The opening ceremonies of the new Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church was a great moment for this community of Czech settlers. The newspaper reported a crowd of eight to ten thousand at the event, although after 1,100 people crammed into the church, no more were admitted.
It is likely that among the crowd was 30-year-old artist Godfrey Flury and his young wife, newly wed in the same church. Flury had good reason to attend the ceremonies, for he was the Michelangelo of the little rural church: His paintings adorned its walls and ceilings. Today, Flury's paintings, as well as the architecture of the building and its elaborate altars and window and other decorations, have earned St. Mary's a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
St. Mary's is one of 15 churches in Texas designated by the Register as a "painted church," and one of three in Fayette County; the others are in Ammannsville and High Hill. The town of Dubina also has a church with a painted interior, though it does not bear the official designation.
These four churches make a lovely day's driving tour. They stand just a few miles apart, nestled in gently rolling hills. Two-lane roads wind through the countryside, revealing pastoral scenes at each bend. Fields are immaculate, gold and green, punctuated by tidy farm houses and tree-rimmed ponds reflecting the sky. Fences are in perfect repair, hay bales are lined up neatly. The churches are miniatures, but their spires stand higher than anything around, sentinels above the treetops.
Fayette Country, located within the triangle formed by Houston, San Antonio, and Austin, has strong German and Czech flavors. Streets and stores bear names such as Klesel and Watzlavick, many locals speak German and Czech among themselves, polka music plays on the radio, sausages and sauerkraut are menu staples.
Many residents are descendants of German and Czech immigrants who entered the country through Galveston in the 1850s. Tenant farmers squeezed by industrialization in their homelands, they came to America seeking a better life and land of their own. Recognizing good, fertile soil, they settled in the Texas hills.
"It was always these people's fondest desire to have their own church, their own parish with a resident priest," said Gold. Their first church buildings were wooden structures served by visiting priests, but they either burned, blew down in storms, or were outgrown.
The communities were well-established by the turn of the last century, when they built the churches that stand now. The churches are designed in the then-fashionable Gothic Revival style, with vaulted ceilings and pointed arches. St. Mary's was designed by Leo M.J. Dielman, an eminent architect of churches. Parishioners made sure their sturdy little structures had all the trimmings--stained glass, elaborately carved altars, statues, and painted walls and ceilings. To enter these churches is to step from the spacious simplicity of the Texas landscape into the richness of the Victorian Catholic's vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.
And parishioners donated land, did all the hauling and building, and donated much of the church decor. "My daddy hauled a lot of bricks--at least that's what he always told us," said Adie Winkler, a descendant of German immigrants who has lived in High Hill all but two years of her life. Winkler was married in St. Mary's at High Hill church, as were her parents and two of her children. Winkler can point with pride to the stained glass window in the front right, next to the pulpit, donated by her grandparents.
Donors' names sometimes appear on the bottom of the windows. On the Ammannsville church windows, Czech inscriptions read daravala (donated by one person), darali (two people); and daroval (a group). Windows on the right side of the church depict male saints and windows on the left female because congregations were so separated in early days.
The painted ceilings--and at one time, walls--of all four churches were part fashion of the times, part nostalgia for places left behind. "These are folk-art interpretations of the painted churches in Europe," said Bruce Jensen of the Texas Historical Commission. (The Sistine Chapel could be considered the mother of all painted churches.) Behind the altar in the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Praha is a dreamy painting of St. Vitus' cathedral in Prague, for which the town is named. (Praha is Czech for Prague.)