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Statues of angels on posts frame St. Catherine's Catholic Church in Catherine.
Kansas Churches Frozen in Time

"Kansas Churches Frozen in Time." Topeka Capital-Journal, 3 October 2000.


SALINA -- In Emmeram, a Volga-German community six miles north of Victoria, Dennis Denning, of Salina, grew up admiring the tall spires of the Romanesque and Gothic Catholic churches built from native limestone that were centerpieces of every town in the area.

Denning's career as a university professor of theater took him away from the area. But the impression left by the majestic churches never faded.

Recently returning from a trip, Denning asked the friend accompanying him, Janet Wilbur, whether she would like to see the remains of the church where he grew up, as well as some of the other churches in the region.

"She said you ought to take pictures of these churches because someday they might disappear," Denning said. "On the way home the idea struck -- presto -- a calendar. Aha!"

Denning and Wilbur went back later on a two-day trip and photographed 12 churches in the area.

The photos and a brief narrative history of the churches and the immigrants who built them make up a calendar the pair are publishing titled, "Unsere Leute Kirche (Our People, Our Churches)."

The churches shown in the calendar are in Ellis, Hays, Liebenthal, Munjor, Gorham, Pfiefer, Schoenchen, Walker, Victoria, Catherine, Antonino and the charred remains of the church at Emmeram, which was destroyed by a fire in 1984.

Hays was founded in fall 1867, and the first churches in Ellis County were built during the late 1870s and 1880s.

The small wooden frame structures gradually gave way in the early 1900s to impressive limestone cathedrals built by Volga German immigrants from Russia. The settlers arrived beginning about 1876, bringing with them a desire for religious freedom.

In communities a few miles apart, local parishioners quarried and hauled the heavy stone to church sites. Some parishes levied wagon loads of stone per family as their share of the cost; others, such as Pfiefer, levied 2 cents per bushel of wheat as payment. In some cases, men of the parish were to donate one day each week for church labor.

Dennis Denning, left, and Janet Wilbur have created a calendar featuring photos of 12 Catholic churches built by the Volga Germans in the Hays area.

Many of the churches stand 12 or fewer miles apart. So many churches are clustered within a few miles of each other partly because of necessity and partly because of identity.

"In those days, five miles was a good hour, hour-and-a-half drive with a horse and buggy," Denning said.

The original six communities -- Victoria, Catherine, Pfiefer, Munjor, Schoenchen and Liebenthal -- spun off parishes that built churches in the other communities.

Rather than sharing one church building, each church in each community embodied that community's identity and traditions -- work habits, living conditions, varied foods and, in some cases, clothing styles.

Denning, 71, became enamored with the calendar project because of his own roots in the area. He is the 11th of 13 children born to John J. and Margaret Dreiling Denning and lived in Emmeram until age 12, when the family moved to Russell. His grandparents were immigrants from Saratov, Russia.

Denning researched the history of each church for facts and anecdotes to accompany the photos in the calendar.

"It made me rather proud to say I was one of these people," he said. "I thought this would be a neat gift for my kids and my grandchildren."

Denning is working with a local print shop on an initial press run of 100 calendars, some of which he plans to give as gifts to relatives and friends. The remainder he will sell for $10 each, with the money going to St. Elizabeth's parish in Salina.

He plans to have more calendars printed if the demand merits.

Each church building has similarities but each is unique. For instance, St. Fidelis Church at Victoria is the most famous and visible, dubbed Cathedral of the Plains during a visit by lecturer and political leader William Jennings Bryan.

Completed in 1911, the church was laid out in the shape of a cross, in Romanesque style with two twin bell towers, as opposed to Gothic style with a spire rising to a single point. The towers rise 141 feet. Inside are 18 granite pillars quarried in Vermont. The altar painting, dated 1879, cost $100 and was imported from Austria. On either side of the altar are two cases displaying relics of Catholic saints.

The seating capacity of 1,100 made it, at the time of its Aug. 27, 1911, dedication, the largest church west of the Mississippi.

In Catherine, a town eight miles northeast of Hays named after Catherine the Great of Russia, the church of St. Catherine holds pieces of a large wooden cross used by immigrants to mark a site of outdoor worship before the church was built. Work on the church began in May 1890. Parishioners quarried and hauled limestone from as far as 15 miles away.

At the Church of the Holy Cross at Pfiefer, walking behind the ornately crafted altar reveals a surprise. Craftsman John Schlitter built the altar from packing crates and scrap lumber, using a home-built lathe on portions. He also made two side altars featuring matching carved ornamental gothic spires.

The 165-foot-high steeple towers above the unincorporated community of about 40 residents, 10 miles south of Victoria. The Salina Catholic Diocese dissolved the parish in 1993, because of a shrinking congregation and a shortage of priests.

Today the church, dedicated in 1918, remains open and is used for weddings, family gatherings and other events. It is overseen by community residents, who contribute to its upkeep.

Reprinted with permission of Topeka Capital-Journal.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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