A unique sense of community is marked throughout several small towns in the rolling hills of central Texas by an expression of faith that is an unrivaled reflection of a shared cultural background and religious belief. Imagine yourself as a young Bohemian or Moravians who was looking to find opportunity in a new world, across an ocean and far away, in a new country called “Texas” in the 1840’s and 50’s.
The trip would be and arduous one, with early settlers from places like Friedek, Austria; Meinz, Germany, or Kasnicova in Moravia, all traveling to the port city of Breman where they would endure a 10 to 17 week strenuous journey across the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to arrive in Galveston. Lured by the promises of abundant and fertile lands, they made their way west by ferry to Houston and then by oxcart and wagons to points further afield. Many began to settle the areas near the original Austin Colony in the current day Fayette County.
The Czechs settled across this area – some near a motte of majestic oaks that became Dubina, the Czech word for “oak groves”, and others just south of that in what would become Praha, while the Austrians and Germans created their own communities like Oldenburg, which would become High Hill, Swiss Alp and Schulenburg, or in a place like Ammansville where the two cultures mixed. At first, life in this rugged new country was challenging, but the faith that would shape these communities were strong – the early settlers in High Hill walked 30 miles to in a rare Texas snow to Frelsburg for Midnight Mass on their first Christmas in this new place.
From even the earliest dates, the heart of the communities were defined by their churches, which they hoped would capture some of the beauty, grace and grandeur they had left behind in Moravia and Bohemia. While simple and only built of wood, began to reflect their cultural roots in the decoration and ornamentation.
After the turn of the century, the growth of several of the communities allowed them to build new churches that now for over 100 years have captured the true spirit of these parishes.
Praha’s St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption was built in 1895, and its reserved neo-gothic stone facade and copper steeple, open to a sense of serenity inside, where a stunning blue-and-white checkerboard floor leads to the alter and apse and soft blue walls painted with wildflowers and angels contain the artisanship of Gottfried Flury, an itinerant painter who was traveling with a minstrel show who settled in nearby Moulton.
His lush foliage in bright turquoise, emerald greens and blues turned the ceiling of Praha’s chapel into an earthly paradise. This was further embellished by Father Netardus, its parish priest and artist in his own right.
The simple country church in Ammannsville is actually the third church built there. The first, a simple wood church, was destroyed in in 1909 by a hurricane that hammered Texas, and the second, built in 1912, was brought down by a fire that burned so hot that it melted the church bells. It is a tribute to faith that St. John the Baptist exists at all. Rebuilt in 1919 and much simpler than its predecessor, it reflects a congregation that included both Germans and Czechs, so the building’s style is a blend of cultures. St. John has decorative elements floor to ceiling, per the Germans, but the windows are clear with stained-glass panes at the top, to let the light in for the Czechs. Its interior, painted a pale rose color is the handiwork of another intenerate artist – the noted decorative painter Fred Donecker, who painted the chapel in Monrovia as well.
These churches have defined the history of this area and provided a sacred sense of place that is still awe inspiring today as it was one hundred years ago.
(To be continued)
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