German Church Byway
Kansas has eleven roadways that have been designated as either Scenic or Historic Byways. While all of these Byways offer excellent opportunities to view scenic and or historic places throughout the state of Kansas, they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to great side trips for those traveling through Kansas.
On a recent trip across Kansas on Interstate 70, we took a fun side trip that could easily be worthwhile of having the label of “Scenic Byway”. One possible name of this would be the “German Church Byway” as it took us to four towns that had large native stone churches built by predominantly German congregations.
We began our scenic detour by taking Exit 168 and heading south to Victoria, Kansas. Victoria was founded in 1873 as an English Colony by George Grant and named in honor of Queen Victoria of Britain. Mr. Grant had purchased some 70,000 acres of land from the Union Pacific Railroad with the plan selling large tracts to British and Scottish noblemen and it was not long before the young town of Victoria was founded. However within a few short years the severe winters, prairie fires and summer droughts brought discouragement to the first settlers and many returned home to England.
Then in 1876 Germans immigrating to Kansas from the Volga River area in Russia began settling in the area. Soon Herzog, Kansas became the largest Volga-German settlement in Ellis County, which is known as the German Capital of Kansas. Located very close to the original town of Victoria, Herzog and Victoria eventually grew together and in 1913 became Victoria.
Today the town of Victoria is probably best known as the home of the Saint Fidelis Church. This large native stone Catholic Church is also known as “The Cathedral of the Plains” and is the first stop on this side trip. Built from 1908-1911 this large native stone church has been named as one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas and is an impressive sight to see. With its twin bell towers standing over 141 feet tall, you can see St. Fidelis church from miles away.
Depending on how much time one has to explore the area there are several other worthwhile sites to visit in and around Victoria, Kansas. Among those are:
- George Grant Villa
- George Grant Memorial
- English Cemetery
- Capuchin Franciscan Friars Sculpture
- Volga-German Immigrant Statue
- St. Fidelis Cemetery
- Union Pacific Caboose
- Union Pacific Gravesite
- Victoria Historical Marker
After visiting Victoria we continue our journey by heading south out of Victoria on Pfeifer Avenue. Our next stop if Pfeifer, Kansas which is located on the south banks of the Smoky Hill River about 13 miles south of Victoria.
Pfeifer is another town settled by Volga-German immigrants and is home of the second of our three native stone churches. Founded in 1876 Pfeifer is on the south side of the Smoky Hill River valley and not far from the Smokey Hill Bluffs, which are a series of steep bluffs found on the north side of the Smoky Hill River.
Completed in 1918 Holy Cross church of Pfeifer is one of the best examples of Gothic Style architecture in Kansas. It was named as one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas Architecture in 2008 by the Kansas Sampler organization. Every bit as impressive as the Cathedral of the Plains in Victoria this native stone church is another testimony of the hard work and enduring faith of the Volga-German immigrants that settled this area. It’s massive building and three tall steeples can be seen for miles around. With the center steeple rising 165 feet tall and two twin side steeples of 100 feet this native stone church is an impressive sight.
It is also known as the “Church within the Church” because it was constructed around the original church that had occupied the site. The new church building was so massive that they constructed the walls and roof before tearing down the old church that was there. While no longer home to an active congregation the church is still maintained by the Holy Cross Charites and is a beautiful Gothic Style Church well worth visiting.
Leaving Pfeifer our journey continues south out of Pfeifer on County Road 320 for about 15 miles until we reach Loretto, Kansas where we turn and head west on County Road 44 as we make our way to the site of our third church at Liebenthal, Kansas. Liebenthal is another town settled in 1876 by Volga-German immigrants and is home to St. Joseph’s Church another large native stone Catholic Church. Completed in 1905 this native stone church was originally used as a school and has been destroyed by fire twice but was rebuilt both times. While not as ornate or as large as the first two churches on our trip this one is still an impressive testimony to early settlers of this area and worth seeing.
While in Liebenthal you can also visit the Dechant & Sons General Store which is now an Antique and Collectable store as well as Pat’s Beef Jerky where you can buy some of the best beef jerky in America. Located in the old Liebenthal State Bank building Pat’s Beef Jerky should be on your must stop list if you like Beef Jerky and are in the area. You can also order from them online at http://www.patsbeefjerky.com if you crave some and are not close by.
Leaving Liebenthal our journey continues as we head north on U.S. Highway 183 towards Hays, Kansas where we will once again meet up with Interstate 70. However before we get to Hays and continue our journey on I-70 we will stop in Schoenchen, Kansas where we will find yet another native stone church. Located about four miles north of Liebenthal and just west of U.S. Highway 183, Schoenchen is another town founded by Volga-German immigrants. It was founded in 1877 on the south banks of the Smoky Hill River after a dispute over the possible relocation of Liebenthal, Kansas to an area with a better water supply, Some residents left Libenthal at that time and founded Schoenchen. Schoenchen is home to St. Anthony Church another native stone church on our route.
Completed in 1901 St. Anthony’s Catholic Church still stands today. St. Anthony’s features gothic windows, gold-capped arches and unusual crown shaped light fixtures. Like some of the other churches on our tour St. Anthony’s was also damaged by fire on two different occasions and rebuilt each time. The first fire was in the early 1920’s and the second one in 1932.
Leaving Schoenchen we head back to U.S. 183 and continue north into Hays, Kansas where we will meet up with I-70 and continue our trip across Kansas.
Other notable Volga-German settlements in Ellis County, Kansas are:
- Antonino, Kansas
- Catharine, Kansas
- Ellis, Kansas
- Munjor, Kansas
- Walker, Kansas
- Vincent, Kansas