Kansas church, dubbed
‘Cathedral of the Plains,’
named minor basilica
By Doug Weller
Catholic News Service
VICTORIA, Kan. (CNS) -- Capuchin Father Jeff Ernst’s voice leapt with emotion when he heard the news: St. Fidelis Church in Victoria [12 miles east of Hays] would be named a minor basilica.
“It’s exciting,” he said from his office at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Lawrence. “The state of Kansas doesn’t have any” basilicas.
Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger of Salina received the news from the Vatican in early March that it had granted the diocese’s application to have St. Fidelis designated a minor basilica. He will dedicate the church as a minor basilica June 7.
“This is a great day for the people of Victoria, but an equally great day for the people of the Diocese of Salina,” the bishop said. “St. Fidelis Church has long been a place of pilgrimage and prayer. Indeed, many have been drawn to the mystery and love of God by spending time in this inspiring church.”
Worldwide, there are more than 1,600 minor basilicas; only 78 of them are in the United States.
The Catholic Church has four major basilicas: St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls and Basilica of St. Mary Major, all in Rome. A church designated as a minor basilica must be a center of active and pastoral liturgy with a vibrant Catholic community and may have unique historical, artistic or religious importance.
Father Ernst recalled that one day when he was walking through the front doors of St. Fidelis he said to himself: “This could become a minor basilica.”
“I thought about it for a few days and then ran it by the bishop, and he really liked the idea,” the priest told The Register, newspaper of the Salina Diocese.
After receiving permission from his Capuchin provincial to proceed, he contacted people at the most recently named minor basilica in the United States at the time, the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Canton, Ohio, to inquire about how to do it.
It was the spring of 2012 and Bishop Weisenburger had just been named to head the Salina Diocese. He told Father Ernst that when he traveled to Rome with the region’s other bishops to meet with now-retired Pope Benedict XVI, he would check with Vatican officials about the process.
“He found out they were discouraging applications,” Father Ernst said, but when the bishop sometime later met with other U.S. bishops, they encouraged him to proceed.
The Capuchin priest had only been at the Victoria parish since August 2011. With the parish council’s support, he began assembling the information he needed: specific information about the structure of the church, the participation of the parishioners, and the art and architecture.
It took him about six months to complete the application -- which included a lot of pictures. It was then sent to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for approval. By September 2013, it was on its way to the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.
Shortly before that Father Ernst’s order transferred him to the Lawrence parish. He was succeeded in Victoria by Capuchin Father John Schmeidler, who was excited to hear the news about the application.
“The people really do take great pride in the church and its upkeep,” he said. “I think it’s because of their love for the church and all that it stands for.
“Being created a basilica, for them, I think, will elevate the sanctity and holiness of the church and help them to know that even better,” he added.
It’s likely to increase the number of people visiting the church, as well.
The church’s 141-foot twin towers are easily seen from nearby Interstate 70, and about 16,000 people visit it each year.
Many, of course, are tourists, but for Catholics, visiting a basilica can provide them with a plenary indulgence -- remission of the temporal punishment a person is due for sins that have been forgiven.
Victoria was founded in 1873 by English farmers. German Catholics from the Volga River region of Russia began arriving in 1876.
The first Catholic church was a 40-by-20-foot addition built onto a settler’s home. As the number of Catholics grew, larger churches were built 1878 and again in 1884.
In 1904, plans were announced for an imposing new structure. It is constructed of limestone quarried about seven miles south of town. Parishioners also learned to dress the stone. The old church was dismantled and the stone set aside for the new inner walls.
The resulting Romanesque structure is 220 feet long, 110 feet wide at the transepts, 75 feet tall and seats 1,100. At the time of its dedication in 1911, it was considered the largest church in the state. Colored-glass windows made in Munich were installed in 1916, and stations of the cross were imported from Austria in 1917.
The cost to build the church and furnish it totaled more than $95,000.
Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan dubbed it the “Cathedral of the Plains” when he visited in 1912.
The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. In 2008, it was named one of the eight wonders of Kansas. Since 1994, the parish has spent nearly $1 million on restoration, repairs and mechanical and physical updates.
Weller is editor of The Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Salina.