‘Cathedral of the Plains’ Worth the Long Drive
If you ever have occasion to drive east along I-70 between Denver and Kansas City, you’ll find yourself tempted to go as fast as the law allows — if not a little faster.
Looking back later, your memory of that stretch of highway will be of one long, featureless blur punctuated only by prairies, grasses and the occasional farm.
That is, until you come to Victoria, Kan. When you get there, slow down and look to your left for the high spires of a great church, twin beacons calling you to pull off and investigate this anomaly on the high plains.
Officially named St. Fidelis Church — for Fidelis of Sigmaringen, feast day April 24 — the “Cathedral of the Plains,” as locals call it, has been bringing together the Catholics of this hard land for more than 125 years.
In 1873, a group of settlers arrived from England and laid out the town of Victoria. A band of émigrés from Russia, Catholic Volga-Germans, came shortly after and built the neighboring town of Herzog. Dismayed by the harsh conditions, the Brits left Victoria to the Volga-Germans; they, in turn, incorporated Victoria into their settlement. Descendants of many of these original German families are still a presence in this small Kansas town.
These Volga-Germans, fleeing from service in the czar’s army and warnings about their Catholic faith, immediately erected a cross in the heart of their village. Here they gathered on Sundays to pray the rosary, sing religious hymns and thank God for safely leading them to this “promised land.” The closest priest, a missionary from Salina (about 90 miles east of Herzog), came occasionally to attend to the spiritual needs of the émigrés.
The first Mass was celebrated in April 1876 in the home of one of the settlers, Alois Dreiling. After several months, they attached a lean-to chapel to the side of the Dreiling home. This church, which could only accommodate about half of the growing Catholic population of the area, was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title Mother of Sorrows.
After the Capuchin Franciscans came in 1878 at the request of the bishop of Leavenworth, the parish grew steadily. With the expansion of the settlement to Victoria, a second, third and fourth church were built on larger and larger pieces of property. It was during the building of the third church, in 1884, when the name was changed from Mother of Sorrows Church to St. Fidelis Church in honor of a martyred member of the Capuchin Franciscan order.
St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen, Prussia (1577-1622), was known as “the poor man’s lawyer” as he constantly worked to protect the rights of the poor. Disillusioned and disgusted by the corruption, oppression and injustices he saw among his legal colleagues, he entered religious life. Fidelis was sent to Switzerland to preach on behalf of Church unity during the Reformation.
After being fired on and escaping, he refused shelter, saying his life was in God’s hands. On his way home from preaching, he was attacked and killed. He is remembered for frequently saying, “Woe to me if I should prove myself but a half-hearted soldier in the service of my thorn-crowned Captain.” His faithfulness in the face of fearful oppression made him a fitting patron for refugees from czarist Russia.
Strong as Stone
The current church, begun in 1908 and finished in 1911, was built on 10 acres donated by the Kansas Pacific Railway Company. It seats more than 1,000 people, rendering the original lean-to a quaint historical footnote.
The sanctuary symbolizes the faith of the band of refugees who felt so strongly about keeping their faith that they were willing to pull up their roots and relocate in a faraway land. It also stands as a reminder of the power of prayer and trust in God: At the time of its dedication in 1911, St. Fidelis was the largest church west of the Mississippi.
St. Fidelis has a façade of native limestone, which, I learned, was quarried and hauled 10 miles on wagons to the building site. Parishioners, many in teams of fathers with their sons, hauled as many as 70 to 80 loads each.
The 18 granite pillars were purchased in, and sent from, Vermont. But the delivery train unloaded these 15-ton behemoths about a mile from the building site. The report is that it took eight horses and 40 men to get each pillar to the site. The men and horses were donated by the parishioners.
In 1971, the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a building of “architectural significance.”
The church received its latest restoration during the 1990s, in preparation for the 125th anniversary of the establishment of the first Volga-German settlement. Workers brought out the amazing Romanesque architecture, brightened the interior and weatherproofed the exterior.
This is a church that has stood, and will continue to stand, no matter what elements the plains throw its way. After all, this stretch of I-70 may make for a boring drive, but the land it traverses never runs out of bad-weather surprises.
St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen, pray for us!
writes from Greenville,
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
St. Fidelis is open 7 days a week with daily Mass at 6:45 a.m. and Sunday Mass at 10:30 (vigil Mass at 5 p.m.); sacrament of reconciliation is available on Saturdays, 11:00-11:30. There are self-guided tour pamphlets on-sale in the vestibule and a gift shop is located across the street. St. Fidelis’ feast day is celebrated on April 24.
From Interstate 70, the Cathedral is about 1 mile from the Victoria, Kan., exit. Follow the signs into Victoria and you can’t miss the Cathedral — the 141-foot spires can be seen from mile away.
- April 24-30, 2005