The Painted Churches of Texas
This article was the second place research paper at the Texas State German Contest. It is published here with the permission of the author.One does not need to travel across the ocean to witness the beauty and craftsmanship of the old-world German churches. Driving for a few hours northwest of the Houston area will bring one to churches of the same beauty. Midway through the nineteenth century, many German immigrants fled liberal persecution and a bleak economic future. To find solace in their new world, they turned to these houses of God, which are referred to as the “Painted Churches” because of their exceptional designs covering the interiors. To the German immigrants, these churches were a crucial part of their identity and community since they not only offered the familiarity of the homeland but the welcoming promise of Texas as well.
Saint Mary’s Church of the Assumption
This beautiful church is located in Fayette County, and its most significant feature, a cross at the steeple, tells a story tied to a German tradition and is made from the hands of a Swiss. According to local history, the town offered a keg of beer to the person who could climb the one hundred thirty foot steeple to secure the cross. When a young man, who regularly worked as such a person, caught wind of it, he “bravely affixed the cross to the top of the steeple [and then] proceeded to do a handstand on top of the cross” (Oakes).
One might wonder if the man had received his prize even before performing his job, but his dedication to beer ties to the deep roots of the German beer culture.
Ben Popelka has been the caretaker for years now, and he makes sure to clean this painted interior that was created by three artists. Gottfried Flury, an artist who had moved from Switzerland, worked with blues and greens to create elegant arrangements. Beloved Father Netardus also contributed along with Gene A. Mikulik and his wife, who worked together on churches for over thirty years. The contributions of each artist added up to create one of the loveliest churches of its kind.
Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church
Just as the German immigrants thrived, this church is thriving in its location of Schulenburg. “The Pink Church” was named for the rosy color interior. This is the third church that has stood on the property. The first, painted by an unknown artist, was destroyed during a hurricane in 1909, yet the people persevered for their church. The second church had a Victorian design by Leo Dielmann, who had spent three years studying in Germany and was the son of a German immigrant.
Tragically, Dielmann’s design was partially destroyed in a fire. Betty Jasek, the oldest member of the community, recalled during a phone interview how “everyone dropped their farm equipment and raced to the church. Folks were able to save some of the statues, but the rest of the building was lost to the fire, which was so hot even the church bells melted” (Oakes). The passions the immigrants had for these churches comes alive in this tale. The members risked their lives to save parts of the church because it was such a treasure to them.
The church of Saint John was finally completed in 1919 with Mikulik and his wife both working on restoring it to its former glory.
Saint Mary’s Catholic Church
Saint Mary’s has deep connections to the homeland of Germany through its history. As the “jewel of antique architecture,” Fredericksburg’s Saint Mary’s is actually two buildings (Driskell; Grisham). There is the old log-style one built in 1848 by the German Society of Nobleman, Adelsverein. However, when more German immigrants arrived in Texas and the old church needed restorations, the new stone church was built in 1862.
There is a legend that a stranger came into town while the workers were laying the stones for St. Mary’s. “The story goes that this visitor might even have been Christ Himself. The visitor asked one of the men: ‘Was tuest Du?’ … The man answered, ‘Oh I have to haul these darn rocks!’ …He asked another. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever get finished cutting these rocks for this huge building!’
…He asked a third man who was whistling a nice tune as he worked, and answered: ‘I’m building a cathedral for the glory of God!’ The visitor blessed the third man and disappeared” (Oakes). One impressive trait of this story is that it kept the German language for the supposed Christ to speak. America, especially Texas, has been shaped by many cultures, but like these churches, the German roots have hardly faded away.
With Leo Dielmann and contractor Jacob Wagner as partners, the plans were finally consecrated on November 24, 1908. The church kept its organ, an original 1906 version by George Kilgen, but the stained glass windows were added “around 1914 and 1915” (Oakes). The windows lend a personal touch; the boy and girl guardian angels are actually modeled after the son of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Blum and the daughter of Wagner himself.
Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church
Serbin’s painted church is the house of peace. It was originally formed by the Wends, a group of Slavic people who settled near the Germanic areas of Europe. After that land became part of the Holy Roman Empire, their culture began to disappear as they assimilated with the Germans. Hoping to keep their culture alive, the Wends fled to the new world.
Originally, disputes arose when the German and the Wendish immigrants settled within close distances. However, they were united by this house of God. In fact, it “was dedicated on Christmas Day 1859, with Pastor Kilian preaching on the virtues of democracy and separation of church and state in Wendish, German, and his newly acquired English” (Grider). This story demonstrates how the German immigrants came to accept their new world and to flourish in it. Their churches represent much more than God. They represent their stories.
The church bell is another great artifact, but it was much more interesting before 1975 when the original was replaced. “The old, which was brought from Germany in 1854, stood for many years in the entrance of Kilian Hall at Concordia College, in Austin. It was later placed in a pedestal in front of Birkman Chapel, also on the Concordia campus, where it still stands” (Driskill; Grisham). This bell was a direct gift from the homeland, and it has obviously been highly valued to go to the lengths of preserving it. While it may no longer be a part of the painted church, it is now is seen by and to inform many.
And the pipe organ is another reminder of the homeland. The organ was constructed “in 1904, which was also the church’s 50th anniversary. The builder, Ed Pfeifer, came to New York from Germany in 1865” (Driskill; Grisham). Pfeifer only built five organs in his shop in Austin, but his pride in work is evident in beautiful functionality of the organ. His story is like those of other German immigrants, coming to Texas to thrive.
Saints Cyril and Methodius Church
These Dubina grounds have seen the struggle of erecting Saints Cyril, but they have also seen the glorious comeback. The first church was destroyed in the hurricane of 1909, but in the debris was found the iron cross made by the freed slave, Tom Lee. This piece was later used in the design by Dielmann. Although there are no surviving records regarding the artist, the paintings inside the church have been brightly recreated by the community. The basis of these recreations came from the astounding memory of Ed Janeka, who was a member of the boys’ choir in his youth. He is said to have taken “‘artistic license when [he] painted the last angel to the left of the choir loft, so she’s even more colorful’” (Oakes). There is a great care for the churches long after the original immigrants.
Such passion for the church indicates the younger generation sees it not just as a house of worship but also as a profound connection to their roots. These churches were the style of the old Germany, but they have blossomed into the heart of Texan culture and history.
Saints Cyril’s also owes thanks to a contributor named Eduardo Esparza, a professional artist hired by the community. In an interview, Esparza said that the church is “God’s house… We come here to feel the peace and love and the understanding of what God’s family is about. Just as you would [feel] gazing at the picture of your loved one at home” (Spencer). Indeed, these churches were the German immigrants’ retreat. It was their way of reminding themselves of their homeland, but the styles and construction of them were their way of emercing themselves into their new world.
The Painted Churches of Texas are historical treasures. People come from all over the world to witness the full magnitude of their beauty. In many ways, their story is the story is the story of the German immigrants’ experience in Texas. They have survived hardships and sorrows, but have preserved. They are the anchors of the pilgrimage and the reminders of a place once called home.
Aguilar, Melissa Ward. Painted Churches Are Texas Gems. Digital images. Beaumont Enterprise. N.p., 9 Apr. 2012. Web. 19 Jan. 2015. <http://www.beaumontenterprise.com/life/article/Painted-churches-are-Texas-gems-3468665.php#photo-2795648>.
Driskill, Frank A. and Grisham, Noel. Historic Churches of Texas. Burnet, TX: Eakin Press. 1980. Print.
Grider, Sylvia Ann. The Wendish Texans. San Antonio, TX: the Institute of Texan Cultures Associates. 1982. Print.
Oakes, Alan. “Favorite Painted Churches.” The Painted Churches of Texas: Echoes of the Homeland. 2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2014. <http://www.klru.org/paintedchurches/index.html>.
Painted Churches of Texas: Echoes of the Homeland. Dir. Tom Spencer. Prod. Alan Oakes. Perf. Brady Coleman. 2001. DVD.
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