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The treasures of Catholic Texas

The interior of High Hill's St Mary Catholic Church (James Jeffrey)

Given the size of Texas – it’s the second largest US state, and three times the size of the UK – opportunities abound for finding hidden treasures and surprises. Among the most enchanting of these, especially if you are Catholic, are its Painted Churches.

Set within the rustic idylls of the rolling fields of the Texas Hill Country, four of the most renowned of these elaborately and painstakingly decorated churches are found in the tiny rural communities of High Hill, Ammannsville, Dubina and Praha, dotted around the small quiet town of Schulenberg. The European-sounding names testify to how many of the early settlers to this area were of German, Austrian and Czech descent.

When they built their churches in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the settlers painted the insides to emulate the beloved churches they left behind in Europe. Many of the immigrants were fleeing religious oppression, coming to America to practice their faith in peace. Their hand-painting efforts also helped to make up for a lack of funds among these simple and poor farming communities: wooden pillars were painted to look like marble. These churches attest to the colourful and varied Catholic history that lies beneath the bold and often brash exterior of the Lone Star state’s modern incarnation.

“Wir haben empfangen, O Herr, deine barmherzigkeit im inner deines temple,” is inscribed on the wall inside the entrance to High Hill’s St Mary Catholic Church. It is the German rendition of Psalm 47:10: “We have received, O Lord, your divine mercy within your temple.”

Comments inside a nearby visitors’ book reflect a similar theme regarding the impression made on tourists after entering the church that on the outside looks rather unassuming: “Beautiful”, “Speechless”, “Wonderful”, “Stunning”, “Wow”, “Captivating”. Such observations explain why the church is commonly revered as “the Queen of the Painted Churches”.

While its stained-glass windows dating back to 1875 and hand-painted sculptures are attractive enough, it’s what’s going on around them that catches the eye: decorations and floral artwork and stencils covering the walls and progressing upward on to a ceiling of vibrant spiralling flowers and vines.

About 10 miles away at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Praha, the ambience changes notably to Czech, as it does in the two other painted churches.

“Ježíš je na smrti odsouzen” appears beneath the first Station of the Cross, depicting Jesus being condemned to death. It hangs opposite a hand-painted Pietà sculpture in which the direction of Mary’s gaze falls on, in addition to her Son’s face, a Stars and Stripes flag, resplendent in the corner, its bold colours a common feature inside US churches where fervent spirituality and bold patriotism often go hand in hand.

Inside St John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville, in addition to the Czech names of parishioners memorialised beneath stained-glass windows, a Latin verse from Proverbs – Deliciae meae esse cum filiis hominum (“My delights were to be with the children of men”) – traces an arch over the altar, and is set off all the more by being surrounded by pastel-pink walls.

It’s perfectly possible, especially when employing Google Maps on your smartphone, and keeping an eye out for steeples above tree lines, to visit the churches on your own. They are open Monday to Saturday, from 9am to 4pm. That said, friendly and well-informed guides exhibiting classic Texan charm and humour can be booked through the Schulenberg Chamber of Commerce.

Hence at St Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church in the tiny community of Dubina, I found myself blending in with a tour group listening to an explanation of the history surrounding the church and the first Czech settlement in Texas.

Back in 1856 intrepid settlers set forth from Europe on a 14-week trip across the Atlantic, enduring storms, sea sickness and other hardships. After reaching the port of Galveston, they continued by ferry up Buffalo Bayou to Houston, after which they struck out by ox cart. They brought with them from the old country a deep Catholic faith and needed a place to worship, and by 1878 the church was built. Its current altar was acquired in 1906 after a return sea trip was made to Rome.

“When they got back, they found the instructions were all in Italian,” said tour guide Sharon Rankin.

Driving between the churches, you pass through an undulating landscape of fields dotted with hale bales, tractors and cattle seeking shelter from the sun, or wallowing in water holes. It feels a long way from the bright lights of Texas’s cities, even though San Antonio, Houston and Austin are all only about an hour and a half’s drive from Schulenberg. This means that visiting the churches makes for an excellent day trip from any of those cities (on route keep an eye out for local bakeries that are noted for their fine kolaches, a Czech pastry).

I’ve increasingly begun to realise that a traveller could spend a lot of time exploring the Catholic history of Texas. Of similar renown to the Painted Churches are the Spanish Missions established between 1632 and 1793 by Spanish Dominicans, Jesuits and Franciscans to spread the faith among Native Americans.

The mission system had a lasting impact on the state. Many of the missions grew into thriving settlements that formed the basis of some of the state’s most important cities. The mission influence is also evident in place names and commonly used Spanish words, in building materials and architecture, and in agriculture and crops. The roots of Texans’ famed cattle industry lie in the Spanish missionaries who brought with them cattle from Mexico.

Although there were dozens of missions built in Texas, most have vanished, with only historical markers indicating their approximate positions. Fortunately a handful of these evocative fortified buildings survived or have been restored enough to be visited. Indeed, the most famous mission – which you may already know, even if you don’t realise you do – is the Mission San Antonio de Valero, standing proudly right in the centre of bustling downtown San Antonio.

More commonly known as the Alamo, it’s where a small force of fewer than 200 Tex­ans – including Davy Crockett – held out for 13 days in February 1836 against a Mexican force estimated at around 5,000. Not a single Alamo rebel survived, though their heroics galvanised the rest of the Texas troops, with the war won less than two months later.

The Catholic story in Texas is still being written. It is one of the fastest-growing states both in terms of newborns – especially among the Hispanic proportion of its population, who are often Catholic – and of people settling from outside, including many from Latin America who bring their Catholicism with them. A lacklustre turnout is not a problem faced by many Catholic churches in Texas.

“The overall direction of the Church in Texas is one of growth and vibrancy,” Bishop Michael Sis of San Angelo commented in 2017. “It combines the dynamism of the Sun Belt and the heritage of Texas Hispanic Catholicism, which flavours the life of the Church here in a beautiful way. And we have small towns built by Polish, Czech or German immigrants, which provide a solid base of stewardship and Catholic identity.”

That said, the full breadth of the Catholic legacy in Texas can still escape even locals.

“One day, I had come to light a candle and pray,” says Shirley Schonner, a parishioner at High Hill’s St Mary Catholic Church, whose husband is of German descent, though her family were of Scotch-Irish stock. “In the background I could hear a tourist telling a companion that despite St Mary’s reputation as the Queen of the Painted Churches, she thought the church at Praha was prettier – so after hearing that I had to go and find out for myself.”

James Jeffrey is a journalist who splits his time between the US and UK, and sometimes further afield. Twitter: @jrfjeffrey