There was a church built for Swedes and another for Germans. There was one that looked like a courthouse and another that seemed to have been imported from England. The diversity of churches in Kansas impressed me as I drove around the central and eastern thirds of the state. These are my favorites.
#1 Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Wichita)
Located, appropriately enough, across the street from The Lord’s Diner, the gorgeous Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception took six years to complete, in 1912—but that included two full years of inactivity for the foundation to settle. Constructed of Bedford limestone from Indiana, the cathedral measures almost 170’ long and 100’ at its widest. It’s an impressive sight, especially from the front: a dome that rises 135’ from the ground, single-piece granite columns saved from the demolished old post office in Chicago supporting a pediment with dentils, twin towers, and a trio of sculpted bronze doors designed and created in Italy. Installed in 1997, the central doors depict five critical moments in Christianity, from The Agony in the Garden to the Crucifixion; the doorknobs are doves.
I stepped inside the bright interior and admired everything I saw. I made my way down the central aisle, flanked by more granite columns supporting arches with detailed soffits, to the slightly elevated sanctuary. The uniform use of white marble in the altar, ambo, tabernacle, cathedra, and reredos (decorated with a shield bearing the letters IHS, the Latinized abbreviation of the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek, and a pelican, an ancient Christian symbol for the Holy Eucharist—a mother pelican will feed her chicks with her own flesh and blood when nothing else is available) creates a cohesive display.
I looked up into the dome, at the image of God the Father in a billowing red cloak with welcoming outstretched arms above a cloud and seven stars, a reference to the seven churches cited in the Book of Revelation (all found in present-day Turkey). At the top of the pillars holding up the dome, images of the Four Evangelists can be found in the pendentives, each holding a feathered quill as they write their gospels.
The beautiful stained-glass windows, designed in Germany, made their way to the cathedral in 1927. They depict two mysteries of the Rosary—the Joyful and the Glorious. Of the 10 windows, I was most curious about the Nativity scene. Mary and a perfectly contented baby Jesus welcome three shepherds in a familiar manger scene. Joseph presents a question. Holding a lantern in one hand, he shields his eyes with the other from the light pouring down from the angel above as he gazes east, not focusing on any other figures but on something at a distance, perhaps waiting for the imminent arrival of the magi.
On my way out, I made sure to stop at the large crucifix in one of the shrines. A larger-than-life-size Jesus, at 7’ 6”, weighs 500 lbs. The cross, made of fiberglass, steel, and wood from Israel, resembles rough-cut logs. The plate above Him reads “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews” in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. The dozen stones at the base of the crucifix were taken from the Jordan River. The wall mural behind the crucifix is a simple sky scene, with light breaking up dark clouds and with, just like the dome, seven stars. The Crucifixion is the end of Christ’s journey on earth, and this statue itself underwent a journey to arrive here—the artist loaded it onto a trailer from his base in Oregon and drove it halfway across the country in a diesel-powered pickup truck.
#2 First Presbyterian Church (Topeka)
Lightning struck twice—quite literally—at First Presbyterian Church. Located across the street from one of the most beautiful state capitols in the United States, the church was completed in 1884 with a handsome stone façade, steeply pitched red-tile roofs, and a bell tower that supported a wooden steeple 160’ high. Lightning struck the steeple in 1888, badly damaging it. Subsequently repaired, another bolt hit it in 1910. The decision to completely remove it seemed wise, and the tower has not been capped by a steeple ever since. The interior is fairly plain, with some hand-carved furnishings installed in 1935, including the tiered choir gallery.
But the main reason I came here was to see the stained-glass windows. Louis Comfort Tiffany visited Topeka and planned the windows in the church himself. Installed in 1911, the windows employed Favrile glass, a process Tiffany created whereby different materials, such as salts of various metallic oxides, cobalt, copper, and gold, are dissolved within the molten glass (rather than applying colors to glass), thereby ensuring the longevity of the iridescent colors. The church’s collection includes two landscapes, four portraits, two medallions, a three-part window showing Jesus baptizing children, and the largest one (13’ by 18’), above the sanctuary, depicting His ascension into heaven. One of my favorites is the landscape with a deer beside a stream. The depth of field is remarkable, drawing my eyes into the landscape and the horizon beyond. The other landscape, including a little flock of grazing sheep, invited me to touch these little animals and feel the nubby texture of the glass mimicking their wool. The Baptism of Jesus window is remarkable in its use of light, casting shadows, and its phenomenal detail—Christ’s toes are visible in the water of the stream. With the exception of only one, all the windows—which cost $14,000—were donated by one lady.
#3 Assumption Catholic Church (Topeka)
Another church facing the Kansas State Capitol, Assumption Catholic Church was so nice that I decided to stay for a service so I could appreciate it even more.
Built in 1924 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, the church (and the handsome rectory next to it) is clad in buff brick, accented with Carthage limestone. Outside, the front elevation is divided into three bays—two bell-tower bays (topped with stone colonnades, domes, and crosses) and the central bay with a trio of arched entrances and a two-story arched stained-glass window framed by stepped brick corbelling. Flanking faux buttresses, topped with green clay tiles, lead up to four-piece stone panels, one with a cross, the other with a crown of thorns. At the top, some basket-weave brickwork runs beneath a triangular stone panel with a seated Mary and kneeling angels increasing in size as they move from the angles toward Mary.
The interior boasts marble wainscoting that was salvaged from the Topeka post office when it was demolished in 1935, Stations of the Cross that were painted on copper by a local artist, pendant lights with Greek cross designs, a white marble altar topped by a Crucifixion sculpture in front of a striking blue panel, and side altars outlined in arched stenciling, with murals of the Immaculate Conception over one and the Ascension of Christ over the other. I took a seat in one of the pews and looked up to admire the most striking feature: the fantastically intricate wood beams and brackets of the ceiling. I also appreciated the half-round stained-glass window depicting the Last Supper above the altar. Whereas most renditions of this scene shunt Judas off to the edges, here he’s just left of center, detached from the other two in his grouping of three, and clutching his bag of money on the table with zero interest in concealing it.
#4 St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church (Wichita)
About six blocks away from my wonderful accommodations in Wichita, Hotel at Old Town, I found the oldest Catholic church in the city. I stood on the deserted brick-paved street in front of it, contemplating how different worlds sometimes collide. Originally built in 1905 for a German community, St. Anthony of Padua now serves a heavily Vietnamese congregation—neither of which is detectable in the church’s architecture, especially the sumptuous Moorish steeple. The brick church, designated a Wichita Historic Landmark in 1988, adds a handsome presence to the area, with its arched stained-glass and blind windows. A six-year restoration project, completed in 2005, earned the church two awards, and I appreciated its success inside. Original artwork, murals, and stenciling were loyally reproduced. And, recognizing the newest parishioners, two ceiling lunettes depicting Vietnamese martyrs were added to the ceiling. Brilliant colors abound in the art, the stained-glass windows, the Stations of the Cross, and the abundant statues, including St. Anthony, front and center in the reredos—which bears a deliberate and noticeable resemblance to the exterior steeple.
#5 Grace Episcopal Cathedral (Topeka)
Standing among wide-open plots of grass, Grace Episcopal Cathedral began its life in 1910, when the foundation was laid. Completed in fits and starts due to economic problems, lack of funds, and World War I, the cathedral wasn’t completed until 1917, except for the twin towers, which came later, modeled after those of Magdalen College in Oxford, England. In 1975, a catastrophic fire—caused by an arsonist—destroyed almost all of the building, with only the outer limestone walls and the damaged towers remaining. It was the costliest fire in Topeka’s history at the time, but the congregation rallied and rebuilt it immediately. Clad in limestone quarried in Kansas, the Gothic Revival cathedral features slender pointed arches filled in by stained-glass windows, three red doors at the main entrance, and a handcrafted copper fleche above the crossing of the nave and transepts. Inside, the same sandstone was employed to make the 3,000-lb. high altar, but the sandstone pulpit came from a parish in Dewsbury, England. There’s an abundant use of wood—in the pews, organ loft, and especially the oak truss ceiling supported by brackets and hammered beams— as well as black walnut hand-carved wainscoting. The American-made stained-glass windows, finished in 2002, depict saints and such well-known scenes as the Nativity, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, Palm Sunday, and a vertical Last Supper, in which Judas is depicted at the bottom of the table, looking down, away from everyone else, the only one of the Apostles without a halo, and regretfully clutching his bag of silver. Today, this phoenix of a church looks better than ever.
- Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle (Kansas City, 1907)
- St. Joseph Catholic Church (Topeka, 1902)
- St. Mary–St. Anthony Catholic Church (Kansas City, 1895)
- First United Methodist Church (Salina, 1915)
- Bethany Lutheran Church (Lindsborg, 1904)
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