No matter how you slice it, the pilgrimage route from Wichita to Pilsen commemorating Father Emil Kapaun’s prison camp march in the Korean War is 60 miles.
Organizers sliced it differently for the walk that concluded Sunday, adding a fourth day to make the latter stages more relaxed and allow for more in-depth learning about the former Pilsen priest who is on the path to canonization.
“We were finding the bigger we got, the slower we got,” J.P. Brunke said. “A lot of people were having to choose whether to sit at a talk when we had them or go to sleep because they were physically exhausted.”
Brunke said he thought the change was effective.
“I think it was probably one of the best year’s we’ve had,” he said. “There was just an aura, if you will, about everyone on this trip. I don’t know really how to describe it, but it was a different type of camaraderie. There were so many more stories this year attributed to Father Kapaun it was amazing.”
Unchanged was the first day’s leg, 22½ miles to a farm 2 miles north of Whitewater, a distance that helped about 150 pilgrims relate to the physical strain of Kapaun’s march.
With the additional day, the remaining 37½ miles were split into more manageable chunks.
The second leg on Friday ended in Peabody. Many walkers appeared ready for more, strolling from the park to explore downtown.
The entourage walked Saturday to the farm of Alvin and Barbara Kroupa on K-256 west of Marion for overnight camping, leaving just 7½ miles to complete Sunday.
“This day we come in here and we’re not dead to the world,” Father Eric Weldon said.
All of the walkers participated in seven talks given by people who claim to have experienced Kapaun’s intercession in their lives, including miracles and by relatives of men who served with or were ministered to by Kapaun during the war.
Nick Dellasega of Pittsburg is one of the miracles, participating in his fourth pilgrimage. He was 26 when he went into cardiac arrest 100 yards from the finish of a 5K race in 2011. CPR and electric shock failed to revive him, but as emergency technicians prepared to intubate him, his heart started beating.
Minutes earlier, Dellasega’s teenage cousin, Jonah, had dropped to his knees and prayed to Father Kapaun to intercede. Dellasega bounced back quickly. He said specialists at Mayo Clinic were unable to explain his revival.
“The doctor looked at us and he kind of gave us a smile and said, ‘I always think there’s room for some divine intervention,’” Dellasega said.
He expressed enthusiasm for the extended schedule and additional presentations.
“I loved this walk,” he said. “In the past some people were sleeping, some people were listening, some people were trying to get dinner, and we always felt rushed. It was really cool to hear their stories and my story in a form where it wasn’t rushed. We could ask questions, and everybody could just be there together.”
New walkers outnumbered “Kapaun groupies” this year, Brunke said. First-timer David Weldon of Wichita said the changes were a “good fit” for him.
“After 22 miles that first day, I was totally spent,” he said. “If I had to get up and do it again, I don’t know if I’d have been there.”
Tears came to Weldon’s eyes as he talked about the new appreciation he had for Kapaun after the four-day trek.
“He in the midst of his own agonies and trials and physical ailments still was out there working with his men,” he said. “I tried to put myself in that position, and only God and the Holy Spirit could have given a man the energy to do that. That’s what affected me. I’m feeling the pain from the walk, and as a prisoner of war, he and his brothers were forced to do that.”
The arrival of the pilgrims and subsequent Mass as part of Father Kapaun Day at St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church represented an unofficial conclusion to the Wichita Diocese’s “Year of Father Kapaun,” highlighted by a mission to the Vatican to present the case for his canonization.
The official closing Mass, dinner, and program will be Thursday at St. John’s Chapel at Newman University in Wichita, where Kapaun was ordained.