Faith at Heart of Victoria

McDonald, Liz. "Faith at Heart of Victoria." Hays Daily News, 26 July 2001.

A Volga-German Homecoming: 125th Jubilee Celebration

VICTORIA ­ For 125 years, a commitment to the strong faith of their Volga-German ancestors has been at the heart of this small community.

Victoria often is associated with its impressive Cathedral of the Plains, the St. Fidelis Catholic Church built with little money, skilled labor or supplies. Instead, unwavering religious conviction fueled the construction of the church, now nationally recognized in the National Register of Historic Places as a building of "architectural significance."

Celebrations on Friday will mark the 125th anniversary of Herzog, the village that Volga-German immigrants established next to the English colony of Victoria.

Residents of today´s Victoria hope their town will be known for the meaning behind the prestigious religious structure.

"When our ancestors came over 125 years ago, they had the greatest faith you can imagine," Ethel Younger, lifetime resident, said. "We are continuing how they carried on."

Organizers of the celebration in Victoria said having activities centered around the church reflects the values of their ancestors.

From the early days of its settlement, the history of the Herzog community further demonstrates its dedication to religion.

Twenty-three German families from the Volga River region of Russia founded the town of Herzog on April 8, 1876, located just northwest of Victoria, established three years earlier.

The first form of worship in Herzog was a wooden cross in the center of town. When German Capuchin friars arrived in 1878, they directed the construction of the community´s first church.

Known as Sorrowful Mother Church, the building was made entirely of wood and located just north of the present-day cemetery. Residents constructed a second church within the interior of today´s St. Fidelis in 1880.

At the turn of the century, an influx of Catholic immigrants to the Herzog and Victoria communities finally prompted the planning and construction of St. Fidelis, also known as the Cathedral of the Plains. Because of the enormous proportions of the church, its completion required assistance from all of the community´s members.

According to Francis Schippers, a Victoria resident and secretary/treasurer of the Volga German Society, each communicant had to donate six loads of rock and three loads of sand.

"It was truly a family affair," Schippers said. "Mom, Dad and the kids all had a hand in the construction of the church."

After the church´s dedication on Aug. 27, 1911, a handful of St. Fidelis´ priests began to minister to "spin-off" churches in Gorham, Emmeram and Vincent.

The Cathedral of the Plains now welcomes more than 16,000 tourists each year. Daily Mass still is celebrated, and St. Fidelis continues to serve as the mother church to mission parishes in Walker and Vincent.

Due to disappointing farming seasons and harsh climate, most of the English and Scottish settlers who founded Victoria left Kansas by the 1900s. In 1913, Herzog and Victoria consolidated and incorporated, and the new town took the better-known name of Victoria.

Since 1900, Victoria has grown from a population of 507 to a 2000 population of 1,208.

Additionally, Victoria has been recognized nationally for its Catholic friary and seminary, where many young men studied theology and philosophy under the direction of local Capuchin priests. The Capuchin School of Philosophy opened in 1903. The building where the seminary was located closed during the 1980s and is now the home of Victoria Middle School.

Originally operated by the Sisters of St. Agnes, the Victoria school system was established in the 1950s. Victoria USD 423 still operates a grade school, middle school and high school and serves students from Walker and Pfeifer as well as Victoria.

Victoria marks its anniversary celebration with the release of a new cookbook, "Sharing Our Best: 125 Years of Recipes and Remembrances." The book contains more than 1,300 recipes, German proverbs and prayers. With five weeks of sales, the cookbook already has generated more than $21,000. The cookbook can be purchased from the parish office for $18.

The celebration will begin Friday with a 10 a.m. Mass at St. Fidelis with Bishop George Fitzsimons. At noon, there will be an old-fashioned wedding dinner, prepared by Betty Froelich, along with live entertainment from Eddie Basgall. A parade will be at 2 p.m. in downtown Victoria, followed by live entertainment from the Country Dutchman and an auction at 3 p.m. There will be bingo, a cake walk and children's activities at 5:30 p.m. Galen Schmidtberger will perform at 7 p.m., and a cash prize drawing will follow. The festivities will close out with a dance at 8:30 p.m. with music from the Heartland Band.

Reprinted with permission of The Hays Daily News.

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