Why Volga Germans Settled in Kansas

St. Catherine’s Catholic Church in Catharine, KS

Near the end of Empress Catherine the Great’s rule of Russia, a group of Volga Germans from Katharinenstadt, Russia, had decided to immigrate to the United States.

According to the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, residents Katharinenstadt were driven to move to the United States after the ruling Czar of Russia forwent many of Catherine the Great’s promises.

In search of religious freedom and cheap farmland, the first group of Volga Russians found themselves in Hays, Kansas. From Hays, they searched for nearby unsettled lands.

Map of Northwest Kansas courtesy of Directory.org

This group found great promise in an area nine miles northeast of Hays, which they named Catherine after Catherine the Great and their former home of Katharinenstadt.

The since-closed Catherine school building.

By April of 1867, Volga German settlers officially founded the town of Catherine. Very quickly, the settlers built homes and buildings, such as their post office, school and church.

One of the key important pieces of the community was St. Catherine’s Catholic Church.

According to Aimee Young, a descendant of the first settlers of Catherine, “Although the majority of Volga Germans from the area were not Roman Catholic, the church quickly became the main pillar of Catherine’s community.”

In fact, even before the church was built, community members would hold church services inside homes, outside homes and in the school. A prominent early settler of Catherine, Jacob “der Schulmeister” Schmidt led church services and the church’s choir. Descendants, like Young, attribute the continuation of the Roman Catholic religion’s importance in the area to Schmidt.

“As a great-great-great grandchild of the Schulmeister, I am proud to see how his teachings and promotion of the Catholic church has made an impact on the town of Catherine and even Hays,” Young stated. “Even in my life, my family taught me how important religion was to our culture and our values.”

The abandoned old post office of Catherine, Kansas.

Today, Catherine is an unincorporated town with just over 110 residents. Although the community has grown smaller over time, it still boasts its Catholic church, which still operates today. The town still is also survived by other architecture that was created after its founding in the late 1800s, like its school building.

Even with the community growing smaller, the town still serves as a point of history and heritage for Volga German descendants who trace back their ancestry to Catherine’s first settlers.

Young said, “I’m proud to say that my family is from Catherine. The hard work that my immigrant ancestors did to get there and create the community of Catherine has shaped who I am and my values.”

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Journalism student at the University of Kansas | Ghosted in America Podcast Host

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Abby Peeler

Abby Peeler

Journalism student at the University of Kansas | Ghosted in America Podcast Host

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