The Painted Churches of Texas

St. Mary's Church of the Assumption
A group of 19th century country churches between Houston and San Antonio have -- somehow -- managed to survive into the 21st century, and they are now --collectively -- one of the most popular tourist attractions in the whole state. They're known as "The Painted Churches of Texas", and they survived because descendants of those who built them are determined to keep them alive. Houston Public Radio's Jim Bell reports.

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The "Painted Churches" are Catholic and Lutheran churches built by east European immigrants who settled in the Brazos and Colorado river valleys of central Texas in the middle and late 19th century. From the outside, they're just ordinary looking country churches, with white frame or stone siding and tall steeples. Inside is another story. All around the hand carved altars and statuary, nearly every surface is covered with bright paintings. Murals cover the walls, vaulted ceilings, wooden columns, and baseboards. Inscriptions are written in the mother tongues of those who built them, and their story is the story of people striving to survive and succeed in a new country and preserve the values and culture of their homelands.

They poured into Texas by the thousands, and founded communities and towns with names like High Hill, Dubina, Praha, Moravia, Shiner, Ammansville, and Fredricksburg, just to name a few. Many of their descendants live there today, including Fayette County Judge Ed Janecka, who was born and raised in Dubina, just off the Interstate near Schulenburg.

"There are over a million people of Czech descent in the state of Texas. It is the third most popular language still spoken in Texas today, it's English, Spanish and then Czech. We have tried very hard to keep our traditions going. Although I'm a fifth generation Texan, we still speak a little Czech every now and then."

Janecka says his immigrant forebears were devout Catholics who wanted their churches to look just like those they left behind in Europe.

"This was their heritage, this is what they had in the old country, and this was a little taste of the old country. The same reason that they named the towns like Moravia and Praha and Dubina and places like that. I mean they picked this part of Fayette County because it reminded them a great deal of their homeland in Moravia."

The Painted Churches haven't always looked as beautiful as they appear today. It's taken a lot of restoration and the maintenance is never-ending. Janecka says for reasons now forgotten, someone painted over the brilliantly painted interior of Saints Cyril and Methodius church at Dubina, and in the 1980s he personally helped to remove that paint and restore the interior.

"We knew that there were angels above each pillar, because we had pictures of that. What we did was set up scaffolding after mass, and it was like an archaeological find. You'd put a little paint remover here or there, and whatever, and you'd find a little hand or leaf or whatever, and after a while you found what was the remnants of an angel, and I protected it as much as we could and then I kind of put a little artist's interpretation and painted it back to the way it is now."

A few miles from Dubina in the High Hill community, there's the equally historic St. Mary's Catholic Church, founded by German immigrants in 1869. This church outgrew the first two buildings, and the building that's still there today was built in 1906. Leo Kainer was born and raised at High Hill, lived away in Houston for a long time, and moved back home when he retired a few years ago. Kainer says St. Mary's is regarded as the Queen of the Painted Churches.

"The people who are parishoners here and the people in surrounding communities who aren't parishioners, consider this a treasure. This isn't the only one, but this is one of the European style churches that are very well taken care of by the parishioners and by the community."

Kainer says no matter where he's lived over the years, his heart has always been at St. Mary's, because it's where he was baptised and served as an altar boy so many years ago. He says he and his wife just naturally returned to High Hill and St. Mary's when he retired, because worshiping there amid the beauty of this old world church makes them feel they're part of something very old, and gives them a feeling of belonging they couldn't find in the big city.

"We belonged to a Catholic church in Houston, brand new church, millions of dollars in building, got stained glass windows, but it's modern architecture. It doesn't bring our past back to us like this one does for us. This one's got a special message that you don't have to hear. It's just there."

The Painted Churches are now known worldwide. In 1984, fifteen of the churches were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and they're attracting tourists and historians from all over the United States and the world. Four of the churches are a short drive from Schulenburg, where Chamber of Commerce President Vickie Woodard works overtime keeping up with the tourists.

"Last year, first quarter, 7000, that we could count, coming through here. And our town is less than three thousand people. And that's just counting the first quarter of the year during our tourism season."

And those are just the tourists the Chamber knows about. The Painted Churches are listed in every travel and tourism guide in the country, in print and on the Internet, which means uncountable thousands of people come to see them every year, on their own or in guided tours. Woodard calls it "heritage tourism" -- traveling for important personal reasons, not just for sight-seeing.

"These people come in to do research on their heritage. They go over to LaGrange to the library, to the archives, to find out that they came in through Galveston, to find out what happened to their family, to find out the history of their name. People want to go see these things that they've heard about."

Woodard says the tourism is a double edged sword for the painted churches. On one hand they like it because the chamber shares its tour revenue with them, but on the other hand, they don't like it when some tourists are intrusive. Woodard says that's why she constantly reminds tourists that the churches are not museums. They're active church parishes.

"People want to know why can't I come on Sunday? Why can't I come during the high holy days? Why can't we come on Easter? These churches are active churches. They have congregations, they hold funerals, they hold weddings, they hold celebrations, they'd love to have you, but come for that."

Father Tim Kosler is a modern day circuit rider. He's the full time Rector at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Schulenburg, and he also serves as part-time Rector at St. Mary's in High Hill and St. John the Baptist in Ammannsville. Father Tim says make no mistake. These beautiful old churches have a powerful spiritual hold on the people of that area, and the priests who serve them.

"There was a priest who was taking care of it, he had responsibility for High Hill, Ammannsville and a place called Holman, and he had been asked by the Bishop, he was in retirement, if he could come out of retirement and take care of these places. The Bishop told him it would be a temporary assignment. He was there 13 years. "

Father Tim says he's close to matching that. He's been doing double and even triple Rector duty since 1994, and he was also told it would just be temporary.

The Painted Churches are a unique part of Texas history. They've been centers of spiritual and community life for one generation after another for a hundred and fifty years. Like the characters speaking from their graves in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, the churches help today's generation connect with those who came before them, in ways that create a spiritual and social continuity that almost doesn't exist anymore. There are more than a dozen Painted Churches widely scattered between Houston and San Antonio, but half a dozen are in Fayette County near Schulenburg and LaGrange. There's a photographic tour of the painted churches, and directions to them, on our website KUHF dot org. For The Front Row, I'm Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.