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Throwback Thursday: Winonan priest jailed in Saigon after war protest

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Czaplewski

Rev. John Dee Czaplewski, the Singing Priest

This story originally appeared on Oct. 3, 1971, in the Winona Daily News.

A Winona priest, known locally as the “singing priest,” is currently playing a different role in what he calls a “non-violent protest against the Vietnam War.”

The Rev. John Dee Czaplewski, 33, son of Mr. and Mrs. John L. Czaplewski, 1814 W. 5th St., is one of four persons taken into custody Saturday by South Vietnamese police after they chained themselves to the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

Their reason for the act: “a non-violent protest against the Vietnam war.”

The four — three American Catholic priests and a Jewish layman ... arrived by taxi, carrying a guitar case, and entered a side gate of the embassy. They then opened the case and took out chains to tie themselves to the iron gate.

As one of the U.S. Marines scurried about trying to find a means of removing the men, Father John pulled out a statement from his black robe. “We call upon fellow Americans to act for peace in Indochina to the point of risking their status, their bank account, their job, their education and their very lives,” the statement read.

The group, headed by the Rev. Bob Willis, La Jolla, Calif., an associate of the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, includes Father John, the Rev. Harry Bury, Minneapolis, Minn., and Leonard Hirsch, a Jewish layman from Cleveland, Ohio.

Father Willis said the four have been in Vietnam for a week “to support the local Catholic peace movement” which he described as “very weak.”

The group handed out a statement to newsmen protesting “the tragic destruction of human life, natural resources and the culture of Indochina” and U.S. involvement in the war. They also protested U.S. interference in the internal affairs of South Vietnam.

Their four-point proposal called for the immediate setting of a fixed date for withdrawal of United States armed forces from Vietnam, recognition of the South Vietnamese people’s right to self-determination and cessation of aid to the Thieu government; cessation of “American aggression against North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia;” and the resignation of U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker “as an admission of American interference in Vietnamese elections and the bankruptcy of American foreign policy.”

The four declared, that they would stay chained to the gate and would fast until they were forcibly removed. Supervised by an embassy security officer, Harry 0. Krohn, U.S. Marine guards used a chain cutter to free the men after about 10 minutes. Outside the gate, the four were taken into custody by South Vietnamese police and taken to a nearby police headquarters for questioning

Father Bury is on leave as University of Minnesota Newman Center director to work for a Ph.D. degree in organizational behavior at Case-Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.

Priest’s arrest frightens mother

“My prayers are with my son,” Mrs. John L. Czaplewski said Saturday morning, after learning he was being detained by authorities in South Vietnam.

“I am frightened,” she added. “But I also disapprove of the war. Just like any other mother, I dread seeing my son get into it.”

Mrs. Czaplewski said she did not approve of her son being in Saigon: “He wasn’t really sent there, but went on his own.”

She saw Father John, a priest in the Diocese of Winona who is currently on leave, on Wednesday morning, just before he flew to Vietnam.

He told his mother he and about 10 others were going to Saigon to protest the war but did not say in what manner.

Father John expects to return to the United States on Oct. 12 since he has booked musical engagements.

For the past three years, he has had a musical act known as Father John and Mary. He plays the guitar and sings and his partner, Mary Claire Bonin, Rochester, also sings. Both have traveled widely through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and other parts of the country with “programs of songs and sermonettes.”

Father John completed high school at Holy Cross Seminary, La Crosse, Wis.; attended the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary, Winona, from 1956-60, studied theology at St. John’s Seminary, Collegeville, 1960-64, and was ordained a priest at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart on May 24, 1964, by the Most Rev. Edward A. Fitzgerald.

He served St. Francis Catholic Church, Rochester, for three years, and was at St. Mary’s Church, Lake City, for one year.

He then was granted a leave of absence and began touring the country as a religious musical performer.

Father Czaplewski’s whereabouts unknown

No word has come out of Saigon on the whereabouts of the Rev. John Dee Czaplewski, one of four American pacifists engaged in a non-violent protest of the Vietnam War.

The Most Rev. Loras Waiters, bishop of the Diocese of Winona, has expressed concern over Father John’s welfare,

Bishop Walters reportedly had seen Father John before he left for Vietnam and had tried to change his mind about making the trip. But, he added, he had not ordered him not to go there.

Bishop Watters said that Father John is a priest of good standing canonically, adding that he approved of what the young man called his “special ministry.”

For the past three years, Father John has been touring the country, performing a musical religious service in both Catholic and Protestant churches.

On Monday an Associated Press news release stated that Father John and three other American pacifists had set up their own “American Embassy” to “represent the people” as one of the sideshows to South Vietnam’s one-man presidential action.

On Saturday the four men had chained themselves to the embassy gate to protest what they called fraudulent elections. U.S. Marine guards cut them loose and turned them over to local police.

The Rev. Msgr. Emmett Tighe, chancellor, commented on Father John’s presence in Vietnam:

“He is acting as an individual. A person who participates in this type of demonstration or protest of the war certainly has a right to do so. However, it will be up to him to explain his actions to the proper authorities.”

Msgr. Tighe added that he had not talked to Father John before he left for Vietnam.

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