If you’ve driven across Kansas on Interstate 70, you may have noticed the towers of Saint Fidelis Basilica rising from the horizon at Victoria. When William Jennings Bryan visited Victoria in 1912 he dubbed the church “the Cathedral of the Plains”, a nickname which has stood the test of time.
The church’s twin spires make a bold statement when seen from the interstate. They look like a skyscraper rising from the middle of flat farm country. Up close Saint Fidelis is a story of pioneer fortitude and good craftsmanship.
Victoria, Kansas was founded in 1873 by an Englishman named George Grant, who came to America with some typically English ideas about bringing a little gentility to the rough-and-ready frontier.
He brought with him a herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle, a herd of sheep, and a bunch of his friends, most of whom were younger sons of noble families. The Angus cattle thrived. The sheep and the friends did not. But as the fortunes of Grant’s venture waned, another set of pioneers was poised to save the day for Victoria.
In my post about Ellis County, I mentioned the Volga Germans who immigrated to the county in the 1870’s. In 1873 they founded Herzog on the northern border of Victoria, and set about building homes and a church. Herzog quickly grew to be the largest of the Volga German settlements, and at the turn of the century Victoria and Herzog became one. (Wouldn’t you like to know how the townsfolk settled on Victoria instead of Herzog as its name? I imagine that wasn’t decided without a bit of a fight!)
Saint Fidelis Church was founded in Herzog in 1881. The Volga Germans were mainly Catholic, and their numbers grew so fast that they quickly outgrew the church building. In 1909 they broke ground on the current structure. The outside of St. Fidelis is constructed of 50 to 100-pound blocks of limestone, quarried in the county and set in place by local masons. The craftsmanship, inside and out, is impressive.
Today the site includes the church (now officially a basilica), a Capuchin friary, and the former abbey of the Sisters of Saint Agnes. The grounds are notable for two Pete Felten sculptures: a Capuchin monk, and a Volga German family. (Felten is a Kansas artist and Hays resident who is certainly worthy of his own post.)
I visited Victoria because I was in Hays to do research, and the two cities are only a few miles apart. I drove old Highway 40 from one town to the other, but Victoria is quite close to the interstate. Next time you’re feeling road-weary on a trek across Kansas, it’s worth stopping to see the Cathedral of the Plains.
For more information about the history of Saint Fidelis Basilica, check out the church’s excellent website. For more information about George Grant and his vision for Victoria, check out this page on the Legends of Kansas website.