The Painted Churches of Texas: A Beautiful Blend of Art and History
One of the best places to spend a sunny day is out in the Central Texas countryside. On one such day, we visited the historic and amazing painted churches near Schulenburg to witness the delicate artistry of 19th-century Czech and German immigrants.
When Czech and German immigrants came to Texas in the 1800s, many settled in the central part of the state and named their towns after the places they’d left—Praha, Schulenburg, Dubina, Fredericksburg. These thriving communities prospered by working hard, helping one another, and praying together.
In an effort to make their new churches feel more like the ancient Gothic structures of their homelands, these early settlers painted the walls, altars, and arches of their simple wooden sanctuaries in colorful patterns and clever tromp l’oeil images. These buildings came to be known as the Painted Churches of Texas. Thankfully, they have been preserved and stand today in honor of those whose artistry and devotion created them.
Pilgrimage to Praha
Recently, my still-spry 95-year-old aunt said she wanted to make a return trip to the church she remembered attending with her grandparents when she was a child. St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha was built in 1895, just after my great-grandparents moved to nearby Flatonia from Czechoslovakia. As I found out, many of my ancestors had been parishioners there.
Excited to connect with some family history—and visit other painted churches in the area—my husband and I picked up my aunt on an early morning last fall and headed west from Houston, arriving about 90 minutes later in Schulenburg.
After indulging in some authentic Czech kolaches at the Original Kountry Bakery, we drove farther east on U.S. 90 to find the soaring steeple and beautiful stone facade of St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption. Inside, the polished floors reflected a grand chandelier that hung from the ceiling.
Looking up past the chandelier, I began to notice the colors. The entire arched ceiling of the church had a soft blue-green background, and around the edges were painted foliage and flowers. On the wall behind the hand-carved altar were three angels, clad in yellow, blue, and pink, surrounding a floating cross.
At first glance, the columns running on each side of the church appeared to have carved cornices at the top, but we quickly realized they were painted to look that way, along with the wooden beams that arched up to the center of the roof.
High Art at High Hill
Eager to see more, we backtracked toward Schulenburg and, just a little north, found the town of High Hill and the Nativity of Mary, Blessed Virgin Catholic Church. Built in 1906, the imposing structure had an exterior of red brick, but just like St. Mary’s, the interior was alive with color and pattern.
Bold ceilings were gold, with decorative vines and flowers climbing up the arches, and the columns were painted with a marbleized finish. Above the altar was an elaborate border topped by a “Lamb of God” portrait surrounded by adoring angels, while the cupola was pastel blue with sumptuous swirls of gilding.
My aunt remembered the special stained-glass window at the front of the church, representing the Holy Spirit descending “like a dove” to join the Trinity. In the window, the dove’s beak was left as clear glass so the sun radiated through. We all agreed it made for a truly spiritual vision.
Dubina: Strong as an Oak Tree
A short drive east took us to the town of Dubina and Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church. Like several other churches and structures in the area, the first church the settlers built was destroyed by a hurricane in 1909. The community pulled together, though, and used the beautiful oak trees in the area to build this new, grander church, which was finished in 1912.
Having larger windows than some of the other churches, Saints Cyril and Methodius was bathed in natural light, making it easy for us to see the splendid oak leaves, angels, and emblems that adorned every wall, alcove, and arch. We learned, however, that the paintings we saw that day were actually restorations of the originals.
The story goes that, back in the 1950s, possibly in an effort to modernize the church’s appearance, all the painted walls were whitewashed. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when other churches in the region were being recognized for their historic adornments, that parishioners decided to restore the oak leaves and other decorations. With meticulous care, they uncovered the old designs and used some of the original stencils to bring back the church’s colorful history.
A Toast to Texas History
Before we left for home, we decided to visit the other Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church, located in Shiner, about half an hour south of Schulenburg. Certainly we wanted to see the building’s stunning stained-glass windows and its magnificent mural of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, but we had an ulterior motive as well.
The Spoetzel Brewery, founded in 1909, brews Shiner Beer with the pure artesian water that’s flowed beneath the ground there for centuries. We took the tour, rolling my aunt along in her wheelchair, and at the end, she was the first to get a free sample of the tasty brew.
Legend has it that when a small group of families from Moravia was searching for a suitable place to settle, they were stopped by a terrible storm and took shelter under a grove of oak trees. Having survived the storm, they decided this place should be their home and named the town Dubina—dub being the Czech word for “oak grove.”