This weekend my wife & I packed up the last of our things and moved from Colorado to South Carolina. We’ve decided the lower elevation and milder temps of the “Palmetto State” make better sense for our retirement. But instead of a moving truck, we trailered the horse (and the dog and the barn cat) along with our suitcases. A half-ton of horse means driving in the slow lane, our top speed 65 mph without blowing a gasket. And driving through Kansas in the slow lane – or any lane for that matter – feels like forever.
The western edge of Kansas, at Interstate 70, is an encouraging starting point as you leave Colorado. You pass an attractive “Welcome Center”, a convenient place to take a break and learn a little about the “Sunflower State” before you venture further. More importantly, you notice an immediate improvement in the road conditions. Kansas, unlike Colorado, not only earmarks tax dollars to keep its highways pristine, the state actually spends those dollars accordingly (instead of dipping into them for other purposes). Our horse – standing on four legs the entire journey – appreciated the smoother ride, if not the triple-digit temps.
Twenty or thirty miles into Kansas, the sobering reality of America’s Heartland sets in. For one, you could lay a ruler on the hundreds of miles of Interstate 70 and hardly need a turn of the steering wheel. For two, you realize every town along the way – save Kansas City to the far east – looks exactly the same. Water tower. Cell phone tower. Church. Gas station. Fast food. A surround of corn fields. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s like someone drew up a generic template of a town and laid it down a couple dozen times along the interstate. Doesn’t help to keep a slow driver alert, especially when you’re on cruise control.
But suddenly, mercifully, and completely out of nowhere, you see little Victoria, Kansas on the horizon. Not Victoria, British Columbia (though it might feel like you’re driving all the way to Canada). Victoria, Kansas, with its mere 1,200 residents and one square mile of town. And right in the middle of Victoria, rising out of the earth as abruptly as the Rocky Mountains, sits the Basilica of St. Fidelis, better known as the Cathedral of the Plains.
You can probably spy St. Fidelis from fifty miles away as you approach, but you certainly don’t believe what you’re seeing. Kansas is as flat as a pancake yet Victoria boasts a cathedral worthy of a spot in Rome. The first time I saw St. Fidelis several years ago (driving a whole lot fast than 65 mph), I thought it was the Kansas heat bringing me a heavenly mirage. I half expected the clouds to part (even though there weren’t any) and a host of angels to surround those tall twin spires.
But St. Fidelis is a lot more real than a mirage. It was built in the early 1900s by German and Russian immigrants, each of whom pledged to haul six wagonloads of limestone and another four of sand from nearby quarries. St. Fidelis predates any kind of construction equipment so the entire structure was raised by hand. These industrious Kansans knew the meaning of hard work.
St. Fidelis boasts forty-eight handcrafted stained-glass windows, valued at more than $1M. Its beautiful procession of Romanesque-style arches hovers above marble floors. The cathedral was “elevated” to the status of Minor Basilica by decree of the Pope in 2014, and earned a place on America’s National Register of Historic Places. In other words, there’s no separating this church from this state. Not bad for an old building in a tiny metropolis in the middle of cornfields. I only wish I’d had the time to exit the interstate and head down to Victoria for a closer look.
The Sunflower State has adopted the Latin phrase ad astra per aspera as its motto. It means “to the stars through difficulties”, representing the aspirations and hard-working spirit of the state. I’d say the Cathedral of the Plains is Kansas’ perfect example, wouldn’t you?
Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.