VICTORIA — Towering over the central part of Victoria, the Basilica of St. Fidelis is known as “The Cathedral of the Plains” and seen by many as a testament to the hard work of the Volga Germans who made their home in Ellis County.
While Victoria was settled by a group of English farmers in 1872, several years later, they were joined by Volga-Germans who fled Russia after the death of Catherine the Great.
The English found life on the Great Plains too harsh, but the Volga-German farmers stayed to work the land.
Capuchin Fathers arrived in 1878 to establish a monastery and church. By 1904, the parish had outgrown the first church, and it was decided a new one would be built. Ground was broken in 1908, and the church was completed in 1911.
The limestone for the church’s exterior was quarried by parishioners from the banks of Big Creek south of Victoria and dressed by local stonemasons.
Its towers rise 141 feet above the ground and the church — built in the shape of a cross — is 220 feet long and 110 feet wide at the transepts. With a seating capacity of 1,100, it was the largest church west of the Mississippi River at the time of its dedication.
Parishoners wanted the interior of their church to be just as impressive. Two rows of granite pillars line the center aisle, supporting the stone walls and arches. Statues depicting St. Francis of Assisi, St. Joseph, Mary Queen of Heaven, Jesus in the grave and his resurrection, and other saints adorn the interior.
It was William Jennings Bryan who dubbed the structure “The Cathedral of the Plains” when he visited in 1912 on his presidential campaign.
In addition to daily Mass, St. Fidelis is also host to other events, such as the annual Cathedral Christmas Concert by the Fort Hays State University Department of Music and Theatre.
The church was named one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas by the Kansas Sampler Foundation in 2008, and it continues to be a large attraction for Ellis County, said Melissa Dixon, executive director of the Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“At the Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau, we are often asked for information and tours on the historic churches of Ellis County. The crowned jewel of the tours is always the Basilica of St. Fidelis. People don’t expect such a spectacular display of religious architecture here in Western Kansas. When joyful voices and music fill that space, you think you’ve been transported to a choir concert in a European cathedral,” she said.
A Hays cycling group is planning a bicycle tour of churches in Ellis County in June, with proceeds from this inaugural tour to be donated to St. Fidelis for its upkeep and maintenance.
The Tour die Kapellen — German for “tour the chapels” — will begin at 7 a.m. June 22 in Hays and will also include churches in Catharine, Pfeiffer, Munjor, Schoenchen and Antonino. A German meal will be provided in the Downtown Pavilion in Hays at the end of the tour.
Further information on the tour will be available from the group’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/haysareabicyclists, or the Hays CVB.