Whether devout Catholic or secular tourist, one cannot help but stand in awe inside St. Fidelis Catholic Church in Victoria. Nicknamed the Cathedral of the Plains by William Jennings Bryan, the Romanesque structure is beautiful to behold -- inside and out.
From the imposing 141-foot-high twin steeples to the solid granite pillars from Vermont lining the nave, the stained glass windows from Germany to the carved stations of the cross from Austria, the ornate marble altar to the seating capacity of 1,100, every aspect of the church inspires.
St. Fidelis was constructed from 1908 to 1911 using the treasure, talent and back-breaking labor of its Volga-German congregation. When dedicated, it was the largest church west of the Mississippi River -- and rivaled the grand cathedrals of Europe.
The church has been designated one of the religious treasures of Kansas by the State Historical Society. The federal government called it a building of architectural significance when placing it on the National Register of Historical Places. St. Fidelis wsas named one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas by statewide voting in a project sponsored by the Kansas Sampler Foundation.
Most recently, St. Fidelis was named a minor basilica. There is nothing insignifcant about the title, as it came straight from the Vatican. The minor adjective is used to distinguish such honored churches from the four major basilicas in Rome.
There are 1,600-some minor basilicas worldwide, with only 78 of them in the United States. St. Fidelis becomes the first in Kansas. According to a story in the Catholic Diocese of Salina's newspaper, The Register, "a minor basilica stands out as a center of active and pastoral liturgy and typically has historic, architectural and artistic importance."
The Cathedral of the Plains certainly fits the description on every level. It might also boost the number of annual visitors that step through its doors. Currently, St. Fidelis welcomes 16,000 visitors each year.
"When people hear it's a basilica, they just like to see them," said Father John Schmeidler, pastor of St. Fidelis. "And there are different special blessings for visiting a basilica."
In light of this honorific designation, Father Schmeidler might want to consider amending one of the descriptions offered on the church's website. After detailing previous honors bestowed on the structure, it reads: "But the highest honors have been bestowed by countless pilgrims, worshippers, and visitors, who come to this temple in search of God."
That likely still is true, but as Schmeidler said in an interview with The Hays Daily News: "It's the pope's church now."
In the eyes of the Catholic faithful, there isn't much higher honor than that.
Congratulations to the St. Fidelis community, which long has committed to maintaining the magnificance of this monumental building. The designation of minor basilica is well-deserved.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry