The Events at the Cathedral of Saint Dion-On-The-Prairie
By Jeff Baker
People traveling down what locals just call The Old Highway, located between Kingman and Millington in Western Kansas, will take note of a structure that is at times mistaken for a grain elevator but upon closer inspection will reveal itself as what is left of a small, but nonetheless magnificent cathedral, built approximately 1899-1911 and done as a smaller version of similar Gothic cathedrals that once dotted the landscapes of France and Germany before the Wars.
Indeed the Gothic pile is a magnificent sight and has featured in more than one travel calendar, usually silhouetted against a setting sun with a car passing by on the highway.
Upon closer inspection, visitors would find the place in remarkably good shape although abandoned. The only damage is to the wooden roof of the low cloister which was torn off by a storm which spared the sturdy stone structure. All the churchly things, relics and even gold and the like had been removed and were in Diocesan hands, but the altar was still there as was the set of sturdy wooden pews and cushioned kneelers. These visitors must be escorted, however, as the structure is sealed off by a row of barbed wire and warning signs that speak of danger and an unsafe building. Doubtless to dissuade the young and impetuous from damaging an architectural relic. But there are other stories.
Now the garrulous in the area, sill believing in wives tales, spread stories of a less-solid nature involving reasons the structure was abandoned. Some say that the “Saint Dion” who was the cathedral’s namesake was not a Saint as the Church knows saints but an entity demanding a different worship and that the building had been closed and cleansed (by Holy Rite) for that reason
The most persistent story was that part of the very floor had been constructed from headstones removed from the old churchyard when the small collection of the slumbering was moved to the site of the new cathedral and new stones were erected. This was a common practice then and as the stones had been replaced, few gave it a second thought.
The one certain story in this cacophony of myth is an account of events written down from the lips of one who saw them. The handwritten manuscript is the account of Father M—, a young and energetic priest who came to St. Dion’s in the years before what the manuscript calls “The Great War.”
Now it so happened that this young priest was well-versed in legend and superstition. He realized that if the cathedral itself was a vessel of superstition instead of the work of Heaven, there would be those who would be reluctant to enter or who would be full of doubt or thoughts of darksome things that should not be contemplated in a holy place. One of the workers responsible for the erection of the cathedral had left before it’s construction had been finished, speaking of “a whispering at dusk.” Upon investigation of the matter, Father M— found a reluctance of the remaining workers to even venture near the building as sunset approached. These were mostly big, strong men, not given to undue fears or fantasies, known to do some carousing in nearby towns after hours. Not the type to run in fear from a creaking in the night. So the young priest made it his crusade to stay in the cathedral and expose what he called “un-churchly nonsense.” He made certain to make it known that he would be staying the night in the cathedral, to alert whatever human agency he believed responsible for the supposed haunting. He set up a small bedroll in one of the rooms down the hall from the sanctuary, the room that might be used as a residence, took a small supply of dried fruit, a favorite book and a flashlight and set out to wait for whatever prankster was playing ghost.
He was convinced that the source of the sounds would be the wind whistling along the prairie, much as the moaning in old Scottish castles was credited to the wind blowing through the passageways. Indeed, his first evening there he heard wind but nothing that could be mistaken for whispering. He wondered if from his location in the structure he might have missed the sounds. So, the next night, he made certain to plant himself in the sanctuary and after a time of prayer set out to walk the length of the room, keeping alert.
He almost missed it. On the third evening, as the sun was setting, he heard a slight, muffled sound, not intelligible but somehow with the feel of a murmur and the clipped pauses which speak of whispered human speech. He began to trace the sounds, walking as softly as he could.
He believed that the source of this trickery would be either a phonograph left in the building and somehow rigged to start playing, or one of the local youths in person seeking to frighten the superstitious. Nonetheless, the young Priest was still cautious as he entered the small room just to the right of the sanctuary. It was there that the whispering was more distinct and he saw shadowy figures, half as tall as he was. From what he could see in the dim light of dusk, the skinny figures (there were about eight of them) were seated on the floor. Before he could call out, there was a reflected glint of the fading light from the high window and he saw that the figures sitting down on the stone floor were not human but skeletal. As one, they turned their sightless eyes to look at him and then began clicking their teeth together making a most disconcerting rattle as they all lay down, or seemed to as they melted into the shadows of the room.
Here, any attempts to discern more of this story have met with failure. Doubtless the young priest made it to the small village and babbled out his story to someone who either wrote it down or later told it to one who wrote it down. But this story should be thought of as a first-or-secondhand account of the events. I am not certain of the fate of the young priest, or even of his identity as this detail was omitted from the story. Doubtless he either did not stay in the area or he was one of those Fathers who grew old in the service of his small community and did not speak of those events again. On fact is certain; shortly afterward barbed wire was strung about the edifice, preventing the curious and unwary from stumbling into it at the fatal hour of dusk.
Author’s Note: As should be obvious, an homage the great ghost-story writer M. R. James, translated to the Kansas prairie of just over a hundred years ago. There are all sorts of abandoned structures on the plains, many with stories to tell. I have seen some of them, but I have not heard them whisper.—-j.s. baker