Prairie Style: The Cathedral of the Plains Rises Above Flat Lands
Indomitable faith, fortitude and determination of German immigrants raised the church literally stone by stone.
Awe-inspiring churches don’t have to be located in crowded cities to draw pilgrims. They can be found in the most surprising places. One is on the Plains of Kansas, in the town of Victoria, with roughly 1,250 residents. There, nearly halfway between Topeka and Denver, is the beautiful Basilica of St. Fidelis, the only basilica in the state.
But for more than 100 years, it has been best known by its popular familiar name: the Cathedral of the Plains. Completed in 1911, St. Fidelis got its nickname when its tall twin steeples drew the attention of American orator and politician William Jennings Bryan when he was a few miles away in Hays. Being a religious man, he wanted to see the church.
“He looked around, toured the church and then said, ‘This is the Cathedral of the Plains,’” explained Ivan Werner, who for many years gave tours of the church to the many visitors driving to see this magnificent edifice. “That name stuck. We still know it as the Cathedral of the Plains. The parishioners themselves call it the cathedral.”
At the time it was the largest church west of the Mississippi River. Werner pointed out that people are always amazed by its size — 220 feet long, 110 feet wide at the transepts and 75 feet high at the nave. They wonder why such a magnificent church seating 1,100 was built back then in this Plains town and surrounding expanses of agricultural land. The answer lies in the indomitable faith, fortitude and determination of the German immigrants who raised the church literally stone by stone.
When, in July 1904, the parish decided to build a new St. Fidelis Church to replace the three previous structures, “Their first concern was they wanted a beautiful house of God, especially one that would be large enough to hold the entire congregation for any celebration,” Werner told the Register. “And they wanted one that would last.”
Fathers and older sons of families — many were large households — quarried and hauled up 70 to 80 wagonloads of excellent limestone blocks across the prairie from 7 miles away.
“Without the help of the Lord, they would never have gotten that done,” Werner said. “They got a lot of divine help.”
Faith was first and foremost in the lives of these immigrants. Werner explained that, in the later 1700s, their ancestors, persecuted in Germany because of their Catholic faith, took up Catherine the Great’s offer of free land in the fertile steppes of Russia for immigrants willing to go there. A large group migrated to settle by the Volga. After 100 years, the Russian government reneged on Catherine’s promise and wouldn’t let the Catholics practice their faith. Learning about freedom of religion in the United States and of the abundance of agricultural land available on the Plains, these Germans headed to America to practice their Catholicism and to farm. The first large contingent arrived in Topeka during the rough winter of 1875 and then moved to the current area in April 1876.
Bishop Louis Maria Fink appointed a German-speaking Capuchin pastor to care for the Catholic flock. To the present, only Capuchins continue to staff this parish. Werner said even before the first pastor arrived in 1877 the emigrants had planted a cross and met daily to say the Rosary.
It was no surprise, then, that they would eventually build this immense Romanesque church, much of it with their own hands and ingenuity. They even devised a way to raise massive limestone blocks up to the top of the 141-foot-tall towers with the help of a single horse. Werner’s father-in-law, who was an 8-year-old youngster watching the church being built, gave him the details.
The parishioners had John Comes, a Pittsburgh architect who specialized in designing Catholic churches and cathedrals, draw the plans. Later, the design was modified a bit by a Topeka architect.
Everyone wanted to make the church’s interior as splendid as possible. They wanted to build a fitting house for God and heavenly place of worship. What they couldn’t make themselves, they imported. From Indiana came Bedford stone, which they used to decorate the church’s doorways and entrance. From Vermont came massive solid granite pillars topped by huge capitals. These become part of the framework for accenting the design and the splendor of the altars and beauty of the inspiring artwork in painting, statues and stained glass.
The sanctuary radiates this beauty with the original high altar and tall reredos carved with arches, delicate filigrees and lace-like outlines. Topping the center of the reredos are three fancy cupolas — two smaller ones flanking the large, central dome-like one. These cupolas repeat on the tall canopy shrines attached to either side of the reredos. Each honors a Franciscan saint.
The parishioners moved this high altar into this “cathedral” from the earlier church where it had been installed in 1892. The same holds for the ornamental canopy shrines at the sides of the high altar. With their own lace-like carvings and cupolas mirroring the ones of the main altar, the shrines honor Sts. Peter and Paul with their beautiful, colorful statues, which were installed in 1915. Their elevated pedestals actually form arched doorways to the sacristy.
The magnificent Sacred Heart and Blessed Mother side altars were carved in 1916 by parishioner John Linenberger, who donated all his labor. “He was very instrumental in the construction of the church,” Werner noted, adding that, at one point, Linenberger fell off a scaffold into a pile of rubble, and because he was uninjured, he promised to build the altars for free in thanksgiving. Carved with delicate artistry in wood to reflect the main altar’s design, they were eventually marbleized. It’s difficult to tell it is not real marble; likewise, the main altar was also of marbleized wood. The Linenberger connection continued, as his descendants and relatives painted the church in years to come, including the latest time by Tim Linenberger Painting & Decoration, a company that specializes in church interiors.
On these altars, the statues of the Sacred Heart and Mary Queen of Heaven date to 1884 in the previous edifice. Accompanying the depiction of Jesus are statues of Sts. John the Evangelist and Agnes, while figures of Sts. Aloysius and Rose of Lima join the image of the Blessed Mother. It is before this statue that newly-married couples place a rose.
In 1986, the sanctuary’s new free-standing altar was carved of Carrara marble; the new white flooring is also marble.
The Cathedral of the Plains’ stunning artistry includes many statues, Munich stained-glass windows and a featured painting and carved Stations of the Cross, both from Austria.
The tall painting high in the center of the reredos presents the church’s patron, St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen. Painted in Innsbruck, it depicts the martyrdom of this Capuchin friar at the hands of the Calvinists whom he was trying to convert. In the previous church, beginning in 1892, it was moved to this “cathedral.” A statue of St. Fidelis also stands in a niche high on the façade of the church.
The stained-glass windows are yet more German masterworks whose colors and scenes reflect Renaissance Old Masters paintings. With elaborate details, the windows capture scenes from the life of Jesus and Our Lady. There are depictions of Gabriel the Archangel and Mary at the Annunciation as God the Father looks upon her and the Holy Spirit shines rays upon her. Depicted, too, is Jesus surrounded by adoring, attentive children. And Our Lord is shown in glorious radiance ascending to heaven, among other depictions.
The windows, including the rose window of St. Cecilia, were installed in 1916, according to Werner. These windows were made in the Munich Studio in Chicago by German artisans who worked at the fabled Franz Mayer Studio in Munich but emigrated to work here because of the terrible war in Europe at the time: World War I. Parishioners assisted the one representative who came to install these treasured windows.
The Stations of the Cross were completed in 1917, carved in the Tyrol region of Austria of lindenwood, and polychromed in beautiful, natural colors. The exquisite frames are also carved of lindenwood. Parishioners obtained them from the International Statuary Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which represented the famous Moroder Studios in Austria. Because of the war in Europe, the studios directed their best artists to go to America.
Like the painting of St. Fidelis, the Stations have been refurbished and restored.
In the mid-20th century the pews were replaced with new oak ones. But the bells from 1884 remain — ringing out their peals, beckoning prayer and worship for almost 140 years. Other than the statue of St. Thérèse the Little Flower, most statues in the church are well over 100 years old. The Pietà or Sorrowful Mother statue dates to 1884 and the earlier church, which was named Sorrowful Mother Church.
Family history connected with this church is long and rich. Werner gave an example. “My wife Verda’s grandfather John Goetz,” he said, “was born in Topeka in December 1875 as the party [of emigrants] was moving here to Ellis County.” He was part of the first group waiting to head to Victoria after winter that year.
More recently, the Kansas Sampler Foundation’s 8 Wonders of Kansas Guidebook selected the Cathedral of the Plains as one of top eight sites in the state. Then, in February 2014, St. Fidelis Church was declared a minor basilica, becoming the first and only basilica in Kansas.
While the official name is the Basilica of St. Fidelis, its popular name is the one most familiar and most used by parishioners and visitors alike.
As Werner affirmed, “It’s still known as the Cathedral of the Plains.”