Bits and Pieces
Pilgrimage finds marvels close to home
Recently, three of my friends and I, all traveling companions in Italy last year, once again set out on a pilgrimage, but not to a place quite so distant this time. In fact, we drove only four hours, but it was far enough considering it was into the hinterlands of western Kansas.
In addition to visiting with our former pastor from St. John the Evangelist Church in Lawrence, the Rev. Charles Polifka, we were curious about the church he now shepherds at Victoria.
If you have ever traveled across Kansas on the way to Colorado, you may have spotted the church as its steeple rises in stark relief from the vastness of the plains, but like most of us, have only wondered about its origin. Father Charles who now resides as pastor was our ticket to explore the historical church.
Greeted in Victoria by Father Charles, we were immediately taken on a tour of the church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places as a building of "architectural significance." About 15,000 people visit the church annually.
Dubbed the "Cathedral of the Plains" by William Jennings Bryan during the three-time presidential candidate's 1912 visit to the church, its history is one of the dedication and devotion of the German/Russian immigrants who fled the conscription of the Russian czar in 1875 to settle in this remote and harsh region.
They journeyed to the plains of western Kansas, where they settled to farm and raise families of 12 to 15 children. Even more poignant is the story of how they built this magnificent structure.
The present church is the fourth and final church built by the parishioners of Victoria with human labor and the toil of their hands, which quarried, hauled and dressed the limestone for the church.
Quoting John Ruskin, one of those parishioners said, "Let it be such work as descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when these stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, see this our fathers did for us."
Surely, their descendants and all those who view the beauty of this remarkable structure marvel upon their handiwork and labor.
Like the famous bridges of Madison County, we discovered that there are more than just one of these beautiful examples of immigrant pride and devotion residing among the small towns that make up this corner of Ellis County. That afternoon was like a walk back in time as we visited the churches of Victoria, Walker, Pfeifer, Catherine and Hays. All are very small towns with the exception of Hays, which has three Catholic churches serving its 20,000 residents.
Each church had its own history and featured statues, stained glass, and in some, communion rails remained -- all of which were standard in most Catholic churches before Vatican II in the 1960s. It seems these sturdy people of German/Russian descent did not take too well to the simplification of Vatican II, which eliminated much of the artwork and statues in many of our Catholic churches. These churches now stand achingly reminiscent of bygone times, provoking both sentiment and pleasant memories.
I did however take exception to the mural over the altar at the church of St. Fidelis in Victoria, which depicts the martyrdom of the saint. It seems to me the spear though the heart would have been enough to make the point. The clubs and sticks wielded by the saint's killers about to strike the fallen saint were a little over the top.
The mural notwithstanding, the church is strikingly beautiful and beyond my limited vocabulary to describe as were each of the churches.
With the exception of St. Catherine's, which is located in the very small town of Catherine, all are active parishes where Mass is said for those who live in that particular area. St. Catherine's is now only a shrine and maintained lovingly by the few people who live close by and is used occasionally for a wedding or a funeral.
The friary, which adjoins the church in Victoria, has been home to the priests and brothers of the Franciscan order since 1878. It has been remodeled to accommodate guests and retreats in groups of 50, so we were fortunate to be able to spend the night there.
The rooms were spacious, simple and very clean with religious literature in the desk drawers. Being the only guests that night, we had our pick of bathrooms, television in the sitting area and hot chocolate as a nightcap.
If you have ever made a retreat to a convent or a monastery, you know the sense of calm that seeps into your bones as you settle into your room. There is something secure and peaceful about a room and a place where others have spent time in quiet and prayer.
Although visiting both Father Charles and the churches was our main purpose, we were interested in the small town of Victoria, which is home to not only the cathedral but to three taverns where the locals gather to bend an elbow and play a game of pool. We chose the small tavern called "The Library," obviously designed to be used as an alibi.
There, we dined on burgers, wings, toasted small tacos and fried mushrooms while surrounded by posters of castles in Germany and other such memorabilia, making a statement of the heritage of the townspeople. The owner of the tavern, who was also our server, was an attractive lady with a definite German accent who served up the dinner for the four of us for only $30.
Another highlight of our trip was a visit to Father Charles' 94-year-old mother, who lives alone in a small house in Hays. Despite severe arthritis, she maintains a spotless little home and has a definite twinkle in her eye as well as a ready and welcoming smile. Her wit and memory was apparent as she quickly put us at ease calling us each by name as we were introduced and as we were leaving.
So often we think that adventure lies far beyond our reach and so we overlook the places of interest that are close by. Next week we continue our pilgrimage of churches with a visit to the Croatian Catholic parish on Strawberry Hill in Kansas City, which is home to our old friend, the Rev. Frank Horvat, the former pastor of Corpus Christi Church in Lawrence.
We are looking forward to another step back in time as we explore this immigrant church of another ethnic group that arrived here to establish itself and to build its own unique house of worship, leaving us another treasure close at hand.