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The Cathedral of the Plains

Dary, David. "The Cathedral of the Plains." Kansas City Star, 17 December 1972, 7-10.


The Cathedral of the Plains.
As you drive west across Kansas on Interstate 70, between Russell and Hays, twin towers gradually appear above the prairie toward the south. They stand against the sky like monolithic exclamation points.

The towers, each bearing the Latin cross, climb toward the heavens from the town of Victoria, Kansas. They are so large that many tourists turn off at the cloverleaf and visit them.

Should you drive into Victoria, you would find the towers are part of St. Fidelis Catholic Church, completed in 1911 and called by William Jennings Bryan "The Cathedral of the Plains."

At the time of its construction, St. Fidelis was one of the largest churches between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, even though it was in a town of only 1,700. The cathedral's capacity is 1,100. Today, the population of Victoria has declined to about 1,300, yet Sunday masses attract around 1,600 persons, taking in much of the towns's population plus hundreds from outside. Those attending mass often include tourists from the highway, who have heard of the church, or merely have seen it and paused.

"The people here," explains a priest, Father Jordan Hammel, "are devout. They believe in God, and they express their faith today as did their ancestors."

The building of the Cathedral of the Plains involves an endeavor which, at least on a small scale, resembled the building of the Pyramids of the Egyptians. The Cathedral was erected largely by the labor of the people, without pay, and with the stone they dug themselves and hauled by horse or mule-power.

It is remarkable that the cathedral was the fifth religious structure built by the early settlers. Over a 35 year period much of their time was occupied by church-building labor.

The settlers arrived in 1876--German-speaking homesteaders from eastern Russia. They had originally lived along the Rhine in the vicinity of Mainz, Germany, and had gone to farmlands in Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great.

In 1875 they were notified that they were subject to taxation and conscription in the Russian army. It was then that they migrated to Kansas--poor as they were, with only a few dollars, some seed wheat and their religious devotion.

At first their primary needs were for shelter and fresh water. They found the water in Victoria Creek, one-half mile west of the present church. For housing, they dug caves in the creek bank.

Next they felt a need for a place of worship, and for this they raised a wooden cross. Father Hammel believes the cross was 10 to 15 feet high, and placed on the prairie one-eighth of a mile north of the present church.

The caves were only temporary homes. As floods drove the settlers out, they constructed more permanent houses of native sod, on higher ground.

Still, they needed a church. The winds were high around the cross on the prairie, and the winters cold.
John Dinkel holds a stone hammer used in building the Cathedral of the Plains in 1908.
Near the site of the wooden cross, they built a place of worship. The year was 1877. They constructed a mere lean-to, built of wood, but it was the second of five centers of worship the settlers were to have, each larger and more beautiful than the previous one.

For two years, from 1877 to 1879, the lean-to sufficed, but the church members were not satisfied. They wanted a larger and more permanent church, one made of stone. They hauled rock nine miles from a quarry to the northwest, and laid the stones in place themselves, near the site of the lean-to.

Almost before this third place of worship was completed, they began to regard it as inadequate. The need, the settlers decided, was for a church that would hold 600 persons, and they received a gift of 10 acres from the Union Pacific Railroad.

The railroad land was south of the previous site, at the location of the present cathedral. And it was here, over a period of about four years, that the fourth place of worship was built.

The church was completed in 1884. It held 600 persons and was dedicated to St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen, a priest of the Capuchin Order who was martyred by the Calvinists in 1622. By this time, the settlers had a priest, since the Capuchin-Franciscans had come to Victoria from Pennsylvania in 1878.

For nearly 20 years the first St. Fidelis church stood on the site of the present cathedral, but it developed cracks in the masonry. Members soon realized that for the religious needs of their community, the capacity of 600 should be doubled.

By 1900 Father Jerome Mueller, the pastor, and the parishioners were planning to build still a larger church.

I wondered, in visiting Victoria, how such lofty religious ambitions could have been motivated in such a small farming community. I was told that a man who helped to build the church was still living in the town, and I sought him out.

I found John Dinkel, 82 year old, sitting in an easy chair in a corner of the living room of his small home, across the street from the cathedral. Dinkel is a retired farmer, white-haired, small yet muscular, with a weathered face and a chew of Red Man tobacco. He still speaks with a trace of the German accent acquired as a child when he learned German as his first language. He was 10 years old when planning for the Cathedral of the Plains was begun, and, as a youth of 15 to 18, he hauled stone to build the church.

"Why," I asked him, "would such a small community undertake such a large and expensive structure?"

"Well," he replied, "you must remember that when my parents came here, they were poor farmers, but the church was important. It was more important than anything else, just as it had been in Russia, and before that in Germany. They wanted the church, and they wanted it in a hurry, so they could worship there in their lifetime."

Dinkel recalled that when he was about 15 years old, his father, Andras Dinkel, called him and his three older brothers together in their farm home.

"He told us," Dinkel said, "that every man in the parish over 12 years of age was assessed $45 and required to haul six loads of stone and four loads of sand each year until the church was built."

Dinkel said his family met this obligation but it was "difficult." As an example of the value of a dollar in those days, he said, his father had an 80-acre homestead and was in the midst of planting wheat when he heard of a construction job available on the Union Pacific Railroad in Salina, 100 miles to the east. He gave his wife instructions on planting and harrowing the rest of the wheat, and started to walk to Salina. He could have traveled by railroad, but the train fare would have been about $1, and he walked 100 miles to save the money.

"To get the big church they wanted, everybody worked," Dinkel added. "For the families with five or six boys, it was hard for them to come up with $45 for each man over 12 years old. It was a sacrifice. I know one family that borrowed money to meet their assessment one year. But none of them complained. Our people had more faith than others because of our traditions from the old country."

In 1905, a year after the assessments began, plans for the present church were completed by John T. Comes of Pittsburgh, Pa., one of the foremost church architects in the nation. Two years later they were modified slightly by Joseph Marshall, a Topeka architect.

When construction was begun in 1908 by the E.F.A. Clark Construction Company of Topeka, John Dinkel was 18 years old.

"During the three years it took to build the church," said Dinkel, "our family brought in 65 loads of rock--limestone--and about as many loads of sand. We would make two trips a day, sometimes three, on those days when it was our turn. We hauled the rock all year round when the weather permitted."

Asked about where the limestone came from, Dinkel said most of it was found in layers from three to four feet under ground along the banks of Big Creek, seven to eight miles south of Victoria. Using scrapers and teams of horses the workers would clear large slabs of the rock.

"They didn't have any power equipment," said Dinkel. "It was a painful job. Men would bore holes in the limestone with a hand drill. The holes were drilled 10 to 14 inches apart. Then other workers, using small steel wedges, would split the rock into pieces 8 to 12 inches in width and 8 or 9 feet long. These were small enough to handle. They would be loaded on the wagons and carried into town and piled on the ground at the church site."

After the church was constructed engineers estimated that parishioners had hauled more than 125,000 cubic feet of stone on their flat-bed wagons from the quarries south of Victoria.

Excusing himself for a moment, Dinkel moved to the kitchen of his home where he keeps what he calls his "little museum." Many antiques and mementos including an automatic apple-peeler, fill one corner of the kitchen.

Returning to the living room John Dinkel was carrying something that looked like a small pick. The handle was about three feet in length.

Holding it in his powerful-looking hands, Dinkel said, "This is what the masons used to trim the rocks once we delivered them to the church site. It's a stone hammer. We found it under the present church in 1971, and the Fathers thought I'd like to have it."

The actual construction of the church was a slow process. Masons, hired by the construction company, split the rocks at the building site into 18 to 30-inch lengths after which the stones were "dressed" by hand.
The altar of the Cathedral of the Plains is impressive for a church in a town of 1,700.
The stone masons, using steel chisels, would smooth two sides and the ends of the stone and trim them to specifications. Each stone took a mason from 40 to 60 minutes, with corner stones and other pieces taking even more time.

There were no electric lifts. Each stone, weighing 50 to 100 pounds, had to be handled individually. Until the walls reached a height of four or five feet, small sloping ramps were constructed so workmen could push wheelbarrows full of cement or stone to the top of the wall where the masons placed the stones in double rows, filling the small space between the mortar.

Later, when the walls reached a greater height, a block-and-tackle hoist was built. It was operated by a horse brought in by one of the parishioners from a nearby farm.

"That horse was right smart," recalled Dinkel. "The workmen would place the stones or cement on the hoist. When the hoist was loaded one of the workmen would blow a whistle. That was the signal for the driver to lead the horse away from the building. When the hoist went up to where the workmen wanted it, the man would blow his whistle again. The man with the horse would back the animal up."

Dinkel said that "after a few times doing this the horse would go forward when he heard the whistle and back-up the next time the whistle was blown. The man who owned the horse didn't have to be there. The horse learned real fast."

Just before the church was dedicated on Saturday, August 27, 1911, the ornate high altar with a back screen of shimmering gold leaf was placed in the church. Designed and built by a Chicago firm in 1893, the altar had been used in the old St. Fidelis church.

The sanctuary, side altars and altar rail appear to the visitor to have been carved from marble. But they are wood, painted to appear as polished marble.

There are more than 30 stained glass windows in the church, including three rose windows. They were manufactured in Munich, Germany, by one of the oldest glass firms in the world. The windows originally cost $3,700. Today they are insured for $62,000.

Until the late 1940s, no one was sure just how much the church cost. Then one of the Capuchin Fathers found that the parishioners had donated $132,000 over a period of years for the construction and furnishing of the church. Early in this century that was a large amount of money to have come from a farming community the size of Victoria. It is even an almost unbelievable amount today.

"If the church had to be replaced today," said Father Hammel, who was assistant pastor of the church from 1923 to 1925, "it would cost two-and-a-half billion dollars."

The church is 220 feet long, 110 feet wide at the transepts and 75 feet at the nave. Its ceiling is 44 feet above the ground, and the twin towers raise 141 feet.

Asked about the size of the parish today, Father Hammel said there are about 400 families compared to 250 families in 1911.

"About 1,600 persons come to church on Sunday," said Father Hammel, pointing out that the parish extends six miles south, four miles east, 10 miles to the north and six miles to the west.

One of those attending Sunday mass is John Dinkel, who toiled as a youth to help build the cathedral. In fact, Dinkel goes to mass seven days a week, each morning at 6 o'clock, and sometimes twice daily, at 6 and 10. He and his wife, who died in 1962, had nine children, and now there are 35 grandchildren and more than 40 great grandchildren (only Dinkel is not sure of the exact number.)

There has been little change in the devout attitude of third and fourth generation citizens of Victoria, Dinkel says. His principal observation of change is that the town now has several Protestant families, a situation unknown in earlier days. The Protestants, explains Dinkel, go to church in other towns.

"Each year we perform about 40 to 45 weddings and about 20 funerals," he said, adding, "And this Christmas eve, as in years gone by, there will be standing room only in the Cathedral of the Plains."

Reprinted with permission of Kansas City Star, Kansas City, Missouri.

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