Father Paul Lee, the pastor of the Shrine of St. Jude in Rockville, celebrates a Sept. 22 Mass honoring Father Emil Kapaun, a heroic Korean War chaplain.
CS PHOTOS BY GAILLARD TEAGUE Father Paul Lee, the pastor of the Shrine of St. Jude in Rockville, celebrates a Sept. 22 Mass honoring Father Emil Kapaun, a heroic Korean War chaplain.
Students at St. Jude Regional Catholic School in Rockville gathered outside on Sept. 22 for a Mass honoring the Korean War Army Chaplain Father Emil Kapaun, who is also known as “a shepherd in combat boots” for his heroic efforts to minister to his fellow soldiers.

Recreating the type of Mass that Father Kapaun would have said on the battlefield in Korea, Father Paul Lee, the pastor of the Shrine of St. Jude in Rockville, celebrated the Eucharist using the hood of a 1948 jeep as an altar.

The school borrowed the jeep from Tim Jones, a parishioner of St. Mary’s in Rockville, who heard through the grapevine about the need for an old jeep. He dug it out of his garage – where it has been sitting unused for about 20 years – and towed it to the school for the Mass. The Jeep’s bright red hue is due to the paint job he gave it when he worked at the D.C. Fire Department.

The Mass began with the color guard from St. John’s College High School in Washington presenting the colors and leading the Pledge of Allegiance. As Father Lee processed in with Father Robert Kosty, the senior priest at the Shrine of St. Jude, and several student servers, the congregation sang “America the Beautiful.”

Father Lee recognized veterans and active military personnel in attendance, which included several parents of students in the school. That day they were all gathered to celebrate a priest who  “made the ultimate sacrifice for his fellow human beings and whose heroic example continues to inspire us,” Father Lee added. 

Father Kapaun was born in a small farming community in Pilsen, Kansas in 1916. He was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Wichita in 1940, and joined the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps in 1944, answering the call to serve in World War II.

After serving in that war, he was sent to South Korea in 1950, a few weeks after it had been invaded from the North. He would minister to soldiers in foxholes and in the middle of the battle, rescuing them and giving Last Rites to the dying. He would often celebrate Mass on a jeep while there were bullets flying all around him.

During an ambush by the Chinese Army that had just entered the war, Father Kapaun chose to remain with a few wounded men instead of escaping. In one case, Father Kapaun prevented a Chinese soldier from executing his fellow soldier, and after they were both captured, carried him during the long march to the prison camp.

There, he spent seven months ministering to his fellow prisoners, smuggling in food for others, giving his clothes to freezing men, and praying with captives. Before he died, he had Protestants, Jews and atheists all saying the rosary together.

As he was dying, he blessed the guards, saying, “Father forgive them.” He told his fellow prisoners, "I'm going to where I always wanted to go, and when I get there, I'll pray for all of you."

“He had never pushed religion on them, but he had taught them to stand up for themselves, to help each other, and to forgive,” said Father Lee.

In 1993, Father Kapaun was named a “Servant of God” by the Vatican, and his cause for canonization is under review. President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Father Kapaun the Medal of Honor in 2013, and said the Korean War chaplain “wielded the mightiest weapon of all, a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so that they might live."

“We can tell there are striking resemblances between our shepherd in combat boots and the Good Shepherd,” said Father Lee. “…It was not his resolve or will, but his faith and love of the Lord that gave him strength and courage. It was Jesus Christ working through him.”

In preparation for this Mass, students at St. Jude had been studying the life of Father Kapaun, and Father Lee told them the life of this priest could be an example to them to ask God to give them courage to stand up for what they believe. 

Father Lee, whose family escaped Communist North Korea as refugees, also encouraged everyone at the Mass to pray for Father Kapaun’s intercession to end the threat of violence between North Korea and South Korea. He described the people of North Korea as “hostages in their own country” denied basic rights like free speech, travel, and food. In the spirit of this prayer, the congregation sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth” as a Communion hymn.

For Navy Chief Damage Controlman Dan O’Connor, this was not his first time attending an outdoor Mass celebrated on a military vehicle, although the setting was different than those in Iraq and Haiti. He attended with his wife, Cindy O’Connor, and their two youngest children. Their two older children are in their first year at St. Jude, after the family recently moved to the area from Pearl Harbor.

O’Connor said he was inspired by the life of Father Kapaun, because “he took everything life gave him with a smile.”

Father Lee said he hoped the Mass could encourage the students to become saints, since Father Kapaun was “a very ordinary, quiet farm boy from Kansas [who] has shown some extraordinary courage and faith.”

The school’s principal, Glenn Benjamin, said it was important to him to hold this Mass because the school is a diverse community, and it is important that the students see a similar “diversity of heroes.”

“Father Kapaun led through a different example,” he said. “You can be a hero no matter what you do. [When] God calls you to be somewhere, bring your faith, live your faith, [and] show it to everybody.”