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With high praise . . .

6/2/2014

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

VICTORIA -- It's been called the Cathedral of the Plains for more than a hundred years, although it is not officially a cathedral.

But St. Fidelis Catholic Church now is an official basilica. And parishioners think that distinction will draw even more people to their small community of 1,200.

Vatican City approved the application earlier this year, and St. Fidelis officially will be dedicated Saturday as a minor basilica. While there are hundreds of minor basilicas worldwide, there are less than 100 in the United States, with St. Fidelis being No. 78.

It will mark the third major event for the parish in three years. St. Fidelis celebrated its centennial celebration in 2011, three years after being named one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas.

Each year, between 20,000 and 25,000 visitors tour the majestic 24,000 square-foot structure with 141-foot twin steeples that pierce the sky and induces plenty of "oohs" and "ahs" once they step inside.

"It's rare if you're in here without a visitor," said parishioner Ivan Werner, who serves as one of the tour guides of the church.

Werner and other longtime parishioners who give tours point out the 14 massive columns that reportedly weigh 8,500 pounds each, the 44 stained glass windows valued at $1 million, the ornate hand-carved wooden Stations of the Cross from Austria, the marble floor of the sanctuary and the striking "high altar" that covers the front wall of the church.

Werner starts several of his comments to tourists with "Legend has it ..." or "The story goes ..."

There indeed are a lot of legends -- and plenty of stories -- surrounding the building of the church and the 100 years following. Numerous statues, inside and out, adorn pedestals through the church.

An original oil painting from Austria in the center of the high altar in the front of the church -- which sets off the Romanesque features the saint for whom the church was named, Fidelis of Sigmaringen, a German-born Capuchin priest martyred in Switzerland in 1622. There also is a statue of St. Fidelis outside.

"It's those type of architecture and art, as well as the extraordinary architecture and beauty of the building that is especially significant," said Edward Weisenburger, bishop of the Diocese of Salina, which includes Victoria. "But what is equally important, is the church has a history of drawing people, beyond its own parish membership, to contemplate the glory of God.

"For the community of Victoria, I think it speaks to the profound faith of their ancestors who undertook the task of building it with great fervor," Weisenburger said. "But I think it also speaks to the faith of those who have lovingly maintained the church to this day.

"It is a great honor for the community of Victoria," he added, "for the good Catholic people of Ellis County and for the Diocese of Salina."

The idea for naming St. Fidelis a basilica was the brainchild of Father Jeff Ernst, pastor of St. Fidelis from August 2011 to August 2013.

"It occurred to me one day, walking through the front doors, 'This should be a basilica,' " Ernst said. "It's inspired a lot of people; (it) still inspires me when I go in there."

Ernst started the application process in February of 2013 and completed it last summer.

Ernst was transferred to Lawrence in August but continued helping from a distance, and the final application was sent to Vatican City in September. Ernst said he had been told it could take up to three years to hear whether or not their request had been granted. Ernst had been told by representatives at the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Canton, Ohio -- the most recently named minor basilica -- to expect a three-year wait.

So he was caught off guard when he got an email from Weisenburger in March, just six months after submitting their application.

"I was surprised, " Ernst said of the news, "but pleased. I think this will become even more of a pilgrimage for people to visit."

"During the two years I was at St. Fidelis, I was impressed by people who would stop in central Kansas and look at that site," Ernst continued. "There were people from China and Germany and other countries as well. It's a testimony to the faith of the people of Victoria."

Ernst plans to return to Victoria for Saturday's dedication, and parishioners are hoping to fill the church, which holds approximately 1,000 people, for the dedication ceremony.

The 10:30 a.m. Mass, open to the public, will be followed with a noon lunch in Victoria Elementary School.

The old fashioned German wedding meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes, chicken and noodles is being catered by Jeanette Pfannenstiel and Helen Werth from Munjor. There are no tickets required for the meal, but there will be a basket available for freewill offerings.

Cora Schulte, another St. Fidelis tour guide and lifetime member of the parish, said the parishioners are honored to have their church designated as a minor basilica.

"This is a big deal, even bigger than our centennial, I think," Schulte said. "This is national recognition."

Werner agreed.

"This has been a very important place in our lives," said Werner, who married a Victoria woman, Verda Goetz, in St. Fidelis in 1960, and all three of their children were baptized there. "I'm looking forward to (Saturday)."