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Photos: 'Cathedral Of The Plains' Worth A Detour Out West

Lu Anne Stephens
The Basilica of St. Fidelis in the small town of Victoria in western Kansas

If you’ve driven west on I-70, you’ve probably seen two church towers off in the distance, about 10 miles east of Hays in the tiny town of Victoria, Kansas.

If you haven’t been curious enough to stop and check it out, you should.

The Basilica of St. Fidelis has been the spiritual nexus of Victoria since it was settled in the 1870s by Volga German immigrants.

Since that time, the predominantly Catholic community has gone through four church buildings, from a small lean-to off the side of somebody’s house to this final magnificent, soaring installment, which was finished in 1911.

Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW

It’s no wonder that the "Cathedral of the Plains" — a nickname given to the church by William Jennings Bryan — receives more than 16,000 visitors a year.

The two towers outside the Romanesque church reach 140 feet in the sky with a 13-foot diameter rose window in the center. Inside, the arched ceiling is supported by granite columns imported from Vermont. Forty-eight stained glass windows line the walls; four carved altar pieces draw the eye to the sanctuary. Everywhere you look there is light and color and art.

Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW

The stained glass windows were imported from the Munich Studios in Chicago and installed in 1916 at a cost of $3,700. Today, they're valued at more than $1 million.

The high altar piece shows the martyrdom of St. Fidelis, for whom the church is named.

Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW

The church took four years to build, thanks to a singular dedication from the entire church community.

Ivan Werner has been a parishioner of St. Fidelis since 1970 and now volunteers as a tour guide.

Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW

"They decided that each parishioner who was at least 12 years old would donate 6 wagon loads — those were grain wagons — of stone," Werner said. "And they would be assessed 45 dollars, which was a lot of money back then, per communicant.

"[You] have to remember there weren’t any machines to use at that time. All this work was done by human labor, and they had a couple horses and that’s all that’s all they used."

Some families hauled 80 or more loads of limestone, cut out of the ground by hand with drills and axes. Once at the site, it was honed — again, by hand — leveled and curved so the stones would fit together. You can still see the marks made by the axes that shaped the stones.

Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW

St. Fidelus was named a basilica in 2014 by Pope Francis; it's one of just 78 in the U.S. The tintinnabulum and umbraculum (in English that’s "the bells and the umbrella") are displayed to signify the church's link with the pope. If the pope visits, the items are used during the procession at the start of the service.

Credit Lu Anne Stephens

The Catholic population has dwindled over the years, but the church still saw 600 parishioners for Sunday services before the COVID-19 pandemic. That number grows to a standing room-only crowd when there are special services and concerts. The building's high ceiling and stonework make it a perfect place for choir and organ performances.

Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW

St. Fidelis does for the ears what it does for the eyes: creates a bigger-than-life experience. But for all of the art and beauty and music, Ivan Werner says that the original intentions for the church still stand.

“First of all," Werner said, "they wanted it to be a beautiful house of God. Secondly, they wanted it to be a house that would hold their entire congregation.

"And lastly, they wanted it to be a house that would last.”

Even with the pandemic, St. Fidelis gets several tourists a week. A recording for self-guided tours is just inside the front doors. The building is open seven days a week.

Hidden Kansas explores intriguing spots around the state. Listen for a new segment each month during KMUW's The Range.