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Preservationists seek to restore Kapaun’s first chapel as chaplain

Staff writer

Veterans Day service, one of the most meaningful this year will be at 1 p.m. Nov. 12 at the former Zion Lutheran Church in Latimer, a small town of 31, seven miles east of Herington.

The church closed at the end of 2021, but a local preservation society has been organized to restore the building.

What makes it special is that it was built on the Herington Army Air Base, three miles west of Latimer, as a World War II regimental chapel. Father Emil Kapaun served as an auxiliary chaplain there from January 1943 to July 1944.

Albert Stika would drive him to the base each Sunday, picking up servicemen along the way. Kapaun also celebrated Mass at the base on Mondays and Tuesdays. On every trip, he would visit the jail and hospital as well.

During his services there, Kapaun felt called to be a military chaplain.

“I enjoy the work with the men very much,” he wrote to his bishop.

Many young men his age were from Pilsen in the military and wrote letters to him. He had a heart for them.

Kapaun was very bright, and the presiding bishop’s saw a great future for him in the Roman Catholic Church, Harriet Bina of the Chaplain Kapaun Museum in Pilsen said. But he pursued his passion to become a servant to servicemen instead of a parish priest.

He served in India, Burma, and China during World War II. After he was released from the military, he was driven to re-enlist. He later died in a prisoner-of-war camp during the Korean War after serving soldiers of all faiths — as he did at the air base. He had been a priest for only 11 years.

Jo Ellen Whitehair, daughter of Eugene Vinduska of Pilsen, is a member of the Latimer Lutheran Church Preservation Society and is actively promoting the listing of the chapel church on the Kansas Register of Historical Places. She brings to the group a lot of information about Father Kapaun.

Eugene Vinduska, who later became a dentist in Marion, was 10 years old when Father Kapaun was ordained at Pilsen and celebrated his first Mass on June 20, 1940. Vinduska was one of nine participants in that Mass who received certificates from Kapaun for their service.

One day, the priest invited Vinduska to go along with him to the Herington air base, where the two toured the big planes that were being prepared for service overseas.

The base employed hundreds of people and trained scores of airmen, many of whom were housed in the homes of Herington residents.

Planes built in Wichita were flown to the base along with their crews to be prepared for war.

Area farmers found employment there and learned how to work with sheet metal. The Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 bomber that was used to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 was outfitted at the base. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war.

The church building remains little changed from its beginning as a regimental chapel. Even the blueprint has been preserved. The society has been conducting fundraisers to pay for its restoration.

The Veterans Day service will feature Kapaun’s nephew, Ray Kapaun, who will sing and tell his uncle’s story. Freewill donations will be accepted.

Latimer is 6.7 miles east of U.S. 56/77 on K-4.

The society expects to hear by next week whether its application for a Kansas historical listing is approved.

Last modified Nov. 2, 2023

 

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