For many decades, pilgrims from around the world have visited St. Fidelis Catholic Church in the quiet farming community of Victoria, Kansas. When current and future generations of visitors follow in their footsteps they’ll walk into Kansas’ first minor basilica.
The designation, approved by Pope Francis and made formal with a decree from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome, was the focus of a special Mass and dinner June 7. Three of Kansas’ bishops concelebrated, alongside three dozen clergy, including many of the Capuchin Franciscan friars who have served there. Nearly 1,000 people filled the pews, including many present and past parishioners.
Members of the Knights of Columbus stood at attention in their full regalia as the bishops, priests and deacons processed to the altar. The procession also included two items that were placed on the altar as symbols of a basilica. The conopeum is a large silk umbrella of alternating red and yellow stripes. The tintinnabulum is a gold bell mounted on a pole. In ancient times both were used in processions, the umbrella as protection during inclement weather and the bell as a signal and guide during the procession. Both now serve as special symbols to show the church’s special connection to the pope.
Long before it was the Basilica of St. Fidelis, this church served as an impressive architectural and spiritual marker on the plains of western Kansas. Just as awesome is the faith of the ancestors who built the so-called Cathedral of the Plains and dedicated it in 1911. That faith was handed down through the generations who call Victoria home.
“They’re down to earth people. They’ve always known the beauty of the church. This is only naming the beauty that’s always been here,” said St. Fidelis’ current pastor, Capuchin Fr. John Schmeidler. “They’ve always treated this as a basilica.”
Schmeidler is the latest Capuchin priest to guide this parish of about 400 families in western Kansas, but the Capuchin Franciscans: Province of St. Conrad have served this and other neighboring communities in Ellis County since 1878.
Fr. Harvey Dinkel OFM Cap. knows the history of St. Fidelis Church well. He grew up attending Mass there, and his father, Frank M. Dinkel, was about 18 years old when he worked alongside other parishioners to build the church.
Fr. Harvey said he couldn’t imagine his father’s reaction to Pope Francis’ declaration of St. Fidelis as the 78th
minor basilica in the United States earlier this year.
“That wasn’t even in their vocabulary,” Fr. Harvey said.
The day of the basilica celebration the Bishop of Salina, Rev. Edward J. Weisenburger, said in his homily, “Our good ancestors built this church stone upon stone, love upon love.
“We find ourselves here today standing in the footsteps of those noble, good, for the most part German-speaking ancestors. Under the influence of their good Capuchin pastors (they) loved God and loved His church enough that they would build what has become a legacy,” Bishop Weisenburger said. “A legacy for their children and for the generations that follow. But it’s far more than a legacy of brick stone. It’s a legacy of faith.”
The bishop thanked those who worked behind the scenes to submit and complete the application for the basilica designation, and singled out the church’s former pastor. That application started with a simple thought from Fr. Jeff Ernst OFM Cap. One day Fr. Jeff walked into church and thought, “this could be a basilica.”
“When I was (pastor) here we would get letters in the mail with a donation, people saying ‘your church inspired me.’ ”
The church, at about the midpoint of the Interstate 70 journey between Denver and Kansas City, is a frequent stop for travelers. More than 16,000 people visit the church each year.
The marble altar, granite columns and stained-glass windows in the church juxtaposed with the Capuchin Franciscans’ simple and humble way of life might not make sense, Fr. Jeff admitted. But just as the parish families more than a century ago built the church to glorify God, submitting the application to raise it to a minor basilica was done with the same heart. Pope Francis calls Catholics to evangelize and “to raise the awareness of the Church and still proclaim Jesus,” Fr. Jeff said.
“St. Francis had high regard for the Church and the priesthood. Even though the brothers lived in mud huts and lived simply, he insisted the vessels be kept clean,” Fr. Jeff said. “We wouldn’t build big museums, but we would and did build big churches.”
The basilica is a testament to the partnership of the Capuchin friars and their parishioners, said Fr. Earl Meyer, OFM Cap., one of the friars who now lives in the friary next door. “It’s a great symbol for how the people work with us,” Fr. Earl said. “They cooperate with us everywhere we go.”
Fr. Christopher Popravak, OFM Cap., provincial of the Capuchin Franciscans Province of St. Conrad, pointed to the origins of the Franciscan order. After St. Francis appealed to Pope Innocent for the formation and recognition of his religious order, the resistant pope had a dream. The vision was of St. Francis holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, the church that for 1,500 years was home to the popes of the Catholic Church and today remains the cathedral church for the Diocese of Rome.
Just like St. Francis, the Capuchins today “are there to help encourage the faith of the people,” said Fr. Christopher. “They help shore up the church, the faith. The friars are there to help sustain, to help promote, to help encourage the people and the church.”
Picture taken in 1915 of what is now St. Fidelis - Cathedral of the Plains a Minor Basilica