Dear Readers - I am issuing a challenge: Next time you are flying along I-70, whether headed for the mountains or returning home, take just 30 minutes to exit the interstate at Victoria, visit St. Fidelis Catholic Church, and not say that was time very well spent.
This massive native limestone structure is one of Kansas' most familiar and best-loved landmarks. It was voted one of the original 8 Wonders of Kansas. Nancy and I stop here often on our trips across the state. Victoria is located in Ellis County, about ten minutes east of the city of Hays.
St. Fidelis Church is popularly known as the "Cathedral of the Plains," a title bestowed upon it by William Jennings Bryan in 1912. Not being the seat of a diocesan bishop, St. Fidelis is not technically a cathedral; however, its beauty and grandeur inspire a response similar to that of many of fine cathedrals I have visited in the US and Europe.
The first settlers in the region were aristocratic "gentleman farmers" from England who named the settlement after their queen. Within a few years, the only thing English about the area was the town's name. The Brits were simply no match for the harsh conditions of the Kansas high plains and most of them abandoned Victoria.This was not the case for the hardy Volga Germans* who were accustomed to the hardships of life on the steppes of central Asia, and currently in the process of settling the nearby village of Herzog. A majority of the people presently living and farming in the Victoria vicinity are descendants of those original settlers
Memorial to the Volga Germans who settled the Victoria area
Soon after the church's founding, German-speaking Friars of the Capuchin order arrived to serve the congregation of St. Fidelis and parishes in surrounding small settlements. The Capuchins continue in that role to this day.
Needing a larger church to serve the needs of a growing number of worshipers, the parish decided in 1904 to build "a spacious and artistic structure that would be a worthy house of God not only for a short period of time but for many years to come." Each church member 12 years and older was then assessed $45 yearly and required to deliver six wagon loads of hard native limestone from nearby quarries to the building site. As most farm families were large, it was not uncommon for one family to transport 70 to 80 loads of stone. The dressing of the stone (all handwork, no machinery yet available for that purpose) at the building site was also done by church members who had learned the craft for this specific purpose.
The architectural design is Romanesque, characterized by its massive quality, semi-circular arches, tall square towers, and a cross-shaped floor plan.
We have always found the doors open during the day, making it is possible to view the church's spacious interior, even more impressive than its exterior, in my opinion. The granite pillars were imported from Indiana; the high altar from Cincinnati, Ohio; the altar's center piece painting of the martyrdom of St. Fidelis from Austria; the pews from Garnett, Kansas. The painted glass windows, from Germany, were added in 1916. The sanctuary seats 1100 worshipers.
Rose Window (above choir loft) - honors St. Cecilia, patron saint of music and musicians
Next year (2011) will mark the centennial year of the church's completion. Numerous special events are planned to celebrate the occasion, including a Fidelisfest and "Ringing of the Bells" Ceremony on Memorial Day and the Dedication Centennial Celebration on Sunday, August 28.
I hope to hear from some of you soon that you have taken on my challenge and visited the Cathedral of the Plains!
[The above photos of the church were taken this June as we returned home from visiting Nancy's parents in Sharon Springs; the photo of the Volga German memorial on an earlier trip.]
*Volga Germans - In the late 18th century, Russia's Catherine the Great invited Germans (excepting Jews) to immigrate to Russia, to farm the lands, Tand to maintain their own languages and cultures. The arrangement worked well for almost a century, until Russian Royalty revoked the terms of the manifesto which forbade conscription of the Germans into the Russian army. Numerous Germans, particularly those of the Mennonite faith, chose to seek a new life on the plains of America.
Link of Interest:
Read a more detailed account of the hard work and sacrifices made by parishioners in the building of the church at: www.stfidelischurch.com/History/StFidelisChurch/ThePresentChurch/