Four lavishly decorated churches in Fayette County illustrate the brilliantly painted vision of 19th-Century settlers
By Andy Sharp
Driving back to Taylor from Port Aransas last November, my wife, Jody, and I decided to detour through Fayette County and check out its renowned painted churches, four elaborately decorated, historic Catholic churches that reflect the cultures of 19th-Century Czech and German immigrants. As often happens, this unplanned side trip evolved into a journey of discovery.
A sign on US 77 pointed us toward St. Mary’s Catholic Church in High Hill, a tiny community about four miles northwest of Schulenburg. With its Gothic Revival architecture and red-brick exterior, the church was attractive but not unlike many others I had seen. As we approached the entrance, we anticipated taking a quick look before moving on.
What we saw when we entered the building brought us both to a standstill. Few times in my 40 years as a photographer have I been so amazed by a scene I was about to shoot that I didn’t immediately start creating images. This was one of those moments. Jody and I took seats in the back of the church and tried to absorb our surroundings, as vibrant stained-glass windows dappled a pleasing red light onto the pews in front of us.
The spacious sanctuary features faux-marble, octagonal columns that support what appears to be a groin-vaulted ceiling, the multicolored planes seemingly connected with golden bands. Statues of saints grace ledges affixed to each column. The dome of the apse displays religious and cultural symbols on a soft-blue background. All of the elements coalesce to produce a sense of tranquility. You instinctively want to slow down here.
According to the Texas Historical Commission, more than 20 painted churches exist throughout the state (15 of them are listed in the National Register of Historic Places). Fayette County has four of these architectural gems, and thanks to their proximity—each is less than a dozen miles from Schulenburg —a visit to all four makes for a perfect day trip.
A few weeks after our stop at High Hill, we returned to Fayette County to complete our tour and see Sts. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church in Dubina, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville, and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha. These three churches were established by Czech immigrants, while the church at High Hill was established by Germans.
“The Czech and German settlers who immigrated here in the mid-1800s never expected to see their homelands again, but they didn’t want to abandon their culture or faith,” says Cathy Chaloupka, a Fayette County native whose great-great-grandfather Frantisek Kossa was one of the founders of the Dubina community. “They established modest churches right away and built more permanent structures as soon as they could. It was a common practice where they came from in Central Europe to adorn church interiors with vibrant colors and religious symbols, and the art you see on the walls and ceilings of the churches today reflects that tradition.”