NYT Sports Columnist and Kansas City Native Joe Drape Explores Father Emil Kapaun’s Life, Death, And Candidacy For Sainthood In “The Saint Makers”

The story of Father Emil Kaupan is well known throughout Kansas. What is less well known is the path to Sainthood in the Catholic Church.

Joe’s shorter interview which aired on KRPS’s Morning Edition
Joe’s extended KRPS Presents interview

If you’re familiar with Joe Drape’s work, you’ve probably read one of his sports columns in the New York Times or one of his seven other books. His latest, The Saint Makers: Inside the Catholic Church And How A War Hero Inspired A Journey of Faith, is his first non-sport text. Drape took a step away from a subject he knows very well, sports, and leaped another that he knew even better, the Catholic Church.

Yes, The Saint Makers is about Father Kapaun, but Drape also pulls back the curtain and reveals himself in the text. KRPS’s Fred Fletcher-Fierro recently spoke with Drape about writing The Saint Makers and the path of questioning his faith it took him through.

Joe Drape. Credit: Lars Klove for The New York Times

“What surfaced during all this (writing The Saint Makers) is the misgiving I had about the church, my own misgivings. And I don’t think it was very popular with the diocese down there. And it was not meant to offend. I’m 60-years old; I’ve grown up in it. I’ve seen the things it’s done well. I’ve seen the things that it’s not done so well.”

That is what is most revealing about The Saint Makers. Some readers may find it off-putting that a book that tells the story of a Catholic Father from south-central Kansas and two miracles that are ascribed to him also contains the narrative of a well-known Catholic questioning what’s suitable and what isn’t inside of his church. Although as a reader who is both non-Catholic and someone more interested in learning about a variety of religions, The Saint Makers is both insightful and refreshing.

Speaking of how the Catholic church operates, Drape writes about the inner workings of how a Father becomes a Saint—taking the reader on a journey that includes tens of thousands of dollars that the local diocese must raise just to hire the right people in the Vatican to get a whiff at Sainthood. Not to mention the extreme length of time it takes, as Drape shared.

“I think the average is 181 years from the time you start from the time that you are made a saint. And I think that has evolved. Think of Saints as the Catholic church’s superheroes, and it has evolved. It’s become more of a marketing machine. It’s a way to reach people where they live. That’s why we’ve gotten a rash of Saints in Latin America.”

Instead of 237-pages of fluff and being a talking point for the church, Drape acknowledges in the “A Note On Sources” page located in the back of the book, “The Saint Makers was an interesting book to put together because it was a mash-up of a biography, journalism, and memoir.” It certainly is all three, and some readers may think Drape has played fast and loose with the story of Father Kapaun. That is hardly the case.

The details and narrative of the late Father are the most riveting section of The Saint Makers. Drape reveals that he knew very little about the Korean War before writing The Saint Makers.

“I quickly discovered was it the most brutal, short, and sort of forgotten war. We were just out of World War II. I think people were warr’ed out as far as the media and everything else. You didn’t hear a lot about this. China kind of came in and surprised everybody. And just getting into the testimonies that his fellow prisoners had given and then reading books about it. You just, it was a hellscape that they created. They didn’t want to feed him. They didn’t want him to live.”

Most illuminating about the story of Father Kaupan through the words of Drape were Chapters six through nine, where every word is a premium. At the end of Chapter 9, there are several photos of Kapuan, including early in his life in Pilsen, Kansas, and pictures of him serving in Korea. Also, what makes this story unique is the multilayered approach of storytelling in The Saint Makers that makes a complex story accessible to those who have no prior knowledge of Japan, the Korean War, the Catholic Church, or the miracles needed to obtain Sainthood.

Keep in mind. Father Emil Kaupan was only 35 when he died, yet his story and commitment to serving and saving US service members in the Korean War continue to inspire over 70-years after his death.

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