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Kapaun pilgrimage is a hike of faith and grace

Kapaun pilgrimage draws more than 200 to 60-mile trek

News editor

They had walked about 45 miles in two days, and as the sun rose Sunday at Aulne Methodist Church, about 180 walkers in the annual pilgrimage for Army chaplain Father Emil Kapaun woke to prepare for the final 15-mile leg to Pilsen.

Scattered throughout the church lawn, some shook off the accumulated toll of miles, heat, and humidity by stretching, while others bandaged blistered feet. Many who started with them in Wichita hadn’t made it to Aulne.

Spirits bolstered by breakfast, light-hearted conversations, and a cool breeze, they came together beside Pawnee Road for words and prayers of encouragement from pilgrimage founder Father Eric Weldon of St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church of Wichita.

Standing among them, wearing a bright red T-shirt and camouflage pants, was Army chaplain Father Matt Pawlikowski of Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. He walked in the pilgrimage for the first time last year.

“Father Kapaun is my hero,” he said. “In the last few years I’ve discerned a life mission of telling Father Kapaun’s story, so this is one way of getting people to know his story.”

Weldon prepared the walkers by addressing their collective fatigue.

“This is a challenge, as we’re all figuring out over the last two days,” he said. “It’s about perseverance and it’s about a determination that comes with a goal greater than ourselves.”

Three miles into the day’s trek, while scuffing through the gravel on 160th Rd., new acquaintances Mallory Champa of Wichita and Thomas Tyler of Pittsburg talked about the physical challenge of the walk.

“I did it for the first time two years ago, and I came in with this prideful attitude,” Champa said. “I’m a runner, so I’m like, ‘This walking is going to be easy.’ About eight miles in on the first day I was going to quit.”

First-timer Tyler said Saturday was difficult for them.

“We’re struggling to keep the pace, in the back of the pack, and it’s all we can do to keep the pace up.”

But the inspiration of Father Kapaun and the camaraderie of fellow walkers was worth the challenge, Champa said.

“The friendships, the relationships, the community that we experience here is hard to emulate other places,” she said. “You don’t wear a lot of masks here; you can’t. The people I’ve met are really great.”

Tyler joined the walk to take the experience back to a men’s group, Kapaun’s Men, at his church.

“For all I know, he walked this road, or drove down this road,” he said. “To gain that type of inspiration, it moves me even more.”

Conversations about Kapaun, miracles, sainthood, and virtues helped to pass the miles. If one walker began recitation of the Rosary, others would immediately speed up or slow down to join them. Still others walked in silent contemplation and prayer.

The walkers took a break for water and snacks at 160th and Remington Rds. and heard more stories of Kapaun’s acts of charity toward fellow prisoners during an 87-mile forced march and prison camp internment in the Korean War.

Back on the road north, 30 soldiers from Ft. Sill and 13 from Ft. Riley kept the pace moving by chanting cadence.

“Let me hear you clap to the left, let me hear you clap to the right, let me hear you clap both sides, let me hear you clap both sides,” went one of the calls.

As the group approached US-56, Greg Davidson of Pilsen said the soldiers reflected Kapaun in the care and concern showed to other walkers.

“The soldiers are always going around asking people if we need anything, if we’re doing OK,” Davidson said. “They’re checking on us, especially in the afternoons; they’re making sure people are hydrated. It’s so neat that they’re looking after others.”

Davidson teaches math at Bishop Carroll High School in Wichita. As he walked he recalled former student Chris Norgren, a Marine killed in a May helicopter crash while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nepal.

“This year is a little more special for me,” he said. “With that experience, and with Father Kapaun, I look at these students and say, ‘You have potential; God’s given you a life; you can be of service.”

James Eicher of Wichita, who served 23 years as a military attorney, said his walk also honored a former chaplain who once served St. Mark’s Parish in Marion.

“There’s another father that a lot of people probably don’t know, Victor Bieberle,” Eicher said. “He used to be in Marion and served in the military, and he recently passed away. He had been in Vietnam.”

Eicher said he hoped Kapaun would attain sainthood.

“We have sports heroes; we have media heroes,” he said. “What the Catholic Church does better than anybody else is that we hold up godly heroes. You don’t have to be the smartest, the richest, the most talented. You just empty yourself and let God work through you.

“I think it would be great for this community and for Kansas to show you can make something of yourself right where you are. This man had humble beginnings, he was a Kansas farm boy, and he’s being held up like this. That’s an inspiration.”

The group made the last of four stops about a mile south of Pilsen, where chaplains took the lead, and a veteran’s honor guard from Tampa met them at the edge of town.

They followed Father Darrin May and a Knights of Columbus honor guard to St. John Nepomucene Church.

“I get a different grace from each one,” Davidson said.

It was his fourth Kapaun pilgrimage.

“There aren’t great differences, but each walk I go on I learn more about Father Kapaun, and as I learn that, I learn what I’m lacking in charity and service.”

Champa said the pilgrimages had deepened her faith and her appreciation of Father Kapaun.

“I carry him around on my medals everywhere I go,” she said. “It’s becoming something I want to do every year for the rest of my life.”

Last modified June 18, 2015

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