Notre-Dame de Kansas

This post is from a series of articles chronicling a 2020 cross-country trip with my wife and two daughters and a boyfriend, from California to Ohio (to visit family) and Pennsylvania (to drop off my oldest daughter at grad school), and then back. We spent over five weeks on the road during the pandemic.

We were halfway between Kansas City and Denver and we needed something to do. My daughter in the back seat of the FJ Cruiser googled and I drove, Kansas passing us, never-ending. Most people see Kansas, indeed, all of the Great Plains, as fly-over country. They are missing so much. Some of my favorite art museums—I’m serious—were no more than a few hours from our current location on I-70 but during this pandemic our options had greatly dwindled. Nothing indoors, nothing with crowds.

My kid said to get off the highway and so I did, turning straight south into Victoria, population 1214. The land is flat and featureless and has been for hours.

I park. Small houses line one side of the road, mostly single stories, not run-down but not prosperous-looking. Across the street is a European-sized cathedral, two large towers in front rising to just over one hundred and forty feet, its appearance here incongruous and unexplained.

This is the Balisca of St. Fidelis, build by pious Kansans between 1908 and 1911, made of stone the congregation itself hauled to this site from the quarry. It is commonly called the “Cathedral of the Plains,” a phrase said to be originated by then-presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in a swing through the area in 1912 when dropping his name was a much bigger deal than it is today. The nickname is rather obvious and drab but the church leaders seem stuck with it.

It is an imposing structure but it seems comfortable resting here in this tiny town, flatness and dust all around for hundreds of miles, though discovering that so many Catholics must live nearby so far out in the farmlands initially strikes me as odd. The church can hold a thousand people, like many cathedrals it is bigger inside than it looks from the outside, and could fit the whole town’s population inside at the same time if they didn’t mind standing in the aisles. The view from the top of the towers must be incredible, like standing in outer space, the Earth all so far below and distant, nothing below rising to challenge your dominance from above.

The tan stone and the architecture are attractive enough and then suddenly I see something that takes me away from any thoughts of architecture and the odd discovery of a cathedral in Kansas. It really can’t be but it is—there is a fossil embedded in the stone holding up the sign near the road. I look again and I see that there are dozens of fossils—ancient seashells—in the stone. I walk closer to the church and there are fossils there, too, in the rock of the building itself. Everywhere I search I find fossils. They adorn the side of the church, the doorway, the steps leading to the doorway, the decorative trim of the windows. Loose stones laying about are ripe with them.

A sea once covered all of this land but I didn’t realize that fossils from that time were so numerous, so easily found. I consider the possibility that a Home Depot or garden center might sell fossil-laden stones that I might buy, but there are closed and I’m concerned about needlessly exposing us to the virus.

I circle the building, a large rectory to one side, looking at the statues, prospecting for the best fossils to photograph. My wife and I wonder if the front doors are open as they often are at Catholic churches and they are, light filling the atrium from stained glass windows lining both walls. A man in the distance, to the right, is seated and working at something. We feel that we are disturbing him and leave, though he comes out as we pull away, exchanging pleasantries.

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