Archive for Monday, November 26, 2001

Kansas church tours increase in popularity with visitors

November 26, 2001

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— For Texan Gretchen Molling, the sight of the twin towers of St. Fidelis Catholic Church rising over the Kansas plain was too much to pass up.

"We've got to stop," she told her husband, Charles, as they were heading east on Interstate 70. "I want to go and meet the angels."

Each year thousands of visitors pull off the interstate to see the Victoria church, which a road sign touts as the "Cathedral of the Plains."

The church is among many in Kansas that are capitalizing on growing interest in tours of historic churches.

"We think there's a lot to see in churches, and as anybody in economic development will tell you, we hope they'll drop a few pesos while they're here, whether they're buying gas or hamburgers," said the Rev. Jerome Morgan of St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in Wilson.

In Ellis County, home to St. Fidelis, several historic churches have joined together for the tours, calling their union the "Circle of Churches."

Attendance at St. Fidelis soared earlier this year while the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton "Sue" was on display 10 miles away at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays. There's been another spike since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"What has happened has caused people to think about what is most important in life," said the Rev. Shawn McKnight, director of worship for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita. "They naturally gravitate to those structures that speak to the deepest part of ourselves: who we are, how we got here and where we're going."

With its rose-petal stained glass windows, granite pillars reaching more than 120 feet into the air and historic artwork and altars, St. Fidelis is the most popular historic church in the state.

Famed orator and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan was so impressed by the church when he passed through the area in 1913 that he dubbed it "Cathedral of the Plains."

Churches built a century ago are superior to almost any modern church as architectural and artistic showpieces, McKnight said. Modern churches are constructed with function, not form, in mind, he said.

Historic churches, however, were designed to reflect a community's love for God, so residents made the structures as beautiful as they could afford. In the days before telephones, radios and televisions, church bells were rung to announce major events, Mass times and even prayers.

"I think when you touch a church, you can almost feel it talk," said Marci Penner, president of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting rural culture.

Five years ago, Morgan helped produce a travel brochure featuring churches along the interstate that has proven so popular that he is working on expanding it. The next will profile architecturally significant churches within 30 miles of the interstate between Goodland and Kansas City.

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