VICTORIA — St. Fidelis Catholic Church in Victoria is one of the most iconic buildings in Kansas, with twin towers soaring 140 feet above the plains and featuring exquisite stained-glass windows.
By Beccy Tanner
The Wichita Eagle
Most people know it as the Cathedral of the Plains, a nickname bestowed by former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan after he visited the town in 1912, shortly after the church was dedicated.
Now the church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, is getting a new look.
The church has undertaken a $155,000 project to protect its 48 historic stained-glass windows. Installed in 1916 by Munich Studios in Chicago at a cost of $3,700, the windows are now valued at more than $1 million.
Members of the rural church, which serves 480 families, are paying for the project through donations and fundraising projects.
“When the people built this church, the reason why they built it was to have a beautiful house of God so they could worship,” said Ivan Werner, who has been a church member since 1960. “They wanted to have a structure that was large enough to accommodate the entire congregation.
“And they wanted to build a church that would last.”
Building a church
Werner and Connie Windholz recently met a small group of visitors at the church.
It is common for the church to draw 15,000 visitors or more a year, Werner said. Travelers along I-70 see the signs and the twin towers, and curiosity gets the best of them.
“They always come in and say, ‘Beautiful. Amazing. I can’t believe this,’ ” Werner said.
“And one of the big questions always asked is, ‘Why in the world would people build a church like this in Victoria, Kansas?’ ”
“Out in the middle of nowhere,” added church secretary Jan Brungardt.
“But we are not in the middle of nowhere,” Windholz said. “We are here.”
Built by Volga Germans who settled the area in the late 19th century, St. Fidelis was actually their fourth church. The parishioners kept quickly outgrowing each previous church.
Fashioned in the Romanesque style, the current church was built to last by the parishioners themselves using local hand-quarried stone. They used block-and-tackle and wood scaffoldings to hoist and place the stone.
“I think when people come here, they are most impressed by those Volga German farmers who could mostly with their own labor and with no machinery of any kind – with just themselves and horses – could construct an edifice of this nature without very much help,” Windholz said.
“When you look at how high those towers go, you have to ask, ‘Who would dare to go up there and lay stone?’ ”
According to the church history, each member of the church who was 12 or older was asked to give $45 a year and six wagonloads of stone to help construct the building. Some families brought as many as 70 to 80 wagonloads of stone.
When it was dedicated in 1911, it was considered the largest church west of the Mississippi River.
“When I think of my ancestors, that they would go to all of this work to get this established, I am amazed,” Windholz said. “They had so little money and yet they still gave to build this church.”
Restoring a landmark
The church building is shaped like a cross. It boasts granite pillars and marble floors.
But like any building through the years, St. Fidelis has aged.
In 1994, the church began a series of restoration efforts. More than $265,000 was spent on weatherproofing the exterior, replastering and repainting the interior and updating the sound, electrical and heating systems.
Tim Linenberger of Linenberger Painting of Salina – the third generation of Linenbergers to paint the church – was selected to restore the colors to the original mauve and gold and to reapply the stenciling.
In 2004, the church replaced a heating and boiler system for $150,000. A marble floor was put in the sanctuary for $60,000, replacing the old carpeting and linoleum floors.
The church roof was reshingled in 2006 for $137,000. And an air-conditioning system was installed in 2008 for $316,000.
In 2011, the church replaced the parking lot and sidewalks for $225,000. It also spent $70,000 on repairing the plaster ceilings and walls that had cracked with age.
In addition, Brungardt said, the church has spent more than $12,000 in removing bats and keeping them out of the church’s attic.
Letting the light shine
And then there were the windows.
A plastic covering on each of the windows – installed in the mid-1980s to protect them from Kansas storms – had grown opaque through the years. Because of the covering, people could no longer see the grandeur of the stained-glass windows from outside the church, let alone from the inside.
“The main concern with the stained glass at St. Fidelis was the protection,” Carrie Crow Thiele, owner of American Consultation on Stained Glass in Aurora, Colo., wrote in an e-mail. Her company was hired by the church to supervise the work on the windows.
“The old polycarbonate protective covering had yellowed – clouded and become brittle. Not only was this terribly unattractive but indicative that the polycarbonate was weaker and not as effective at protecting the stained glass against natural elements and serious storms.”
In 2006, the church first consulted with Thiele’s company. The founder of the company, Gary Gray, met with the parish’s priest and recommended a new covering and recementing the original stained glass.
“Recementing is like an oil change for stained glass and should take place every 40 years or so,” Thiele wrote.
And so, in the following years, the stained-glass window frames have been scraped, primed and painted, and now a new tempered safety glass protective covering is being installed.
When it came time to restoring the windows, Thiele recommended Wildenborg Stained Glass Restoration of Rogers, Ark.
As soon as the old coverings were removed, light began pouring through the stained-glass windows, giving them more brilliance and spilling light into the sanctuary.
The tempered-glass covering for the rose window – the main circular window at the west end of the church – cost $14,000. The tempered-glass covering for each of the church’s windows must be measured and cut in the factory, then brought to Victoria for installation. The project should be completed within a month.
The tempered glass that will replace the plastic coating may not be as flexible, said Kelly Hillburn, who works with Thiele, but it has its advantages.
“The plastic could withstand 185 (mph) winds, but with all the negative problems with appearance, we recommend tempered glass,” Hillburn said. “It will handle winds up to 150 mph. And when you have winds that high, you’ve got bigger problems than saving the windows.”
Werner said the worst storm the church has weathered happened on July 7, 2004, when winds clocked at 112 mph took out two trees in front of the church.
After the restoration
For more than a century, St. Fidelis has been the focus of faith, pride and determination
Today the church is supported by about 480 families, slightly less than the number who built it, said Brungardt, the church secretary. Victoria has about 1,200 residents, so membership comes from a larger area than in the church’s early days.
“Amazingly enough, there are times when this sanctuary is standing room only,” Werner said.
The church hosts fundraisers to pay for restoration and upkeep. Popular fundraising projects have been a Volga German cookbook and a calendar featuring the church’s stained-glass windows.
Donations also regularly come from visitors who stop at the church while passing through Kansas.
“It is probably the most well-known church in Kansas,” said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation based near Inman. Her group, which promotes the state’s rural heritage, named St. Fidelis one of the “8 Wonders of Kansas” in 2008.
“It was one of the first churches built in western Kansas and still has family roots that go way back.”