Wednesday, June 03, 2020

History of The Basilica of St. Fidelis

(formerly known as St. Fidelis Catholic Church)


The presence of this large church on the Plains of Kansas is a lasting testimony to the faith and hard work of a people whose roots go deep into the soil of this farming community of Victoria.

The first settlers of this area were gentlemen farmers from England who arrived in 1872 with the intention of duplicating their aristocratic lives in spite of harsh weather and rough ground.  They named their village, Victoria, in honor of their queen and laid out the streets according to the plan of London architect.

They were joined in 1876 by a group of poor immigrants from southern Russia known as Volga-Germans, who were fleeing from service in the Czar's army and dangers to their Catholic faith.  Creating a village of sod-huts adjacent to Victoria, they named it Herzog, after their town in southern Russia on the Volga River.

The British soon found pioneer life too extreme of a contrast with respect to the lifestyle they had known in England.  They could not make the land adapt to them and they could not adapt to the demands of the land.  In a few short years most returned home leaving the town's name as the only lasting memorial to their efforts now in the care of the Volga-German community.

Hardened by their experience of a hundred years on the steppes of Russia, where they had first arrived at the invitation of Empress Catherine the Great in 1763; the Volga-Germans stayed to work with the land and make it their home.

The Present Church Building

By the turn of the century the people found themselves in need of more space for community worship.  Under the guidance of Father Jerome Mueller, OFM Capuchin, they decided to build a spacious and artistic church that would be a worthy house of God for present and future ages.  To this end, the parish secured the services of one of the country's foremost church architects, John T. Comes of Pittsburg, Pa.  His plans were then slightly modified by architect John Marshall of Topeka.

Groundbreaking for the present church building was begun in November 1908 with Blanchard Construction Company of Topeka, Kansas, as the contractor with a bid of $49,375. However, the Blanchard company fell into litigation and declared bankruptcy. A new contract bid of $54,785 by E.F.A. Clark Construction Company of Topeka, Kansas, was accepted in June 1909. They completed the construction in 1911. The exterior is constructed of native limestone, quarried seven miles south of Victoria. Large layers of rock, about eight inches thick, were cleared of top soil and then perforated by hand augers with holes eight to ten inches apart. Into these holes, wedges were inserted and tapped with a hammer until the rock sprang apart along the line of perforation. The stone was then loaded on wagons and hauled to the building site to be dressed by local masons, who prepared it in fifteen different ways.

The Cathedral of the Plains

The massive Romanesque structure stands in the form of a cross, facing west with its majestic towers rising above and dominating the prairie landscape. On the facade above the rose window, a stone statue of its patron, St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen, keeps watch. The church is 220 feet long, 110 feet wide at the transcepts, and 75 feet at the nave. Its ceiling is 44 feet above the ground and the towers rise 141 feet. The seating capacity of 1,100 made it, at the time of its dedication, the largest church west of the Mississippi.

Recent Restoration

Beginning in 1994, the Pastoral and Finance Councils of the church took on a $265,000 repair and restoration project.  Working closely with Wayne Brungardt (a native son of the parish) of Skecklein and Brungardt, Architects of Hays, the councils moved quickly to weatherproof the exterior, replaster and paint the interior, and update the sound, electrical and heating systems.  All due care to respect the historical integrity of the structure was a priority.

It is worth noting that Tim Linenberger of Linenberger Painting of Salina was selected for the painting of the interior.  He is the third generation of Linenbergers (originally from Victoria) to have painted the church for the fourth time in the past 80 years.

The colors chosen for this most recent painting return the church to the original rich mauve, or rose, and gold tones.  The stenciling comes from a book published at the time the church was built and each one is handpainted.  The colors in the stenciling pick up on come of the colors to be found in the stained glass windows.  The ribs in the upper ceiling and the lower ceilings are painted in darker tones to visually accent the majestic heights of the Romanesque structure.

The 1994 repair project was followed by others. New carpeting and linoleum was laid in the body of the church in the Fall of 2004. By Spring of 2005, a new heating/boiler system was installed at a cost of $169,500. Around the same time, $60,000 was collected to lay a marble floor in the sanctuary and on the steps leading up to the sanctuary. With those items complete, plans for remodeling the entryways began in April 2005 and were completed in May 2006 at a cost of $50,000. The west entryway's floor and ceiling were torn out and redone. The bathrooms were also updated as well as the gathering/bridal room. The north entryway got a fresh coat of paint and a new floor.

The church roof was re-shingled in 2005 at an expense of $137,000; however, High Plains Roofing of Hays, Kansas, was hired to replace the inferior and improperly installed shingles during July and August of 2009.

After much discussion, planning, and fundraising, an air conditioning system was installed by Glassman Coroporation of Hays, Kansas, and was up and running by May of 2008. Once again parishioner and tourist contributions made this $357,000 project possible.

During the first week of March 2009, the sound system was once again updated, this time by MSM Systems, Inc. out of Lawrence, Kansas. Two 6' speakers attached to the pillars in the sanctuary replaced the need for most of the small white speakers that hung from every pillar in the church.

Starting in March 2011, J Corp of Hays, Kansas, replaced the north parking lot with cement, as well as replacing the west plaza cement. The project was completed in June 2011, just in time for the August 2011 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the construction and dedication of the current St. Fidelis Church.

Verlin Hammerschmidt of Victoria remodeled a confessional in the south transept at the front of the church. It was redesigned to diocesan standards and resembles a small chapel. McCarter Painting of Victoria textured and painted the confessional.

Several times from 2012 to 2018, McCarter Painting has plastered and painted cracks in the ceiling and walls of the church. This seems to be a never-ending project.

In August of 2013, Wildenborg Stained Glass Restoration, Inc., of Rogers Arkansas, removed the old yellowed Lexan polycarbonate panels that covered the stained glass windows of the church. They installed new clear tempered glass, often referred to as safety glass, that is five times stronger than standard glass which is not supposed to yellow. An "Adopt-a-Window" program was begun, with the cost for the new coverings ranging from around $3,760 for the larger windows to $1,467 for smaller windows. The covering for the rose window in the choir loft was priced at $13,412. The total cost was $155,202.

And the upkeep of "The Cathedral of the Plains" continues. . . .