This special edition post of travelbynatasha.com is dedicated to the sisters of Delta Delta Delta. They are the ones who made this trip special.
Shortly before 9 am on a spring Friday morning we left Houston to visit the historical Painted Churches of Texas near Schulenburg. This small central Texas town on the Old Spanish Trail is approximately halfway from Houston to San Antonio, Texas. It is also about an hour and a half from Austin. This area was settled primarily by German and Czech-speaking immigrants.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, “[t]he largest ethnic group in Texas derived directly from Europe was persons of German birth or descent. As early as 1850, they constituted more than 5 percent of the total Texas population, a proportion that remained constant through the remainder of the nineteenth century.” Even as late as the 1990 census, “Germans rank[ed] behind Hispanics [to] form the third-largest national-origin group in the state.” Schulenburg sits in the heart of this German Belt.
Both my paternal grandparents grew up in Moulton, Texas, just 21 miles from Schulenburg (and only 12 miles from Praha where the final church we will visit is located). I grew up going to the Catholic and Lutheran Churches in this area. I still attend the annual fall festival at St. Joseph’s in Moulton; 28-year-old Rocky has attended more than 20 times. Yes, this is a family tradition and this area feels like home.
I grew up worshiping in Catholic churches like the ones we visited never thinking they were different or special. Maybe they were older than the Cathedral parish that was my home in Victoria (a little farther south), but the Roman altars I thought looked like castles as a child were part of my religious and cultural identity.
Maybe that is why I am drawn to visiting churches when in Europe, particularly the painted ones in places like Krakow, Munich, and Budapest.
This year our Houston sorority alumnae group wanted to offer a range of social gatherings that appealed to Tri Delta alumnae of all ages. Our membership includes recent college graduates to 90+year old members who have celebrated their diamond circle degree (75 years of membership). These events would go beyond our traditional annual events and vary from year to year.
Natasha got tapped to lead this new Sisters Connect concept. Along with a committee, I planned six events. The tour of the Painted Churches was our first choice and the only one among this inaugural year’s offerings to be a day-long event. My event chair Connie and I made a test run in July to visit the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce and check out a few dining options.
Our group traveled by chartered bus from a church in west central Houston. We left just after the morning rush hour and made the trip in about an hour and a half, enjoying the beautiful Texas wildflowers along the highway. That said, I not sure most people were looking out the windows. The conversation was lively and the volume on the bus pretty high.
We enjoyed coffee and homemade cinnamon rolls made by one of our chapter members, Madelyn before arriving at the Chamber of Commerce office next to the railroad tracks and across from the city’s historic downtown buildings. Our local guide joined the group here. I highly recommend engaging one of the local guides. The cost is only $10/person and she gives travel instruction and church and social commentary. We learned a great deal from Sharon. She is a volunteer. The $10 is divided equally between the four churches and the chamber ($2 per visitor to each) to help with the restoration efforts.
Our first stop was St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, in High Hill, Texas referred to as the “Queen of the Painted Churches”. This facade of the church is made entirely of handmade red bricks. This church lies among the tree-less fields cleared for the planting of cotton. The name High Hill was chosen by the community to remind them of the hills in Germany and Austria that they left behind.
This is the third church to be built on this site. The land was deeded to the parish in 1868 and the first church constructed in 1869. A second larger church was built in 1876 and the original church became the parish school. The irreplaceable stained glass from Munich was stored in a local barn when a hurricane came through the area. It was incorporated into the third church built in 1906. The beautiful interior painting was added in 1912.
The church is a classic example of the Gothic Revival style. Like all the churches we are visiting this day, it is reflective of the materials and style reminiscent of the settlers’ homeland. It is now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Next to the church is a small home, charming in and of itself, which offers a gift shop run by volunteers. We made a stop before departing just to offer support for their church and the restoration efforts. There are crafts, religious items, and memorabilia. The shop did offer for sale a pamphlet covering the history of the church ($10) and another detailing the interior decoration of the church ($5). During my first visit to the Chamber of Commerce I picked up the “Schulenburg ‘Offical home of the Painted Churches’ Historic & Scenic Driving Tours” ($5). They are also available at the High Hill gift shop. This was the only church on our tour that offered a gift shop.
High Hill is only 3 miles north of Interstate 10 and Schulenburg, Texas. Current restoration efforts were completed in 2011 and St. Mary’s now appears in all its’ glory. As you enter the church you find old German on the wall. On the north side is psalm 47:10 and translates to “We have received O Lord Your divine mercy within Your temple.” The church’s fall festival is held each year on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.
Our second stop was St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammansville, Texas. During the short drive over, we enjoyed more of the plentiful Texas wildflowers and drove past the charming KJT Hall just north of the church. The Hall once served as a church, a school, a meeting place, and a library. Today it is used for reunions, wedding receptions, and the parish picnic on Fathers’ Day weekend. Unfortunately, the Hall is not air conditioned.
My favorite part of St. John’s was the beautiful white wood exterior. I did not find the interior particularly attractive, but I am not a big fan of mauve or overhead florescent lights. Like the High Hill church, St. John’s featured the three Roman Altars made in San Antonio, Texas by a craftsman who copied the Italian style popular during this time. In St. John’s the altars were painted white, reflective of a slightly different cultural preference of the group that started the church.
Like the High Hill church, the current church is the third iteration. The first church from 1909 was destroyed by a storm; the second church was destroyed by fire, although some of the statutes were saved by parishioners that rushed inside the burning church to save them. The present church was started in 1917.
I was very surprised to learn that the interior painting, like that at St. Mary’s in High Hill, was done on canvas. The canvas was then transferred and attached to the walls and ceilings. The interior of St. John’s features stenciling and marbling techniques. Noteworthy is the fact that the stained glass on the left side of the church features all female saints (except for one panel featuring Jesus) while the right side is male saints. Female parishioners sat on the left side (like today’s wedding guests of the bride sit on the left side) while males sat on the right. Small hat clips are featured on the pews on the left side. Similarly, often statutes of angels found on the left side of the church are in pink robes, while those on the right are in blue robes.
Oddly, both side altars feature large statutes of the Virgin Mary. Usually Mary is just featured on one of the side altars. The Madonna to the left has the unique features of a different Czech minority group. A female patron with this heritage paid to have the statute added as a tribute to her heritage and to gain a sense of the familiar. Note Jesus’ dangling sandal. There are stories of the child Jesus escaping his parents which are associated with this depiction of Mary and the infant Jesus.
Outside was a wonderful cemetery beside a lake featuring beautiful statuary. I hope to have time to walk through and take pictures on my next visit. Yes, I am already planning a next time.
Our final stop before lunch was Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church in Dubina, Texas built in 1912. The community’s name came from the Czech word Dub, meaning a grove of oak trees. The first settlers came in 1856 from the northeastern area of Moravia. An earlier church on this site was destroyed in a tropical storm in July of 1909, but the iron cross on the steeple was salvaged from that structure. The original church was constructed in 1877 after the Civil War. That church was topped with the same iron cross made by freed slave and blacksmith, Tom Lee. Alan Oakes, C.S.P., Dubina: Giant Oaks from Acorns Grow.
In 1952 the church was “modernized” and much of the beautiful painted artwork was covered in a gray-green paint. Fortunately, the upper portions of the wall were left uncovered.
Later restoration in the 1980s removed the paint and the parishioners themselves-not trained artists-added the stencil work that is seen today on the lower portion of the walls. Although some liberties were taken, some of the original stencils were found and some of the original artwork uncovered. “Judge Ed Janecka recalled as an altar boy seeing the faint traces of the earlier designs when the sunlight hit the walls of the church.” Alan Oakes, C.S.P., from a retelling by Judge Ed Janecka who led the restoration efforts on the church, Dubina: Giant Oaks from Acorns Grow.
The parish later paid a trained artist to add the the stars on the ceiling. The work was done in the style of Michangelo, with scaffolding and the artist lying on his back. If you look closely, you can see that the stars are of various sizes.
Today the community at Dubina numbers only about 200. Their parish feast is on the first Sunday of July.
From Dubina, we made our way back to Schulenburg for lunch at a charming old home that had been renovated to accommodate a restaurant. There was wonderful outdoor seating which some of us enjoyed on this beautiful day. In the July, Connie and I had had our lunch in the cool, air conditioned interior.
The Garden Company also has a wonderful gift shop and garden center behind the restaurant and many of our sisters enjoyed a little shopping after lunch. At the restaurant’s request, we had a late lunch at 1:30 pm to avoid the Friday lunch crowd. As soon as we sat down, they took our drink orders and served us beverages. We had pre-ordered our food selections and it came out very quickly. I recommend the pre-order option if you are traveling in a large group.
Our final church visit was to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha, Texas eight miles west of Schulenburg. The community was first settled by Czech-Moravian families in 1854. St. Mary’s Parish was established in 1855. The stone church we visited today was built in 1895. The stone used in the church’s construction is from a nearby quarry. It was hauled by oxen to the church site.
As with many of the churches built during this time, much of the labor used in the construction of the church was provided by the parishioners themselves. I am proud to say that my own paternal family, mostly carpenters, help build both the Catholic church, St. Joseph’s (paternal grandmother’s family, the Broschs) and the the Lutheran church (paternal grandfather’s family, the Janssens) in Moulton, just 12 miles from Praha.
In this church the shape of the vaulted ceiling to resemble an overturned boat is quite pronounced. Unlike the canvas-painted ceilings in the churches we saw early in the tour, it is obvious that this painting is done directly on the wood. The ceiling painting done by a Swiss-born artist Gottfried Flury from Moulton is original. The depictions are meant to be reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome. It is amazing that the beautiful color is still vibrant even though the work has never been repainted. Preservation is most likely the reason that we were not allowed to turn the lights on in the church.
Although the ceiling is original, the church has undergone extensive renovation to maintain this structure originally built in 1895; renovation work is detailed on the church’s website. Pictures of the work are also online. The church’s Ambo or pulpit, removed in 1965 post Vatican II, has been lovingly returned and restored. The canopy had been lost, but a replacement was crafted by an artist from nearby Moulton.
The interior boasts some beautiful painted wood door panels and confessionals. On the main altar there are also two wood statutes carved from wood from the Black Forest in Germany.
Also within the church is a stained glass panel depicting a mother pelican piercing her own breast to feed her young. The image was found in several of the churches we visited. “The symbolism of the mother pelican feeding her little baby pelicans is rooted in an ancient legend which preceded Christianity. The legend was that in time of famine, the mother pelican wounded herself, striking her breast with the beak to feed her young with her blood to prevent starvation…Given this tradition, one can easily see why the early Christians adapted it to symbolize our Lord, Jesus Christ…The pelican symbolizes Jesus our Redeemer who gave His life for our redemption…Moreover, Jesus continues to feed us with His body and blood in the holy Eucharist.” Fr. William P. Sanders, “The Symbolism of the Pelican”, The Catholic Herald. The image also appears on the Louisiana state flag.
Outside you will find the traditional grotto with a statute of Mary. Additionally, there are three small covered monuments to commemorate the death of the nine members of the community who left to fight in World War II. None of them returned. An annual remembrance service featuring a flyover and flower drop is held each year. The community feast held in August is called the Prazka Pout which means homecoming.
Our touring complete, we returned to Schulenburg to drop our guide Sharon off at the Visitors Center. On our way out of town, we drove by Senglemann Hall. One of our chapter members is married to a member of the Senglemann family. Connie read an account from her father-in-law about the building, a dance hall that was hit hard by prohibition. Today a restaurant serving German food is on the ground floor. Connie and I had a chance to tour the upstairs dance hall and balcony when we visited back in July.
It was a wonderful day. We were headed against traffic on the ride back to Houston and made good time. In route we enjoyed wine and snacks. We pulled into the parking lot at 5:28, meeting our 5:30 ETA. The lenten season was a wonderful time to make this special trip, reminding me of my cultural and religious heritage and celebrating this spiritual season. Sharing the day with my sisters made it all the more special. I recommend a trip out to see the Painted Churches of Texas, a spiritual journey of beauty and heritage.