2016-06-30
On November 20, 1895, the little Central Texas town of Praha was abuzz with a great event. A brass band played and throngs of people crowded the streets. Guest of honor, the Most Reverend John A. Forest, archbishop of San Antonio, was escorted through town by a group of priests, 100 men on horseback, and "100 young ladies costumed in white with wreaths upon their brows," reported the San Antonio Daily Express.

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.

These were solid, hardworking people, practical and levelheaded. They built houses with square corners, farmed cotton, and made sure all their fenceposts were aligned. "There was not a lazybones among them," said Theresa Gold, a docent at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio. As soon as they had enough numbers, they turned their attention to matters of the soul.

"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.)

Over the years, decorations on the walls of the High Hill and Praha churches were covered over, but paintings on the vaulted ceilings remain in excellent condition. The delicate designs and tromp l'oeil pink marble columns of St. Mary's at High Hill were painted in 1912 by San Antonio artists Ferdinand Stockert and Hermann Kern. The Art Nouveau fancies at St. John's and the bold Moravian designs at SS. Cyril & Methodious at Dubina were painted by transient artists whose names have been lost over time.

Decorations on walls and ceilings in the church at Dubina were covered over in the 1950s, but when Fayette County Judge Ed Janecka, whose family was among the first town settlers, returned to his home county in 1983, he suggested restoring the original designs. With turpentine and care, he revealed angels at the tops of pillars, and had stencils for other designs recreated. Then, the parish got together and repainted the church.

Alongside the churches are Catholic school buildings, now closed, and community centers used for various events and parish fete days. An old but still active K.J.T. hall (Katolik Jednota Texaska, or the Catholic Union of Texas) stands near the Dubina church. Also nearby are outdoor restrooms with signs reading muzske (men) and zenske (women) and some rickety ruins of the original town. Fresh flowers adorn graves old and new in the impeccably tended church cemeteries. By the Praha church stands a monument to nine soldiers killed in World War II. Praha boasts one of the nation's largest annual Veterans Day remembrances.

Remarkably, these little churches still hold services. When they were built, travel was difficult and so the churches were built within only a few miles of each other. Today, they are just hanging on as active parishes. The worldwide shortage of priests requires many tend more than one flock, and the Reverend Edward Bartsch ministers to both the Praha and High Hill congregations. Bartsch ministered to the High Hill congregation as a young man, then left and returned in the 1990s. "When I was here the first time in 1950, I heard confessions in German," he recalled. "I knew enough German to understand the basic sins and assign a few prayers."

These says, Bartsch said, much of the local Catholic church activity centers on the modern church in Schulenburg. As congregations dwindle, he fears the diocese will eventually close the churches for all but tours, weddings, funerals, and other occasions. This would mark the passing of an era in Texas history. But the little churches, a cultural legacy, are built to last, and will watch over the Texas hills as long as we treasure them.

For information about the painted churches, contact the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 65, 101-B Kessler Ave, Schulenburg, Texas 78956; 409-743-4514. Churches are open for touring Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pick up a driving tour map at the La Grange visitors' information center on Jefferson Street, or at the Schulenburg visitors' information center on State Highway 77. Visitors are welcome to attend services, though casual tours during services are discouraged. Visitors may also hire step-on guides through the Schulenburg chamber.

Other painted churches in Texas are: Church of the Guardian Angels in Wallis, Wesley Bretheren Church in Welcome, St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church in Lindsay, St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Galveston, St. Mary's Catholic Church in Fredericksburg, First Methodist Church in Paris, Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church in Moravia, Church of the Immaculate Conception of Blessed Virgin Mary in St. Mary's, SS. Cyril and Methodious Church in Shiner, Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Peace in Sweet Home, First Baptist Church in Amarillo, and St. Mary's Catholic Church in Umbarger.

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