Capuchin Father Jeff Ernst’s voice leapt with emotion when he heard the news: St. Fidelis Church would be named a minor basilica.
“It’s exciting,” he said from his office at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Lawrence. “The state of Kansas doesn’t have any.”
Bishop Edward Weisenburger received the news from the Vatican last week that the diocese’s application to name St. Fidelis a minor basilica had been granted. He will dedicate the church as a minor basilica on June 7.
“This is a great day for the people of Victoria but an equally great day for the people of the Diocese of Salina,” the bishop said. “St. Fidelis Church has long been a place of pilgrimage and prayer. Indeed, many have been drawn to the mystery and love of God by spending time in this inspiring church.”
Father Ernst thought much the same when he was walking through the front doors one day.
“This could become a minor basilica,” Father Ernst said to himself.
“I thought about it for a few days and then ran it by the bishop, and he really liked the idea,” Father Ernst said.
After receiving permission from his Capuchin provincial to proceed, he contacted people at the most recently named minor basilica in the United States, the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Canton, Ohio, to inquire about how to do it.
Bishop Weisenburger had just been named bishop of Salina, and when he traveled to Rome with other bishops from the region to meet with Pope Benedict XVI, he told Father Ernst he would check with Vatican officials about the process.
“He found out they were discouraging applications,” Father Ernst said, but when the bishop sometime later met with other U.S. bishops, they encouraged him to proceed.
“He said, ‘Let’s do this,’ ” Father Ernst said.
The Capuchin priest had only been at the Victoria parish since August 2011, and with his parish council’s support, he began assembling the information he needed.
The application asks for specific information about the structure of the church, the participation of the parishioners and the art and architecture.
“One thing people at Canton said was send lots of pictures, so we did,” Father Ernst said.
It took him about six months to complete the application, which then was sent to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for its approval. By September 2013, it was on its way to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments at the Vatican.
Father Ernst was transferred by his order to the Lawrence parish shortly before that. The new pastor at Victoria, Capuchin Father John Schmeidler, too, was excited to hear the news.
“The people really do take great pride in the church and its upkeep,” he said. “I think it’s because of their love for the church and all that it stands for.
“Being created a basilica, for them, I think, will elevate the sanctity and holiness of the church and help them to know that even better,” he added.
It’s likely to increase the number of people visiting the church, as well.
The church’s 141-foot twin towers are easily seen from nearby Interstate 70, and about 16,000 people visit it each year.
Many, of course, are tourists, but for the Catholic faithful, visiting a basilica can provide them with a plenary indulgence — the removal of all temporal punishment due for the sins committed up to that time.
“The first thing I thought of was this will get even more people interested in the church,” Father Schmeidler said.
“The real reason for doing this was for the Glory of God,” Father Ernst added. “A lot of people who visit the church are very inspired. That’s the main part of doing this, that more people would be inspired. They come to the church and sometimes they return to God because of that visit.”
Bishop Weisenburger called the designation “an incredible blessing for us all.”
“The Holy See’s designation as a basilica highlights not only the architectural and historical significance of the church but also the faith life it has nurtured for well over a century,” he said. “I would add too that in honoring this beloved church, an honor is likewise extended to those who sacrificed for its construction and upkeep through the years.”
Posted with permission from The Register, official publication of the Diocese of Salina, Kan.