The Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church reflects the circumstances and aspirations of the settlers of this agricultural community. The present church is the third to be built in Windthorst, a town approximately twenty miles northeast of Dodge City. Windthorst was founded by a group of individuals recruited by the German Catholic Aurora Homestead Association based in Cincinnati, Ohio. The town site was located on ten sections of land purchased from the Santa Fe Railroad, which also donated 180 acres to the Association. Most of the settlers had come from Germany, and had first settled in various places in the Midwest; they were drawn to Kansas by the promise of fertile farmland. Germans form the largest group of European settlers in the state, with forty percent of Kansans claiming German heritage.
Like others around the state, the group of settlers that came to Windthorst prospered in their new home. In 1885 the population of Windthorst had grown to 552, of which 175 were members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church (1879), which would later become the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. The church was founded as a mission church and supplied itinerant pastors to many small parishes in southwest Kansas that were unable to support a full-time priest. By 1910 the town had a population of just over 600, and the church had a membership of almost 400. Church members contributed to the construction of a school and rectory. In 1911 a building committee began planning a larger and more substantial church building. In consultation with the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, future owners of the proposed building, the committee selected St. Louis architects Louis Preuss and Thomas Imos. Construction began the following year, and was completed in June 1913.
The most striking feature of the Gothic-Romanesque Revival building is a 125-foot tower and spire, visible for some distance across the relatively flat surrounding countryside. The tower is attached to the west end of the rectangular sanctuary. The red brick building rests on a limestone foundation and is capped by a slate-shingled gable roof. The tower is ornamented with limestone detailing, a statue of St. Mary set in a niche, and yellow brick banding. It has a gabled entry vestibule attached to its front, and small ancillary rooms attached to its sides. The north and south sides of the main body of the church feature stone-capped brick buttresses set between seven rounded lancet windows.
The main entry passes beneath the tower that serves as a vestibule, and provides access to a choir loft above. The nave features shallow ribbed vaulting, which springs from brackets on the side walls. The wooden pews and life-like, wall-mounted sculptures marking the Stations of the Cross were in place when the church was completed. Other embellishments were added over time: an organ made by the Estey Company of Brattleboro, Vermont, was installed in 1915; stained glass windows illustrating scenes from the New Testament and produced by Emil Frei of St. Louis were installed the following year; ornate side altars and a main altar with a baldacchino were added in 1918; and stenciling was completed in 1928.
Like many rural Kansas communities, the population of Windthorst waned over time. Kansas weather was variable and, as a result, agricultural income was erratic. Some settlers were discouraged by the uncertainties of farm life and left in pursuit of a more certain and stable income. By 1925 church membership had fallen to 265 people. Despite the dwindling membership, the church continues to offer regular services and the building is well maintained. It serves as a reminder of the successes and sacrifices of early Kansans.
NOTE: This entry was originally published in David Sachs and George Ehrlich, Guide to Kansas Architecture (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996). © 1996 by the University Press of Kansas.
Hagedorn-Krass, Martha, “Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church,” Ford County, Kansas. National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form, 1988. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.