Pfeifer, Kansas


Located on the south banks of the Smoky Hill River and just east of the scenic Pfeifer Bluffs, this small village is one of the original Volga German settlements in Ellis County. Germans, who left their homes and communities along the Volga River area of Russia, emigrated to American in the fall of 1875 and established Pfeifer in August 1876.


Holy Cross Church was named one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Architecture in 2008 because it is one of the finest examples of a Gothic-style church in the state. It was also named one of the 8 Wonders of Ellis County. Construction of the church began in 1915 and it was dedicated on May 3, 1918. It features a rib-vaulted ceiling supported on delicate, decorative columns and pointed arches for the windows and doorways.  Visitors enjoy seeing the stained-glass windows, impressive stone masonry, hand crafted wood alter and communion railing. In 1993 the church was closed by the Diocese and the community joined together to keep it open as the Holy Cross Shrine for visitors and community members to still enjoy it’s beauty.  


Founded: August 21 [24], 1876

Population: less then 50

Carol Billinger

1606 Sarratov

Pfeifer, KS 67660





Pfeifer, Russia

Pfeifer on Volga

Blue Skyways

Pfeifer on GenWeb

Pfeifer – Legends of Kansas

Pfeifer – Wikipedia

Holy Cross Church – 8 Wonders of KS 




Pfeifer, Russia


Pfeifer was founded on the west bank of the Ilava River on June 15, 1767, by the Russian Government as a Roman Catholic colony. This area was west of the Volga River and located south and west of Saratov, Russia. From the beginning of the colony, there was parochial education available in Pfeifer. The students were taught reading, writing, and religion by a local schoolmaster under the supervision of the parish priest. In 1846, St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church was built in Pfeifer. It was constructed of wood in a neoclassic style. The church contained a high altar, side altars and an organ that came from South Tyrol. The upper half of the interior walls was whitewashed whereas the lower half was finished in light blue. Pfeifer became an independent Catholic parish in 1871. The Church of St. Francis of Assisi is no longer standing.



It was a cold and crisp winter morning on January 13, 1874, and the rays of the glistening sun were sparkling upon the snow-covered fields of Pfeifer, Russia when the sound of thundering hoofs could be heard in the distance. The women called their children and scurried them into the house. The men grabbed their firearms, took cover and prepared for the worst.


For some time, they had not been molested by the ruthless, vicious, “Krighiz Raiders”. The villagers assumed they must be out marauding again. Suddenly, from nowhere, the horses and riders came into sight. It was the Cossacks, the henchmen of the new Czar, Alexander II. Everyone came out of hiding and gathered around the troops. The Captain of the Ranks read a proclamation, a manifesto of Alexander II, stating that all men from the ages of sixteen to forty are hereby conscripted for the Czars Army. For the young men, this was a challenge, but for the older men it was a grave disappointment.


Catharine II, at whose invitation they came to Russia, decreed in 1767 that all settlers along the land of the Volga would be exempt from Military Conscription for one hundred years. After they heard this announcement from the Czar, the men began to meet and discuss with other Germans living in the communities along the Volga River their options and future destiny. Life on the Volga had not been the “Land of Opportunity" as they had been led to believe. Drought, devastation, raids, disease, etc…, had all claimed their toll on the settlers. Despite all the hardships, they remained committed to living along the Volga River and they actually had prospered. They were beginning to reap the fruits of their customs, their religious freedom and military exemption. An appeal was made to Alexander II, but the reply came back and simply stated: "Military service for all men from sixteen to forty or be exiled”.


Previous to this event, agitation with the Russian government and the German colonists had taken place.  In preparation of more bad news and fearing the worse, the German colonies sent scouts to the United States to survey the opportunities they had heard about on the America frontier. Representatives of the “Hilly Side" of the Volga River, traveled to Novousenek to confer with Baltasar Brungardt, Juror of the Court of Novousenek. Mr. Brungardt appealed before the Czar for a proclamation of their rights. Finally, Alexander issued an "Ukase" extending freedom from military service for ten years during which time the people could leave Russia but they had to turn over ten percent of their property to the Government for a passport.


Word was received in all the villages with an element of joy and a strain of sorrow. Some decided they would stay, but the majority prepared for the exodus to America. On October 1, 1875, the Feast of the Holy Rosary, the families of Joseph Stremel, Michael Meder and Mathias Urban of Kamenka and Christ Stegman of Pfeifer, left the Land of the Volga for North America. They gathered with other groups of settlers at Saratov, Russia and on October 22nd, began the dreadful trek over the barren lands of Russia and arrived in Bremen, Germany. Here they took passage on the ship “Ohio” which was setting sail on November 2, 1875, and arrived at Baltimore Maryland, on November 23, 1875. With this group were also the founders of Liebenthal, Catherine and Herzog. During the trip, they were cheated, abused and forced to live like animals in the bottom of the ship. Determination and faith spurred them on. They went by train to Topeka, Kansas and with the arrival of winter; they decided to remain in Topeka, find work and then venture to western Kansas in the spring. Word was received that others from the Volga River area of Russia were also arriving at Topeka, so Michael Meder, Mathias Urban and Christ Stegman awaited the arrival of Andrew Desch, George Etzel, Anton Holzmeister, Gottlieb Jacobs, Joseph Jacobs, Matthew Jacobs, Michael Jacobs, George Schmidt, John Schmidt, Joseph Schmidt and Jacob Schoenfeld of Pfeifer,  Russia; John Meder and John Schlieter from Kamenka, Russia; John J. Basgall, Martin Appelhans, Alois Hartmann and John Basgall, son of John J. Basgall from Rothanel, Russia.  This group arrived in June of 1876.


These later group of immigrants took the same route, except for their passage was on the ship “Ilawla”, which anchored in New York. They boarded the train in New York and changed trains in St. Louis. Here they had a few hours lay-over. When some of the American youngsters at Union Station noticed these families dressed in their Russian-German clothing, and especially the men with the long hair and funny shaped hats, the kids began to poke fun at them. It didn’t take long for the men to berate these foolish young mockers and shake their fists at the kids. When they boarded the train in St. Louis, the conductor spoke to them in German, told them they would arrive at Topeka, Kansas, and at Topeka some of their people were waiting for them. Then they would go west by train and when they heard the conductor call out “Russell" they would know that they are coming near to the end of their destination. The section of land designated for this group was located in Ellis County in the Freedom Township, which was located to the southeast of Hays City. As they went past Russell and neared Hays City, the women started to cry, the men began to sing and there was great rejoicing for this culmination of this long and tiring journey. 


Founding of Pfeifer, Kansas


It was on August 20, 1876, when the group of German immigrants who had come from Russia, left Hays City and set out on foot to their “Promised Land”. Christ Stegman decided to go with the contingency leaving for Victoria. Most of these pioneers had very few belongings and they needed equipment to begin a new life. They were able to purchase items in Hays City on credit. They had brought with them from Russia various grains in the hope of raising these crops as a means of livelihood. Soon they discovered a trail leading in their direction which had been used by Indians, deer and buffalo heading toward the valley of the Smoky Hill River. Along the north side of the river they found a huge outcropping of stone, which the men knew would be a great source of building material for their homes, school and church. All agreed it was a gift from God as a reward for their sacrifices and their efforts.


The enormous bluffs of sandstone in various colors of russet, tan and intermixed with grey shale, were an imposing look-out over the valley of the Smoky Hill. The river was quite a wonderful sight with the clear water flowing so invitingly that women turned their thought to baths and laundry. They found a good place to cross the river and arrived in the valley to the area of Section 25-14-17 of Freedom Township. The land had been railroad land and was to be paid in eleven annual installments. The burden of payment was taken in shares to equalize the load of each settler. That afternoon, the cavalry from Fort Hays came out to check on the settlers because Indians had been sighted in the area. The Captain wanted them to return to Hays City for the night, but the Lieutenant reported that a group of Cheyenne renegades had been driven a considerable distance south and he felt they would not return. The settlers were allowed to spend the night and the next day set about the work of establishing their town.


Everyone began to dig out the prairie sod to form their dug-out houses. They also were quick to erect a large cross where they could gather on Sunday to say the Rosary, read passages from their German Bible and offer their prayers to God. The first priest to have Mass at Pfeifer was a missionary priest who came from Hays and also ministered to many other communities. Father Valentine Sommeriesen said the first Mass on December 10, 1876. He spoke fluent German, but the dialect of these Germans from Russia made it a little challenging. Father Sommeriesen kept busy coming to Pfeifer that first year with a monthly Mass service and 8 baptisms.


On November 12, 1877, Johannes Koeberlein, Jacob Kissner, Kasper Kissner, Adam Stegman, Matthew Stegman of Pfeifer, Russia, and John Ingenthron, Anton Stremel, Anton Stremel Jr, John Stremel, Michael Urban, Jacob Urban, Stephen Urban, George Urban, George and Jacob Burkart of Kamenka, Russia, arrived in Pfeifer. On June 20, 1878, marked the final group to settle in the community with Andrew Bahl, Peter Roth, John Peter Breit, Mrs. C. Schaefer and her son George who all came from Kamenka, Russia.  


The first marriage occurred on October 21, 1878, with Joseph Basgall and Elizabeth Schaefer united in marriage by Father Joseph Mayershofer. The settlers built their first church ( 40’ long x 28’ wide) of pine boards and on September 14, 1879, Father Joseph blessed the church at the first Mass held at that location. 


Second Church

In August of 1887, Father K. L. Withopf, a Diocesan Priest, was assigned to Pfeifer. The task of building a larger church made of stone was a project that he got started. With plenty of native limestone that could be quarried nearby, the men of the parish began to bring the limestone to town and cut and dress the stone in the fall of 1887. 1888 was a hard year for the parishioners because grass hoppers devastated their crops and the barren land did not provide much that year. Progress on the plans for the church continued with Julius Bissing from Hays City paid $25 to draw a set of building prints. In the late winter of 1889, the footings and base for the church were dug and a foundation was completed. Work continued, and on May 3, 1890, the cornerstone was laid and blessed for the new church. This cornerstone was preserved in the foundation wall of the main altar of the present day Holy Cross Church.



In 1890, they had a bumper wheat crop and each person was asked to contribute 36 bushels of wheat and a $6 assessment toward the new church. A total of 1414 bushels and 20 pounds of wheat was collected, which generated $739.06. All parishioners who were stone masons, carpenters or builders were paid for their labor on the church or they could donate their work in place of their assessment. They hauled 248 loads of sand and 125 loads of rock to the construction site. When the men finished their work on their farms, they would return to work on the church. In 1891, work progressed slowly with the walls and roof completed. Finally, by the end of August, they completed the work on the Church. John Schlitter carved a gothic style altar, and when it was brought to the church to be installed, it became apparent that it would not fit. John had overestimated his gothic points, and the highest spire capped by a large cross could not be put in place because the ceiling was not high enough. He forgot to compensate for the steps in the Sanctuary when he took his measurement. The dilemma was solved when they cut a hole in the ceiling and inserted the spire. However, the cross could not be seen because it was between the ceiling and the roof. Besides the disappointment, it did create a humorous situation for all to remember. John charged $12.35 for his labor and the total cost to build the church including furnishings was $2,595.49 with a debt of only $14.09. By January 30, 1892, that debt was paid off and the community was ready to take on their next challenges – building a school house and rectory.





Holy Cross Church

P.O. Box 5

Pfeifer, KS 67660


Holy Cross website  


In 1906, Bishop Cunningham appointed Father Peter Burkard, a Diocesan priest, as the pastor of Pfeifer.  He was ordained on August 25, 1896, and first served in the Belgium Diocese. His first appointment in the United States was at Pfeifer. One of his first tasks upon arrival was to oversee the building of a rectory to serve the administrative needs of the parish and provide for a suitable residence for the priest. That project took place in 1907 through 1908 at a time when the Germans from Russia were prospering.


In 1911, the current church that was built in 1891 was twenty years old and talk of a larger church was circulating in the community. Father Burkard laid out the plans for the financing and building of a new church. He procured the professional services of the Architectural firm of H.W. Brinkman of Emporia, Kansas. Mr. Brinkman drew and painted a sketch of the proposed church. This was displayed in the old church for the benefit of the parishioners to realize their goal of a truly impressive edifice.


A number of the parishioners began to object and oppose the building of a new church. This group comprised of farm families who lived south of Pfeifer and they felt that after building a school house, convent and rectory in recent years, they were not financially ready to take on the expense of building a large church. They withdrew from the Pfeifer congregation and eventually began their own parish and community in Rush County (Lorretto and St. Mary Help of Christians) 4 ½ miles south of Pfeifer. Before they left, they demanded their money be returned that they had contributed toward the church and received $3000 back.   


Instead of this issue causing a great crisis among the community, it had the opposite effect and the parishioners were willing and determined to get started on building a large impressive church. It was then decided to build the new structure on the same site as the present church. Due to its size, the foundation was dug around the old church. So the new church was built around the church. The men hauled stone from the quarries, provided a team of horses to help haul materials and the children would help by picking up stones in the fields to use in the concrete foundations. With the arrival of World War I, the building of the church was delayed, but on April 15, 1915, a contract was drawn up and the project began. A church fund drive began in 1916 in which each family was accessed a two cent levy on every bushel of wheat sold. The “Two Cent” church as it became known was built by the local parishioners under the direction of Father Peter Burkard at a total cost of $56,000. Work on the foundation turned out to be a huge undertaking, and it was not until the spring of 1916 that the masons laid the foundation blocks. On May 3, 1916, a granite cornerstone was installed and blessed.  Monsignor John Mahr of Salina came to celebrate this occasion on the Feast Day of the Holy Cross.



Once the walls and roof were up, the process of dismantling the old church took place. The stones of the old church were used for the inside walls and the foundation for the main altar. The church is laid out in the form of a cross. The sanctuary is the head, the transepts are the arms and the nave is the body of the cross. The main steeple rises above the wheat fields 165’ high and is topped by a gold cross. The two side steeples are 100’ high. The main entrance and its two single entrances as well as transept entrances were made of Bedford Stone, Gothic Arches and Florentine Pillars capped with carvings of wheat heads. The original communion railing is hand carved and features doors enhanced by carved figures of “The Manna in the Desert, Christ Feeding the Multitudes, The Death of Joseph and The Annunciation”. The Sanctuary is surrounded by high gothic windows and the vaulted gothic ceiling rests on tall slender quadril Ionian columns. This beautiful church is a classic artistic example of Romanesque Gothic style architect and is also known as the “Church around a church” and “The Cross in the Valley”.


The altar, which was in the old church, was built by John Schliter and placed in the sanctuary around the limestone main altar. He also carved the ornamental gothic spires on the side altars to match the main altar. On May 3, 1918, the church was solemnly blessed and dedicated. Due to the grave illness of Bishop Cunningham, Bishop Tiehan of Denver came to Pfeifer to perform the liturgical rites. After the solemn blessing, a Mass was celebrated for the first time in the new church.


In 1922, life size statues carved of native wood were imported from Munich Germany. Due to World War I, stained glass was impossible to get and it was not until 1962 under the guidance of Father Emil Sinner that the interior of the church was decorated and stained glass windows were installed. The stained glass windows depict scenes from the old and new testament and two larger images, “Christ the King” and “Mary Our Queen” tower over the transept balconies. Over the main entrance is a magnificent mosaic of the Last Judgment, designed by the Venetian artist, Bianchie. 


Due to a declining congregation and availability of priests to serve the church, the decision was made in 1993 by the Diocese of Salina to dissolve the parish. On July 6, 1993, the last regular Mass was held at Holy Cross Church. Funeral Masses and weddings are still held at the church and two special Masses are celebrated each year. A traditional Catholic Mass service is held on a Sunday afternoon in May on or near the date to commemorate the original dedication of the church on May 3, 1918. The Exaltation of the Cross Feast Day is on September 14th and the Holy Cross Church holds a special mass to celebrate this feast day.

In order to maintain and preserve the church and cemetery, the remaining few parishioners formed Holy Cross Charities, Inc., a non-profit corporation that relies solely on contributions to preserve the church and keep it open. The church is unlocked each morning and tours can be set up by appointment by calling 785-735-2395.


Holy Cross Charities welcomes donations to help maintain and preserve the church.







Pfeifer School


A two story frame house that was located east of the first church was used as a school until 1891. The old frame church that was built in the summer of 1879 was then turned into a school when the first stone church was completed in August1891. One teacher was paid to teach all grade levels, but with the growth of the community meant larger enrollments at the school. In 1896, a fund was started to build a new schoolhouse. Father Emmeram O.F.M. Cap. was the pastor at the time and it was his mission to develop the idea of a Parochial school and have nuns staff the school. The fundraising efforts generated $1,020.26 in 1896 and $540.84 in 1897, with each communicant contributing bushels of wheat to help pay their share. In 1897, Father Clemens O.F. M. Cap replaced Father Emmeram and he was then in charge of having the schoolhouse built. Justus Bissing, from Hays City, was paid $20 to draw up the plans for a two story building made of native limestone.



Again, the plentiful limestone from the nearby bluffs was used as the building material, and the men hauled and dressed the stone as they had done for the first stone church. The school was completed in 1897. It was an impressive structure 2 ½ stories tall, pinnacled with a beIl tower, a school bell and peaked with a cross. Bishop Hennessey from Wichita came and blessed the school on May 3, 1897. The first teachers at the new school were Father Clemens and lay teacher from the community. In 1901, Father Joseph L. Trageser O.F.M. Cap. came to Pfeifer and was instrumental in getting the school staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kansas. In 1904, the enrollment averaged 150 students, and in 1968 it was 28. The schoolhouse and was closed in May 1976 and is not in use today except by special arrangements for church or community gatherings. 







Holy Cross Rectory


The priest house located south of the church was built in 1907-1908 and is currently used as a private residence. Men from the parish built the house with native limestone they quarried from nearby. The main floor had an office, parlor, dining room and kitchen. The upper story had a front and back staircase. The second floor contained five spacious bedrooms and a large bathroom. A small room had an outside door which opened on the west side onto a balcony above the porch.


After Father Peter Burkard took up residence at the rectory in 1908, his mother, a sister and brother-in-law also came to live with him. His brother-in-law was a contractor in Bavaria and it was under his capable assistance that the men of Pfeifer learned the art of artistically facing the limestone. The house is on private property and is not open to the public but can be viewed from the street in front of the church.



Holy Cross Cemetery


The Holy Cross Cemetery is located west of Pfeifer near the intersection Schoenchen Road and 330th Ave. A visit to this small country cemetery provides a wonderful opportunity to see artistic grave markers that are unique to cemeteries where German-Russian immigrants were buried over 100 years ago. There are 50 iron crosses that mark the graves of the founders of Pfeifer and the early pioneers. The first recorded burial is that of 47 year old Jacob Kirbes who died on April 10, 1880. 




A special memorial plaque was placed in the cemetery altar in honor of Bishop Stephen Appelhans. He was a local boy from Pfeifer that went on to become a Bishop in the Catholic Church. He was born and baptized in Pfeifer in 1905, and was the son of Mr. and Mrs. John Applehans. Although at an early age his parents and family moved to Spearville, Kansas, the Pfeifer community was so proud of him when he became a priest and served as a missionary in New Guinea. Due to his outstanding work among the natives, he was designated by Pope Pius XII, as Vicar Apostolic of East New Guinea and Titular Bishop of of Catula in 1948. On November 30, 1948, he was Consecrated a Bishop in the Motherhouse of the Society of the Divine Word. He later came back to Pfeifer to celebrate a Pontifical Mass at Holy Cross Church and a banquet was given in his honor by members of the parish. On July 16, 1951, Bishop Appelhans was killed in a plane crash. The memorial slab placed in the cemetery altar indicates the date of his death and other important dates in his life.   





Smoky Hill Bluffs


As you drive approximately 2 ½ miles west on the county gravel road (Schoenchen Road) that leads west past the cemetery, you will see the Smoky Hill Bluffs to the north. Although this area is on private property and public access is not permitted, you can see the bluffs from the county road that dead-ends near the river. These impressive rock and shale formations that tower above the river bed were formed during the geological era known as the Cretaceous period. Kansas was underwater and at the bottom of the Cretaceous Interior Sea. Over the course of millions of years, deposits of sediment, mud and sand formed layers upon layers that eventually turned into sandstone, chalk and shale. Preserved in the surface rocks in this area are the fossilized remains of many of the prehistoric creatures that lived 70 to 100 million years ago. At the bottom of bluffs would be the oldest time period and the ocean sediments continued to build layer by layer. The limestone and sandstones were then formed through millions of years of compaction, pressure and cemented by the precipitation of minerals within the pore spaces between sand grains and sediment. When you look at the layers of rock and shale, you are basically looking at a chart of millions of years of history.  WOW!


The areas that appear white on the aerial image are actually the limestone, chalk and light colored rock along the north face of the bluffs. The trees are along the Smoky Hill River, which has cut a horseshoe shaped area into the landscape and continues to wear away the south face of the bluffs.


The bluffs were formed through the natural process of erosion which has occurred for millions of years since the waters of the inland sea receded and valleys, streams and rivers were formed across the flat sea bed. The Smoky Hill River is one river that has changed the shape of much of the landscape of Kansas, especially in the western part of the state. The power of the flowing river gradually cut out and eroded away the chalk and shale deposits leaving the hardened limestone and sandstone formations. Mother Nature also worked on the stone through wind, rain, snow and ice that broke huge chucks of stone into smaller rocks, pebbles and sand that tumbled down the cliffs and were also carried away down the river. The elements and forces of nature continue to wear away at the bluffs each year – especially after a hard rain that breaks down the softer materials and carries them further down towards the river bed. This area, and other areas along the roadside cut-outs where you can see rock and shale outcroppings, are excellent places to view nature at work in the geological process. More information about the Cretaceous period and the fossils found in this area can be learned at the Sternberg Musuem of Natural History located in Hays, Kansas.







The last remaining business in Pfeifer was the Post Office that was closed on December 30, 2008, but at one time there were over a dozen businesses in town. A partial list of some of the stores that served the people of Pfeifer included: John Urban’s repair shop, Jacob Falkenstein Grocery Store and Creamery, John Baumgardner’s Garage & Gas station, George Breit Grocery, Leo Stramel Grocery and Meats, two grist flour mills, a blacksmith and repair shop run by Casper Seitz.  Joe Herman had a garage, gas station and bulk wagon business and Alex Burgardt ran a grocery store, creamery and gas pump. There were also five men in business (Joe & George Dome, Joe & George Jacobs and John Degenhardt) with a creamery, grocery store and dance hall. The Post Office began operations on March 15, 1887, with Casper Holzmeister as the first postmaster. Others in the office were John J. Falkenstein, Ned Stramel, Leo Stramel and Carol Billinger. The business buildings that remain standing on the Pfeifer Main Street (Sarratov Street) are not open to the public and access is not permitted, but are viewable from the street.






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