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Every pilgrim has a story

More than 300 join
annual Kapaun pilgrimage

Staff writer

Joseph Perez-Strohmeyer’s decision to fly to a state he never visited and join people he didn’t know on a pilgrimage stunned his family.

But the Canton, Ohio, native said he couldn’t ignore the butterflies in his chest after a phone conversation with a stranger.

A 29-year-old recruiter for several blood banks, Perez-Strohmeyer was surprised when a man declined to donate because he planned to go on a pilgrimage.

“It peaked my interest,” he said. “I asked him what it was for, and if he didn’t mind my asking, and told me he was coming here to walk 60 miles on behalf of Father Kapaun.”

They talked at length about the Pilsen priest.

“At the end of the call, I had tears in my eyes, and yes, I decided I need to be here for this,” he said.

Perez-Strohmeyer was one of nearly 300 who made the annual trek in honor in honor of Father Emil Kapaun, who died as a prisoner of war in Korea in 1951.

Awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2013, the chaplain will be honored in July with an Order of Military Merit from South Korea.

More than 400 registered to walk from Wichita to Kapaun’s hometown of Pilsen this past week after his remains were found.

Organizers say about 100 pulled out, but many joinedthe pilgrims during stops on the trail which making it hard to gauge the actual size of the crowd.

Everyone who battled miles of heat, toil, and blisters during the walk to Pilsen had a story to tell.

The miracle

A young man was up and ready to go at 5:40 a.m. Saturday as many pilgrims still were struggling to wake up and dress.

As half-awake people lined up for breakfast, he extended a confident hand to one of the few strangers who didn’t know who he was and introduced himself.

“I’m Chase Kear. I’m the miracle for Father Kapaun,” he said.

Kear’s recovery from a pole vaulting accident is so improbable it has been investigated by the Vatican.

“The fact that you and I are talking today is impossible, even by today’s medical standards,” he said.

At 19, Kear was in his second year at Hutchinson Community College on a track scholarship when he fell 14 feet during a practice vault, missed the mat, and landed on his head.

His skill was cracked from ear to ear.

Doctors at Ascension Via Christi Regional Medical Center in Wichita induced a coma to curb the swelling on his brain, but it didn’t work, so they removed part of his skull.

They later removed 10% of his brain after they discovered Kear had suffered severe damage to his frontal lobe on the right side.

Doctors told his family to prepare themselves for the worst, so they asked for prayers.

They added Kear to a prayer request line at Sacred Heart Church in Colwich and put out a call on social media for people to pray to Kapaun to intercede on his behalf

After 17 days in intensive care and 15 on life support, Kear began to recover.

He spent a month at Wesley Medical Center in rehab relearning everything he thought he knew how to do.

“Frustrating” is a good word because, mentally, I was there,” he said.

“You think of the connection from your brain to your finger as a road. Well, an earthquake, tornado, landslide, hurricane — the worst things in the Bible —came in and wiped out all my roads.”

Kear put his “road crew on overtime” and rebuilt the connections in his damaged brain.

He now is an air craft mechanic at Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita after graduating from Fort Hays State University.

Kear and childhood friend Stephanie Dalton will marry Oct. 2 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Colwich on the 13th anniversary of his accident.

His recovery has made him a believer in the power of prayer and perseverance.

“The true power of faith and prayer is very underestimated,” he said.

Returning and retirement

John Moore joined the pilgrimage Sunday morning on Remington Rd.

“This is the only day I’m walking. I got sick in Peabody,” he said. “Our plans are not God’s plans.”

A Gallup, New Mexico, native Moore has walked faithfully for father Kapaun for more than a decade. He made a 630-mile trek to Pilsen from Santa Fe in 2011 with a 25-pound cross on his back.

He and his youngest daughter, Laura, handed out commemorative pins Sunday morning to pilgrims who camped at the Kroupa farm just west of Marion.

Moore also brought another gift from retiring Mark Chaves, a cross commemorating this year’s walk.

Pilgrims young and old took turns carrying it.

A family affair

Maria Gear, of Andale, didn’t break her stride Sunday even with year-old Cecilia riding in a front pack.

Gear, her husband, Travis, and all six of their children Felicity, 14; Bridget, 12; Patrick, 10; Abigail, 8; and Timothy, 4; made it all 60 miles their first year.

“Were always up for a good challenge and do stuff as a family to help make us stronger,” Maria Gear said.

With father Kapaun’s remains returning to Kansas, the Gears decided this would a good time to walk — even with young children.

The 22-mile trek the first day was the hardest, and Gear had doubts they would make it.

“We did, and everyone slept solid,” she said. “I think they were just exhausted.”

Warm-up act

Blaise Jirak, 17, kept up a brisk pace Sunday while walking up Remington Rd.

A Bishop Carroll Catholic High student, he was joined by brothers Gabriel and Augustin, his fourth year walking to honor Father Kapaun.

“It’s a way that we can remember him and keep his cause active — which will hopefully lead to his sanctity,” he said.

The 60-mile trek was a warm-up for a big trip this summer.

Jirak will walk the Camino de Santiago a 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain to honor St. James the Apostle, with family members.

He hopes the challenge will draw them closer.

“It’s would be a good, hard thing to do,” he said. “A lot of times we come out better by doing something really hard. That is my philosophy.”

End of the trail

Volunteers, including Chase Kear’s mother Paula, lined Remington Rd. in front of St. John Nepomucene Catholic to cheer for exhausted pilgrims and give them hugs Sunday.

Ray Kapaun had Perez-Strohmeyer hold his uncle’s Medal of Honor during a group photo. Perez-Strohmeyer tried his best to smile but ended up breaking down in tears.

“It’s not really going to hit me until later, I am sure, but I am still very shaken from that,” he said.

The walk was the most physically taxing thing Perez-Strohmeyer has done in his life.

“The pain is the great equalizer,” he said. “You realize that goes away when you have a friend to talk to, so you make friends real quick.”

Ray Kapaun drew cheers from a packed church Sunday as he announced his uncle, Emil Kapaun’s will return home to Pilsen Sept. 25. A Mass that Sunday will be reserved for the Pilsen community.

Kapaun told the parish that the remains were found mostly intact, with only a knee cap and the tips of several fingers and toes missing.

The announcement drew cries of “miracle” through a parish eager for fresh hope that Kapaun’s case for sainthood will advance.

Perez-Strohmeyer changed his name from Aaron to Joseph after the walk. After not practicing a faith for more than a decade, he felt he had become a new man.

The experience has taught him to pay attention to a calling from his heart.

“You know when it’s God,” he said. “When it’s God,. It’s God — Don’t ignore it, you’ll regret it, if you do.”

Last modified June 10, 2021

 

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