When Tim Jones bought his red 1948 Jeep CJ2A more than 40 years ago, it was because he wanted to go off-roading with his friends and needed an adequate ride. 

“A bunch of us used to go out four wheeling, and I didn’t have a four wheel drive,” Jones said. “I found this for sale and went and bought it.” 

Though the vehicle no longer runs and had been buried in Jones’ garage for decades, it was resurrected for a slightly different purpose than that of its original intent: to be used as an altar. 

Under a bright September sun and a veteran’s fluttering American flag, St. Jude Regional Catholic School in Rockville, Maryland, celebrated on Sept. 20 a parking lot “Jeep Mass” in honor of Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun, a Kansas native who served as a military chaplain in the Korean War. 

Father Kapaun was a heroic chaplain who tended the physical and spiritual needs of his fellow soldiers in Burma and throughout the country, saying Mass on the hood of his military Jeep. Born on a farm in Kansas in 1916, the country priest felt called to become a military chaplain, eventually dying in a prisoner of war camp in North Korea in 1951. Named a Servant of God in 1993 and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2013, Father Kapaun’s cause for canonization is underway. 

Father Lee preaches to St. Jude's students during the Sept. 20 Mass outside the school, encouraging them to emulate the faith and courage of Father Emil Kapaun. He had an altar set up on the hood of a jeep, just as the famous military chaplain had done for soldiers during the Korean War. (CS photo/Leslie Kossoff)

Father Paul Lee, pastor of the Shrine of St. Jude Parish, wearing a traditional fiddleback chasuble, celebrated Mass on the hood of the Jeep before the St. Jude’s schoolchildren joined by some military veterans, including one Korean War veteran. The day was also the feast of Korean martyrs Saints Andrew Kim Taegon, Paul Chong, and companions, who ministered to the lay Catholics in Korea who had established and kept the faith for hundreds of years before priests or missionaries ever came to the country. 

At the beginning of his homily, Father Lee spoke of how his own family had fled North Korean because of their outspokenness of the Communist regime there, and his subsequent devotion to Father Kapaun. Born two years after the Korean War ended, Father Lee first became familiar with Father Kapaun during Father Lee’s seminary days in Wichita. This is the third Jeep Mass he has celebrated in the parking lot behind St. Jude Regional Catholic School, the first in 2013 on the hood of an olive-colored Jeep Wrangler, and in 2017 on the makeshift altar of Jones’ Jeep. 

Father Angel Gabriel Fermin gives Communion to St. Jude's students during the Sept. 20 Mass honoring the life and legacy of Army chaplain Father Emil Kapaun. (CS photo/Leslie Kossoff)

Jones, who is Catholic and a parishioner at St. Mary in Rockville, Maryland, was asked in 2017 if his Jeep could be used for the Mass. It was a “mad dash,” Jones said, to get the Jeep out of the garage and cleaned up before the event. This year, it was much easier. Though his Jeep is a civilian vehicle - signified by the “C” in CJ2A rather than an “M” for military - it is similar to the model Father Kapaun would have used. 

“Father Kapaun has been called a ‘shepherd in combat boots,’... a soldier who didn't fire a gun but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all: a love for his brothers so pure,” Father Lee said.

Father Kapaun was captured shortly after China entered the Korean War. During the 40-mile march to the war camp, when one of his fellow captives fell behind, the priest carried the man the rest of the way. Also known as “the most accomplished food thief” said Father Lee, Father Kapaun would steal food to sustain the prisoners, supporting them with his calm demeanor and humor and encouraging them always to forgive their persecutors. He died after his seven-month imprisonment.

“Obviously there are striking resemblances between Jesus the Good Shepherd, the King on the cross, and Father Kapaun,” Father Lee said. 

Father Lee encouraged the students to mirror Father Kapaun’s example of courage in the face of the world’s hatred and to pray to him for peace for those living in oppressive regimes. He said he hopes the Mass will continue to be an evangelization and “educational moment for our kids.”

Jones, who is retired, said maybe the Jeep will be restored and running for next year’s Mass. 

“It’s an absolute honor,” Jones said about having a Mass celebrated on his Jeep. “How often do you get to do that?” 

Children from St. Jude Regional Catholic School in Rockville, Maryland, pray during the Sept. 20 Mass honoring famous military chaplain Father Emil Kapaun. (CS photo/Leslie Kossoff)

Dr. Glenn J. Benjamin, the principal of St. Jude Regional Catholic School, said the Jeep Mass helps children learn about faith, history, and patriotism. 

“Personally, I'm a history teacher by trade,” Benjamin said. “So I really enjoy sharing the history of our country, of our faith, with the children.” 

Through the Mass, Benjamin said he hopes to instill these lessons in the students and show “that they can be proud of their faith, that they can be proud of their country at the same time. They're not mutually exclusive.”