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It would make a great commercial: First-time visitors to St. Mary Catholic Church in High Hill slowly walk through the vestibule, drinking in each dramatic Gothic script-style, gilded letter of Psalms verses painted on opposite walls. They study the exquisite stencilings that, like the verses, were discovered and painstakingly replicated to match the original artwork during a restoration of the church’s interior.
The visitors push open swinging doors, step onto the plush, red carpet of the sanctuary, or nave, and react as if on cue: Falling silent, they stand still for a few seconds, eyes open wide at the artistic buffet before them. You can almost hear the silently mouthed “wows” reverberating off the statues, stained-glass windows and works of art too many to count.
Of course, St. Mary—the queen of Central Texas’ painted churches—does not need any promotional help. Her beauty sells itself. But her looks can also overwhelm.
So for those who don’t know where to look first, simply let the eyes wander, perhaps focusing on two of the church’s most incredible features: the crucifixion reredos, a stained-glass panel adorning the magnificent high altar that features spires carved from walnut wood; and the arched, sky-blue ceiling laced with gilded, or gold-leafed, wood moldings called ribs.
Throughout the nave, there’s an architectural sense of spaciousness and jubilance, like that of angels soaring. It appears the canvased, hand-painted ceiling is in motion, its arching ribs racing upward from decoratively marbled wooden columns to collide at the top.
The church herself seems to be reaching for the heavens. But longtime parishioners will tell you: No matter how many times one scoots back on the slick and narrow longleaf pine pews, gravity prevails. Sooner or later, everyone slides toward the kneeling rail.
“You’ve gotta keep awake,” the Rev. Timothy Kosler says. Instant penance, you might call it. And it is there, in that quiet space of humility akin to staring up at a clear, star-filled sky, that the thought arises: Who, then, made all this? The answer: mortals, mere mortals, who built and rebuilt, letting nothing—not even fire or hurricane winds—stop them from creating this Catholic church and others like it in the surrounding Central Texas area.
Old black-and-white photos of the Czech and German immigrants who settled Fayette County more than 150 years ago show stern, unsmiling faces. Life was not easy for these pioneers who weathered rough voyages to Galveston and long ox-cart rides to a new and strange land in search of economic and religious freedom. But they found joy in constructing amazing places of worship—painted churches, with some brush strokes applied by prominent artists from the Old World—that reminded them of home.
Over time, some of the churches took on celebrity status, with the most famous known more by town name than church name: Ammannsville (pronounced AH-mans-ville or, as locals now call it, AM-mans-ville), Dubina (du-BEE-na), High Hill and Praha (PRA-ha)—the four stops on the official painted churches tour that starts from the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce.
‘They Come Home to Roost’
It’s the first Sunday of September: polka Mass and parish picnic day in the tiny German community of High Hill northwest of Schulenburg. By nightfall, 3,500 people, including those driving through to pick up preordered plates, will have eaten their fill of fried chicken, sauerkraut and beef stew made from a secret, generations-old recipe.
Many of the 2,000 people attending the picnic will have danced, played bingo, caught up with family and friends, tried to outbid each other in one of the most competitive auctions around, and watched a mostly silver- and gray-haired polka group perform a line dance to “Achy Breaky Heart.”
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First on the agenda is the polka Mass, one of the most storied celebrations in Central Texas inside one of its most sacred structures. And in honor of the occasion, this historic church is wearing her Sunday best.
Granted, St. Mary, which has been in this building since 1906 and whose congregational history dates to 1860, is dressed to the nines every day. Even during a restoration of the interior completed in summer 2010, the church remained a gorgeous example of Gothic revival architecture despite drop cloths on the carpet and scaffolding stretching up to the barrel-vault ceiling.
So on a gusty Sunday morning, with people smoothing down their hair as they enter the sanctuary, St. Mary is looking better than ever. The congregation’s looking pretty spiffy, too.
Lilting laughter rises from the front of the sanctuary where 35 polka dancers, resplendent in their bright red outfits, take their seats in the first six pews. Morning light streams in as a polka band, Texas Sound Czech, sets up in front of a side altar. Two life-size statues—the Sacred Heart of Jesus, his hands outstretched, and St. Joseph—look down on the five blue-shirted musicians.
This isn’t just any day: This is homecoming day, and among the crowd are those who grew up here and moved away. Others left to pursue careers and came back years later. Some never left.
Those who call High Hill home, such as 80-year-old Armand Hollas and his wife, 78-year-old Mildred Hollas, speak of its magnet-like pull on their hearts. They were raised here and then worked 38 years in the oil industry in Houston. The couple retired in the early 1990s and returned to the community and church where they were baptized and married and where Armand served as an altar boy.
“That’s what a lot of people do,” Armand says. “They come home to roost.”
‘I’m the Past’
The polka dancers—whose role is to sing with the congregation during Mass and then dance at the picnic immediately afterward—really dress things up: The men are wearing red slacks, white-trimmed red vests over white shirts and white, red or black shoes. The look is the same for the women, save for their red skirts and heels. Rene Sustr (pronounced REE-nee SHOE-ster), wife of polka dancer and painted churches tour guide Ben Sustr, sports white ankle-high boots with fringe.
White-stitched letters on the backs of the dancers’ vests spell out that many of them are former—and present—kings, queens, princes and princesses as Texas members of the Polka Lovers Klub of America. Many of them, such as 78-year-old Pauline Trefny of Houston, have deep roots in the Schulenburg area’s painted churches. Trefny was raised in Ammannsville and attended St. John the Baptist Church, where she received what she calls “the works”: baptism, first communion and marriage. She and her husband, Robert, who’s at her side today, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary there in 2006.
Robert and Pauline were the 1995 state king and queen for what was then Texas’ single polka dancing chapter, and Pauline beams when asked about the royal stitching on her back. “I’m the past,” she says, gesturing toward herself, then pointing at red-vested backs in the pews ahead. “And that’s the past, and that’s the past …”
The present has suddenly arrived as Texas Sound Czech bandleader Benny Okruhlik squeezes the opening notes of Mass from his accordion. The harmonizing of saxophone and trumpet and texture of bass and drums set an upbeat, reverent tone as the congregation stands to sing the opening hymn: “Here we gather, Lord, in this special place … In this humble church, hands in prayer we raise …”
Toes tap, and fingers keep time on pews: It is perfectly acceptable to worship and groove on one’s oompah musical heritage at the same time.
As communion begins, with two lines forming, those seated search the center aisle for familiar faces. Young and old, gaits fast and slow, move toward the front. A father in blue jeans, taking quick, measured steps, cradles his infant son. A man with a cane carefully works his way up the aisle.
One communion hymn is played and sung to the tune of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”: “… Hearts to grow a little tender, as the time of life goes by. Love and kindness for each other, much too fast the moments fly …”
And in the blink of an eye, Mass is ending with the recessional hymn: “We’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy deep in our hearts, deep in our hearts to stay …”
Under a tin-roofed pavilion, the polka dancers execute swing-style spins and twirls, their shoes scuffling on concrete as they move through traditional numbers, such as “Barn Dance Polka.” They throw in the nontraditional as well, earning big, appreciative smiles from onlookers with the “Achy Breaky Heart” line dance.
Sustr announces songs into a handheld microphone. “We do the real-time schottisch, so y’all get lined up there,” he tells the group. “Ready? Here we go.”
At the end of each song, the dancers hold hands in a circle and then simultaneously raise them, shouting, “Polka!”
Armand Hollas, the 1996 Texas Chapter 1 king alongside Mildred, his queen, sits just outside the pavilion. He had a stroke six years ago, and his walker tells the story: He’s come a long way, but he’s not fully recovered. “I almost start crying when I see ’em dance,” he says, watching Mildred, his childhood sweetheart, go gliding past. Hollas sets his jaw. No, he’s not hoping to dance again. “I’m going to dance again,” he says.
And dancing, with this group, means exactly that: They’re athletes, their steps polished through decades of practice. Describing them as “spry” would be an insult. As he nears his 80th birthday, Austinite Willie Bohuslav bounces around the dance floor with the springy legs of a young man. “As you believe, so you become,” Bohuslav says. “So if you believe you can, you will.”
Rolling Chicken Chairman
OK. Hold that thought and apply it to the hefty plates of food being served, which require two hands for transport and weigh, oh say, about the same as a small bowling ball. It takes some doing to work one’s way through a gigantic piece of fried chicken, heaping helpings of beef stew, green beans, German-style potatoes and sauerkraut, a pickle, a half peach in syrup and a slice of pound cake.
And it takes an army of volunteers to pull off this Labor Day weekend extravaganza. Picnic Chairman Willie Schoe-
ner and his right-hand man, Assistant Picnic and Food Chairman Dennis Kristynik, were well into planning for the 2012 picnic long before the 2011 one even began.
“I work it all year,” says the 76-year-old Schoener, a 6-foot-3-inch gregarious fellow with an easy smile and a long, loping walk. He naturally strikes up conversations with people, getting to know them. Then, “the second thing out of your mouth is, ‘Would you like to work at the picnic?’ You’re always looking for help,” he says.
For sure, organizers’ plates are full: Some 30 years ago, the picnic served fewer than 500 people. This year, even with gusting winds and dust keeping some people away, event coordinators sold 3,500 plates, including those to go. The picnic fills bellies—and the church’s coffers: Last year’s $160,000 earnings helped pay for St. Mary’s $450,000-plus restoration. The auction—the top-dollar item this year was a multifamily barbecue feast that went for $6,000—is always the picnic’s largest moneymaker, but the food draws the crowds.
The workers’ schedule is a menu in and of itself with such titles as: Take Home Plates Chairman. Potato Peeling Chairman. Cooking Stew Chairman. Rolling Chicken Chairman. That last one—the rolling of chicken in flour—is a particularly messy job. But chicken and stew, the 53-year-old Kristynik says, are the picnic’s bread and butter: “That’s what they look for. If you mess either one of ’em up, they won’t be back.”
‘I Love to Tell Them the Story’
At dusk, during a drive on the rolling country roads surrounding Schulenburg, the painted churches’ steeples rise into view above a landscape of massive live oak trees.
On the eve of High Hill’s once-a-year polka Mass, its regular Saturday night Mass will soon be letting out. It would never occur to church members to question their weekend plans. Here, and at Ammannsville, Dubina and Praha, which also hold regular weekend Masses, tradition holds sway: For quick inspiration, look up and see the steeples. For knees-on-the-rail faith, look inside and see the people.
The churches—Ammannsville and Dubina are both served by Fayette Electric Cooperative—are virtually empty during weekday tours. But these buildings are not museum pieces, existing for placement under an architectural microscope. Nor is the tour like wandering into an old, abandoned house and pulling back dusty sheets to see what lies underneath.
These are living, breathing churches with small but active congregations and fiercely competitive annual picnics that draw people by the thousands. Even the cemeteries, in which some couples reserve their burial plots years in advance, represent renewal: Accept one’s death now and get on with life.
The four churches have undergone many renovations through the years. Yet despite offering such conveniences as air conditioning and electricity, they’re not textbook modern. You won’t find restrooms inside the main buildings or padded pews at any of the churches.
One of the main tour guides, 83-year-old Sustr of Schulenburg, respectfully removes his felt cowboy hat when leading visitors through the front doors. He gives people a few seconds to turn in circles, craning their necks to look at paintings, frescoes and stencilings, then launches right into history. He seemingly touches on every date and detail, down to the old hat hooks still in place on the pews in Ammannsville and Dubina.
Sustr was raised in nearby Moulton and attended a Catholic church, but he and Rene are longtime members of First United Methodist Church in Schulenburg. Yet while Sustr doesn’t attend Mass at the painted churches, these are his people: parishioners and tourists. “I love to tell them the story,” says Sustr, whose grandparents emigrated from the province of Bohemia to Fayette County in 1887.
Seemingly nothing escapes the attention of Sustr, a retired Schulenburg Independent School District superintendent. On a gusty Saturday afternoon at the Praha church cemetery, he worriedly takes note of a flower arrangement blown by strong winds into a pathway. “Where did it come from?” he asks, not expecting an answer. He picks up the fresh flowers and approaches a nearby grave. “I’ll put it on this one,” he says. “It doesn’t have any.”
Camille Wheeler, associate editor