Once a hub of weekly activities, the "Cathedral of the Plains" stands as a silent sentinel over the rural Ford County country side.

This structure, which can be seen for miles around, is officially known as the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church and is 20 miles northeast of Dodge City in unincorporated Windthorst.

In the fall of 1877 during Dodge City’s wild years, members of the Cincinnati, Ohio-based German Catholic Aurora Homestead Association purchased 10 sections of land in the Wheatland Township for $10 an acre from the Santa Fe Railway.

The Association donated 80 acres for the placement of a church, school and cemetery and donated another 80 acres for site of Windthorst. In the spring of 1879, they built the first frame church. According to the Spearville News, by Oct. 5, 1878, approximately 100 families lived at the site. These families were of German descent, but most came to the area from Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana and Iowa. During the first 20 years, drought and famine caused a decline in population.

Despite this, by 1885 the Wheatland Township had three churches; St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Windthorst, St. Joseph (a mission of St. Mary’s) in the northeastern Township and Zion Lutheran several miles west of Windhorst.

The Church in Windhorst was instrumental in getting the Catholic Church established in southwest Kansas. Between 1879 and 1900 it served as a mission for 10 churches in the surrounding area, including St. Joseph’s, Dodge City and Fort Dodge in Ford County. As congregations grew many of these churches received its own pastor. The parishioners were able to replace the original St Mary’s Church with a newer frame church in 1893.

Around the turn of the century farms were productive. By 1911, the St Mary’s parish had grown to the point that larger church was needed. The parishioners raised $37,583.37 (close to a million in today’s dollars) for the Churchs construction. The St. Louis firm of Preuss and Aimes Co. designed the Church and Dodge City citizen, William Foley, built the Church. Foley used 47 wagons during the winter and spring of 1911-12 to haul materials 9 miles from the Santa Fe station in Bellefont.

Bishop John Hennessy attended the cornerstone laying ceremony on June 10, 1912, and on June 12, 1913 the Church was dedicated. At this time, the St. Mary’s parish became the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It wasn’t until 1916, that Emil Frei Studios, St. Louis placed stained glass windows depicting scenes from the New Testament. The Church, with a 125-foot-high steeple was an imposing red and yellow brick structure. It was surrounded by a teacher’s house, rectory and a school house, all built between 1903 and 1911.

With onset of World War I, the Church’s membership dropped. This may have been due

cultural changes brought on by the War. However in the decades since, membership and the

population of Wheatland Township has continued to drop.

In 1927, the parish constructed a brick grade and high school which was the last building

placed on the site. The school closed in the 1940s.

The Church stands today as an excellent example of early 20th century Gothic Romanesque Revival ecclesiastical design. In 1989, the National Park Service added the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church to the National Register of Historic Places.

In July 1997, the Diocese of Dodge City closed the church. Non-profit, Windthorst Heritage, Inc. stepped in to ensure the edifice and its history are preserved for future generations.

 

Kathie Bell is the curator of collections and education at Boot Hill Museum.