Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Shepherds in Combat Boots

My good friend Cavey has gotten me to thinking about heroic priests in uniform. Readers will remember the four priests who have won the Congressional Medal of Honor, including Servant of God Vincent Capodanno; but there are many more. The Year for Priests seems like a good time to remember them. Here are just a few. Click the pictures for more information on each one.

Servant of God Emil Kapuan (Captain, U.S. Army, 1916-1951)
What Fr. Emil Kapuan's service in the Korean War lacked in length was made up for in heroism. From July to November, 1950, Fr. Kapuan served bravely on the front lines, offering Mass on the hoods of jeeps, anointing the wounded, burying the dead, and writing letters to the families of dead soldiers to give them the consolation of knowing that their loved ones had died with the Sacraments. On August 2, 1950, Fr. Kapuan was awarded the Bronze Star for rescuing a wounded soldier under intense fire.

But Fr. Kapuan rendered his greatest service in prison. On November 2, 1950, he was captured while ministering to wounded soldiers. Separated from the enlisted prisoners, he would sneak out of his own compound to tend to them, both physically and spiritually. He led the men in prayers, of which one of his favorites was the Rosary. Drawing on his great resourcefulness, he made vessels out of sheet metal for storing clean water and laundering the uniforms of sick and incontinent prisoners. He went out and scrounged for sticks for firewood and food for the starving, always invoking the aid of St. Dismas, the Good Thief, before embarking on these expeditions.

Forced by the Communists to attend daily indoctrination sessions, Fr. Kapuan perked up the spirits of the other prisoners by answering the Communists back. Survivors recalled that he informed the Communists that "God is as real as the air they breathed but could not see, as the sounds they heard but could not see, as the thoughts and ideas they had and spoke but could not see or feel," and that one day God would deliver China from the disasters to which Communism had led her. There were limits to how much the Communists could retaliate, however, because Fr. Kapuan was so loved by the other prisoners that silencing him might have touched off a rebellion.

It is quite likely that Fr. Emil Kapuan was a martyr for the Faith. When, shortly after Easter, 1951, he became incapacitated due to an infected eye and a blood clot in his leg, the Communists seized on the opportunity to isolate the priest who had been such a thorn in their flesh. In May, 1951, over the objections of his fellow prisoners, his captors put Fr. Kapuan into their "hospital" and starved him to death. On August 18, 1951, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. His cause for sainthood was opened in 2008.

Fr. Aloysius Schmitt (Lieutenant, U.S. Navy, 1909-1941)
The young Fr. Aloysius Schmitt was serving his first tour of sea duty on board the U.S.S. Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It was three days after his 32nd birthday. He had just finished morning Mass on board ship when the Japanese attack began. Fr. Schmitt went to sick bay to minister to the wounded and dying. gives the following moving account of what happened next:
When the Oklahoma was struck and water poured into her hold, the ship began to list and roll over. Many men were trapped. Schmitt found his way -- with other crew members -- to a compartment where only a small porthole provided enough space to escape.

Chaplain Schmitt helped other men, one by one, to crawl to safety. When it became his turn, the chaplain tried to get through the small opening. As he struggled to exit through the porthole, he became aware that others had come into the compartment from which he was trying to escape. As he realized that the water was rising rapidly and that escape would soon be impossible, he insisted on being pushed back through the hole so that he could help others who could get through the opening more easily. Accounts from eyewitnesses that have been published in the Arizona Memorial newsletter relate that the men protested, saying that he would never get out alive, but he insisted, "Please let go of me, and may God bless you all."

Fr. William Doyle, S.J., (Royal Dublin Fusliers, 16th Irish Division, 1873-1917)
Like many great hearts, the heart of William Doyle beat in a frail body. The illnesses he suffered as a boy went on to endanger his vocation as a Jesuit priest. But all through his life, he dreamed of being a soldier, both for Ireland and for Christ. Shortly before he took his vows of religion in 1893, he made the following document, written partly in his own blood:
A.M.D.G. ac B.V.M.
My Martyrdom for Mary's Sake.

Darling Mother Mary, in preparation for the glorious martyrdom which I feel assured thou art going to obtain for me, I, thy most unworthy child, on this the first day of thy month, solemnly commence my life of slow martyrdom by earnest hard work and constant self-denial. With my blood I promise thee to keep this resolution, do thou, sweet Mother, assist me and obtain for me the one favour I wish and long for: To die a Jesuit Martyr.

May 1st, 1893.

May God's will, not mine, be done! Amen.
Fr. Doyle had been a priest for seven years when, in 1914, he volunteered to serve as a military chaplain. His first experience of combat came at Loos on April 26, 1916, when the Germans launched a series of poison gas attacks. The priest who had been so frail as a youth now achieved an almost superhuman level of exertion. For days he worked the trenches, ministering to the wounded and dying, in utter disregard for his own safety and for the effects of the gas on himself, which were serious. This selfless devotion and supernatural courage in the face of deadly peril marked the whole course of his service in the trenches, from beginning to end, and won him the love of his troops. Although he personally disdained ribbons and medals (except to the extent they pleased his father back home), many thought he deserved the Victoria Cross. Only religious and ethnic prejudice prevented its being awarded to him.

Fr. Doyle embraced his life at the front, with its horrors, its perils, its drudgery, and the never-ending slaughter as the greatest grace he had ever been given. "I wonder is there a happier man in France than I am," he wrote. "Just now Jesus is giving me great joy in tribulation, though conditions of living are about as uncomfortable as even St. Teresa could wish perpetual rain, oceans of mud, damp, cold and a plague of rats. Yet I feel that all this is a preparation for the future and that God is labouring in my soul for ends I do not clearly see as yet. Sometimes I kneel down with outstretched arms and pray God, if it is a part of His divine plan, to rain down fresh privations and sufferings. But" -- he must have laughed as he wrote -- " I stopped when the mud wall of my little hut fell in upon me that was too much of a good joke!"

Throughout his service on the front, Fr. Doyle had many close calls, but always came through unscathed. Finally, on August 17, 1917, toward the evening of a long and busy day, word came of a wounded officer lying in an exposed position. Fr. Doyle went out at once and found the officer in a shell crater. He gave the man his last Sacraments, then half-dragged and half-carried him back into the line. As his runner was handing him a cup of water, a shell exploded nearby, instantly killing Fr. Doyle and three officers. His desire to be a Jesuit martyr was fulfilled.

Fr. Emmeran Bliemel, O.S.B. (10th Tennessee Infantry and 4th Kentucky Infantry, Confederate States of America, 1831-1864)
Fr. Bliemel, who was born on the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel in 1831 and died at the same age at which Christ died on the cross, has the distinction of being the first American chaplain to die on a battlefield. He was posthumously awarded the Southern Cross of Honor, also known as the Confederate Medal of Honor. Here is the text of Fr. Bliemel's citation:
Although a non-combatant, Father Bliemel joined his regiment in their assault on the enemy's fortified works. Disregarding his own safety and not content to remain in the rear, Father Bliemel continued forward into the thickest of the fighting and began ministering to the needs of the wounded and dying. Despite the extreme danger, he continued his work and when the attack was repulsed, accompanied the litter bearers to the rear. But while tending to a fallen soldier, he witnessed the wounding of the colonel of his regiment. Unwilling to abandon his commanding officer, he stopped and went back for him. Seeing that the wounds were mortal, Father Bliemel instead knelt in the field and began to administer the last sacrament on the dying man's behalf. There, with his hands uplifted to God in petition for his colonel's soul, Father Bliemel was decapitated by a shell from the enemy's artillery.

Fr. Leo P. Craig, O.P. (Captain, U.S. Army, 1st Cavalry Division, 1918-1951)
When Leo Craig of Everett, Massachusetts, was just five years old, his mother died. His aunt, Sr. Veronica Craig of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Kentucky, obtained a dispensation from her vows in order to be a second mother to her brother's five young children. The remarkable generosity of this daughter of St. Dominic must have been a lifelong inspiration to Leo, who himself entered the Order of Preachers in 1935. In 1942, he followed in the footsteps of his older brother Lawrence and became a priest. In 1949, he joined the Army as a chaplain.

On the afternoon of April 5, 1951, near Chunchon, South Korea, Fr. Leo was preparing for Mass when he heard an explosion. A soldier had stepped on a mine. He hurried out to the minefield, heedless of his own safety, to give the dying man his last Sacraments. The photograph above of Fr. Leo performing this brave act of charity was taken thirty seconds before a second mine exploded, killing him and everyone else in the photograph.

In an age when so much is being made of bad priests, it pays to focus on the deeds of priests like these who gave the last full measure of devotion for their flocks on the battlefield. With the graces of the Sacraments, and especially Holy Orders to draw from, their extraordinary courage and devotion are neither accident nor coincidence.


  1. Thanks, Cavey! Notice I have added the story of another shepherd.

  2. It is often reported that Father Craig visited his older brother in Japan, but it was his younger brother, Austin. He did not like the name Austin and used Fr. Lawrence Craig instead. He was a founding member of the Sacred Hearts mission to Japan in Mito, Japan and died in Tomobe, Japan in 2007.
    Michael Matarazzo,Everett (MA) Historian