In the mid-1800s, immigrants from Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic), Germany, Switzerland, and Austria made the treacherous journey via ship to Galveston. Many settled in the Central Texas area, especially in Fayette County. They brought the European custom of decorating the interiors of their churches, but didn’t have the resources to use marble, gold leaf, and elaborate art. Several traveling artists, schooled in the Old World, used painting techniques to decorate the wooden interiors.
We visited in late March and the wildflowers were starting to bloom. It was beautiful to spot the steeples down a county lane, then glimpse the churches with rolling fields around them.
Many of the churches are clustered around Schulenburg. The Chamber of Commerce gives guided tours, but we wanted to do our own thing over an entire weekend, so we bought their map to 5 or 6 of the churches for $5. It is a good map, but there are several more churches to see in the area. Google Maps and iMaps don’t necessarily have the best directions and you have to travel many country roads. If you are going, let me know and I’ll send you my notes.
St. Paul Lutheran (LCMS) – Serbin, TX
After a harrowing sea journey, Wendish people settled here to practice religious freedom. The Wends are a German/Austrian Slavic minority, sometimes called “Sorbians”. Other Germans joined the congregation through the years. The log cabin on the property is the original church of 1855 and the pastor’s home until 1884.
The church is “Plain on the outside; pretty on the inside.”
Inside, the marble white walls, cerulean detailing and intricately designed columns are lovely. The pulpit, which is located 20 feet off the ground on the second level of the church, is supposedly the tallest in Texas. Only men were allowed on the second story, closest to heaven.
Supposedly, the community painted the interior of this one. Even the organ pipes are painted blue!
Queen of the Holy Rosary Church – Hostyn, TX
This church is not a painted one. The interest here is on the outside — especially the reproduction of the Shrine of Miracles in Lourdes, France.
Stations of the Cross are in small rock statues around the grounds, with captions in English and Marble plaques in Czech.
Two cannons commemorate a father and son who fought on opposite sides in the Civil War.
In addition, the cemetery has a nice view of rolling hills and a windmill.
United Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA) – Swiss Alp, TX
This is a very cute white church with bright red doors and accents, but is not painted inside, as far as we could tell (doors were locked).
It was founded by Swiss or Wendish immigrants (depending on the source). One of the flags in the front is the Swiss Lutheran standard and the town is Swiss Alp, so I’m going with Swiss immigrants! These immigrants must have been really homesick. The only connection I could see with the Swiss Alps was happy cows grazing in green pastures.
The cemetery has some nice old headstones.
Freyburg Methodist Church – Freyburg, TX
This open-plan Gothic church with a central entry bell tower has 37 members on the rolls. I hope they can sustain this simple country church.
We liked the Pastor’s Pathway in the front with pavers listing every pastor (beginning in 1868) and their time of service.
St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption (Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church) – Praha, TX
The old wooden beams of this church are painted to resemble the golden crown moldings and dazzling architecture of a grand European cathedral. The ornate white altars are beautiful. The vaulted ceiling was painted by a famous Swiss artist and has never been repainted. Some say the freehand paintings of foliage and flowers represents the Garden of Eden.
Small stone memorial chapels around the property commemorate the nine men from Praha who died in WWII – the highest percentage of a town’s population anywhere in the US.
Ascension of Our Lord – Moravia, TX
This one was closed on Palm Sunday afternoon so we peeked in the windows to see some of the paintings and walked through the pretty cemetery next door.
St. Mary’s Church (Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church) – High Hill, TX
This church is known as “Queen of the Painted Churches.” Austrian and German immigrants built and painted this one. The parishioners couldn’t afford true Gothic vaulting for the ceiling, so wood pieces were shaped and gold-leafed to mimic vaults. The apse dome is periwinkle blue, accented in gold leaf. The trompe l’oeil and faux marble was painted with turkey feathers. The Stations of the Cross were imported from Italy and there is a painted reproduction of Michelangelo’s “Pietà.”
The designs were originally painted on canvas panels which were then applied to the walls and ceilings. You can see portions of the canvases in the back corner in a small chapel. The canvas on the ceiling was cleaned and repainted, but the walls were whitewashed and this ruined the canvases, so the walls were repainted.
This church had my favorite windows of the trip: intricate, colorful stained glass with many Old World Catholic symbols.
Piano Bridge – Dubina, TX
Dubina was the first settlement in Texas comprised solely of Czech-Moravians. Dub means oak tree in Czech.
You cross the Piano Bridge on your way into Dubina. Built in 1885, this is one of the few iron truss bridges left in the US. It looks like a piano wire truss and the locals say it hums as you drive over it. We detected a slight hum.
Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church – Dubina, TX
(not to be confused with Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church in Shiner)
The building was built in 1909 after a hurricane destroyed the original church.
The original artwork was painted at that time. In 1950s, the Catholic hierarchy decided the painting was distracting from worship and ordered the walls in this church and others to be painted white. After people started noticing the faded original paintings on the wall, the community came together to recreate the painting. Using stencils found in the church, as well as adding new designs, the church was transformed into a vibrant work of art.
The ceilings are painted blue, with gold stars. The six angels on the ceiling spread their wings as if heading to the starry sky. But one of the angels is a fiery red and some think he represents Beelzebub, the fallen angel (Satan).
St. John the Baptist Church – Ammansville
This church is known as “the pink one.” The current building, which was built in 1919, is actually the third church that was built there — the first two were destroyed, one by a hurricane and the other by a fire.
The painting is exceptional and the three altars are the most ornate that we saw. The painting techniques include stenciling, freehand, infill, and marbeling.
The congregation is both German and Czech, so there is blend of styles. The Germans added decorative elements from floor to ceiling. However the windows are largely clear with only portions of stained glass – Czechs prefer clear glass to let the light in.
There are several more churches, painted and historical, that we want to see. That will have to be other trips!
Dining in Schulenburg
The Shop Downtown is a fun, funky coffeehouse with a friendly owner. www.facebook.com/theshopdowntown/
The Garden Co. is a nursery and restaurant. The food is fantastic. We had an amazing flank steak salad, lamb burger, and brussels sprouts appetizer. www.thegardencoandcafe.com/
We stayed at Night Bird Ranch between Giddings and Round Top. It’s not in the middle of the church sites, but wasn’t a long drive along beautiful country roads. Five motel-type rooms and a dining hall are set on a prairie and populated with rescued dogs, horses, cows, donkeys, and sheep. It’s nothing fancy, but fun. There is a small pond where you can fish for bass. www.nightbirdranch.com