard about Father Kapaun. I live in Wrexham, North Wales, UK. What a wonderful Priest. The Vatican must make him a Saint. I will Pray for Father Kapaun.

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