When traveling Interstate 70 in Kansas, stop to visit this historic and beautiful house of worship.
By Richard Bauman
You might think a church with the name “Cathedral of the Plains” would be a grand structure, and it is. You also might expect to find it in a large city, but you won’t. The big church with the majestic moniker is in Victoria, Kansas, a small farming community approximately 200 miles west of Topeka. But the church’s location isn’t the only unusual thing about it.
For one, it isn’t a cathedral. It’s actually a parish church, called St. Fidelis, in a town of approximately 1,200 residents. Yet the colossal house of worship can seat 1,100 people. When it was completed in 1911, it was the largest church west of the Mississippi River, and remained so for many years.
The first settlers in the area were British farmers who arrived there in the 1870s. They named the town Victoria in honor of their queen. A few years later, Russian immigrants known as Volga-Germans moved into the area. The Russians remained, but the Kansas plains didn’t suit the English folks, and by the late 1800s most of them had returned to England or moved to other parts of the United States.
The Volga-Germans, predominantly Catholic, welcomed German Capuchin friars to town in 1878, and shortly thereafter, Victoria’s first Catholic church was built. Four years later, a new church was erected on the site of the current structure. By the early 1900s, an even larger church was needed. This time the priests and parishioners built a church not just to suit their immediate needs, but to serve future generations as well. And they more than met their goal. Groundbreaking began in November 1908, and construction was completed in August 1911.
St. Fidelis is a solid testimony to the townspeople’s faith, dedication, and hard work. Its construction was truly a family project in every sense of the word. Money was scarce, but commitment was high. Each family was expected to make at least the same basic donation of six wagonloads of rock and three wagonloads of sand. The rock came from limestone quarried a few miles south of Victoria.
Members of the parish did much of the mixing of mortar, dressing of the building stones, and actual construction as the church rose from dream to reality. It’s estimated the men of the parish hauled and prepared more than 125,000 cubic feet of limestone to build their church. Some experts have calculated that the structure contains 17 million pounds of limestone.
August 28, 2011, will mark the completion of the current church, but the centennial celebration already has begun with a series of commemorative events. In addition, special centennial calendars, T-shirts, music CDs, and other souvenirs are offered for sale.
The Cathedral of the Plains is a Kansas landmark, immense even by today’s standards. The church’s towering twin steeples add to its enormous image. Each steeple is 141 feet tall, topped with a 12-foot-high cross, and plainly visible from Interstate 70 several miles to the north.
Because it can be seen from I-70, the church attracts the attention of many highway travelers. It’s estimated that more than 16,000 people annually catch a respite from the monotony of the Kansas flatlands by stopping to visit the church. As may be expected, the summer months are the busiest, but the church is open year-round.
Some find more than just a break from travel, according to the parish staff. Sometimes folks struggling with spiritual or emotional pain write to the church office to say that they found some comfort within the church walls. “Some say they were really hurting, or they had something they were praying about, and they felt like they were helped after spending time in this peaceful church,” reported a staff member.
Walking into St. Fidelis, visitors are struck by its cavernous, cathedral-like interior and its soft beauty. It looks even bigger inside than it does from the outside. When entering the sanctuary, one gets the impression that the building magically grows half again as big as its exterior.
The interior design is akin to a Roman basilica. It has two rows of granite pillars, seven in each row, supporting the clerestory with its stained-glass windows. The peak of the roof is 75 feet high, and the walls below the clerestory are nearly three stories tall. The church’s altar and pulpit were hand-carved in Italy out of Carrara marble. The stained-glass windows came from Germany, and several small shrines and statues were made in various parts of the world.
In 2008 the people of Kansas voted the Cathedral of the Plains one of the state’s “eight wonders,” and the U.S. government declared it a building of “architectural significance,” placing the chuch on the National Register of Historic Places.
Though St. Fidelis is huge, it retains its small-town roots. During my visit, I picked up a copy of the church’s Sunday bulletin and found this item: “Seed wheat will be blessed at all of the Masses next weekend.” Other announcements you’re not likely to see in a big-city church bulletin included someone wanting to buy Girl Scout uniforms, and a notice about an upcoming musical performance by a local secular college’s orchestra.
St. Fidelis, the church’s namesake, was an accomplished orator, so perhaps it’s fitting that renowned American orator William Jennings Bryan gave the church its unofficial name. During a visit to St. Fidelis in 1912, the three-time unsuccessful presidential candidate described the church in Victoria as the “Cathedral of the Plains.” It has been called that ever since.
St. Fidelis is located at 900 Cathedral Ave. in Victoria, Kansas. It is open every day during daylight hours, and visitors are welcomed regardless of religious affiliation. There is no admission charge, but donations are welcomed. Guided tours are available upon request.
Sunday Masses are celebrated at 5:00 p.m. Saturday and 10:00 a.m. Sunday. Daily Mass is celebrated at 7:00 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, and at 6:45 a.m. on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Call (785) 735-2777 or visit www.stfidelischurch.com for more