Beauty, history, artistry, and mirth lure travelers inside several Catholic churches near Schulenburg.
By Marion Amberg
You needn’t polish your halo before chasing after the stately spires encountered during the Painted Churches Tour, which originates in Schulenburg, Texas. They may look like typical country churches on the outside, but the interiors of these houses of worship are mini museums of Old World heritage and artistry.
They’re called “painted churches” because of all the wonderful painting on the inside, tour guides explain. When itinerant artists decorated these four turn-of-the-20th century, Gothic-Revival gems, they didn’t seem to miss an inch. Endless stenciling, infill, and freehand art yielded green vines, surreal flowers, and chubby cherubs. Some painters even performed miracles: they changed wooden columns into “marble” pillars by applying faux finishes.
Unwittingly, the Painted Churches also became fonts of mirth. Scattered throughout these Catholic churches are “statuesque” tales and remnants of quaint customs, but no two parishes are alike. Each is curiously distinctive in history and artistry.
All of these churches are still active, and are open during daylight hours and for services. You can tour them on your own, or arrange for a guided tour through the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce. The tour is especially popular in spring, so make your plans early. At the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce, visitors can meet their guides or pick up a driving tour map. (Maps cost $2.) Each of the churches is approximately 10 minutes apart in the rolling countryside around Schulenburg, in Czech-German hamlets that disappeared from many maps years ago. Schulenburg is located along Interstate 10, approximately 95 miles west of Houston.
The folksiest of the Painted Churches, Saints Cyril and Methodius Church at Dubina (Dew-BEE-na), is also the merriest. Stenciled oak leaves (the “dub” part of Dubina is the Czech word for “oak”) with red flowers curl around window tops and arches, and stars twinkle from the ceiling. Ascending from flowers between the arches are blue- and tan-robed angels, except for one clothed in bright red.
But “Rose” isn’t a fallen angel. During restoration work in the 1980s, an impish parishioner took artistic license with Rose, the last angel to be painted. Another angel is reportedly missing the bowstrings on her instrument.
“She always played off-key,” speculated a merry-hearted parishioner. “Instead of tuning her up, the painter tuned her out.”
On the center altar are revered statues of Cyril (at left) and Methodius, the patron saints of the Czechs. Brothers in real life, Cyril and Methodius are inseparable as religious icons. If you see one, you’ll see the other. Legend has it that Methodius translated the whole Bible into Slavonic in just eight months.
Founded in 1856, Dubina is a town steeped in faith. The first church, erected in 1877, was destroyed by a hurricane in 1909. Miraculously, the chandeliers and a wrought-iron cross atop the steeple survived. They now grace the current church, a gloriously white structure completed in 1912.
From Dubina the “steeplechase” continues to Ammannsville. During the spring wildflower season, the winding road is like a pastoral scene from a jigsaw puzzle box. Fat cows. Golden hay bales. Prancing colts. And bluebonnets “” Texas’ state flower “” so thick that when the wind blows, they resemble waves on a lake.
For goodness’ saints
At St. John the Baptist Church in Ammannsville, seating once followed an old European custom: men sat right of the center aisle, women to the left.
“With the exception of Christ, even the stained-glass windows are segregated,” the guide pointed out.
On the women’s side, stained-glass windows picture female saints; on the right side, male saints peer down. Unlike many other religious window scenes, not one saint in here is “two-faced.” They appear the same inside the church as they do outside. Getting double exposure, Czech heroine Saint Agnes of Bohemia lights up two windows, first as a princess and then as a nun.
Though embellished with angels on high, St. John’s early history is anything but angelic. The original church, erected 20 years after Ammannsville was founded in 1870, was also leveled by the hurricane of 1909.
Eight years later, the second church burned. Daredevil parishioners dashed into the flames and rescued several of the statues from eternal doom, including two angel statues standing near the entrance of the current church, which was dedicated in 1919.
With its architecture reflected in a nearby pond, St. John’s is as pretty as a postcard. The rosy-pink, spacious interior (there are no center supports) is both soothing and illustrious. Stenciling and infill art in predominantly rose and green are wondrously offset by the gleaming white woodwork and white altars.
Wherever St. Martin of Tours went, a goose was sure to follow “” even as a statue on an altar of St. John the Baptist Church. Old World lore has it that a goose befriended the bishop and then began to accompany him on his travels. Inspired by the tale, early Czech settlers began fattening up a goose on St. Martin’s Feast Day on November 11 and then eating the already stuffed bird for Thanksgiving.
“And that’s why the goose now waddles instead of walks,” a steeplechaser in our group noted after hearing the story. “He’s in no hurry to get to the table.”
An “upright” parish
There are no backsliders at St. Mary’s Catholic Church at High Hill, and for good reason. Built in 1906, St. Mary’s once faced an expansion problem: how to add more seating without more building. Pews ingeniously were shaved off a few inches and squeezed together to make way for even more pews. Folks here have sat straight as arrows ever since.
The only brick church on the tour, St. Mary’s “” dedicated as the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary “” is touted as one of Texas’ most ornate churches. The hand-painted blue, gold, and ocher canvas ceiling, which took five years to complete, and the elaborate columns simulate Old World German cathedrals. Pious fakes, the columns are made of wood but are painted to look like marble, and the altars appear to be trimmed with gold.
The focal point of the church is the main altar. It is inset with an exquisite stained-glass window depicting the Crucifixion. Gracing the walls are 18 stained-glass windows, circa 1885.
“The windows were salvaged from the second church built on this spot,” stated our guide, pointing out some of the religious imagery in the windows, including the “all-seeing eye” framed by a triangle.
But it’s not the only eye keeping watch. From their perches high on column supports, statues seem to hover over the congregation. As at Ammannsville, the saints are segregated: St. Agnes and ladies are on the left, with St. Aloysius and gents on the right.
High Hill was founded by Austrians in 1860, but the town’s growth was stopped in its tracks when residents, afraid the “iron horse” would bring in thugs, refused rights-of-way to the railroad. When the railroad arrived 2 miles south at Schulenburg, most of High Hill’s Main Street businesses followed suit.
An earthly paradise
It’s not heaven on earth but heaven on the ceiling at St. Mary’s Church of Praha, the last church on the tour. Painted in dreamy flora and fauna, the vaulted, tongue-and-groove wood ceiling is the stunning masterpiece of Swiss-born Gottfried Flury.
“Completed in 1895, Flury’s paradise has never been retouched,” the guide told our flock, as we were caught up in the artistic splendor.
Founded in 1854, the town of Praha was once known as Mulberry. Then outlaws took over and dubbed the village Hotentot. When Czech immigrants regained control, they renamed the place Praha, which is Czech for Prague.
Formally dedicated in 1895 as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, the stone-fronted edifice is topped with a legendary spire. According to lore, a barrel of beer was offered to the soul who dared to climb the 130-foot steeple and attach the church cross.
Like the churches at High Hill and Ammannsville, St. Mary’s at Praha is proudly listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
From Rose, the Archangel at Dubina, to the heavenly ceiling at Praha, the Painted Churches are art-spirational and full of mirth. This is a steeplechase of the highest order!
Schulenburg lies 95 miles west of Houston, just off Interstate 10.
Allow at least two hours for self-guided tours. Please note that the Dubina church is open only for the guided tours; however, much of the art can be viewed through the iron gates in the church entrance. Also, those on self-guided tours are asked not to disturb guided groups.
Many steeplechasers spend the entire day taking in the beauty. Guided tours are arranged through the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce. Cost is $9 per person; a portion of that fee goes back to the churches. Another fee of $40 per group goes to the docent. Occasionally tag-alongs are permitted to join group tours, with a courtesy tip to the docent. Call ahead to learn whether you may join a scheduled tour.
The guided tour lasts four to five hours, depending on the size of the group. Tens of thousands of tourists visit the churches annually, and the popular spring tours fill up quickly. Tours are offered year-round, Monday through Saturday, with the exception of some holidays.
While in Schulenburg, you may want to also visit the Stanzel Model Aircraft Museum (311 Baumgarten St.). The museum tells the story of brothers Victor and Joe Stanzel, who turned their flying hobby into a successful toy business. Hours are Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 4:20 p.m., and Sunday, 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. The museum is open daily in summer. For more information, call (979) 743-6559 or visit www.stanzelmuseum.org.
Additional information about the Painted Churches tour is available from:
Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce
618 N. Main St.
Schulenburg, TX 78956
(866) 504-5294 (toll-free)
More information about the Painted Churches is also available at:
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
Schulenburg RV Park
65 N. Kessler Ave.
Schulenburg, TX 78956
(800) 771-9955 (reservations)
(979) 743-4388 (information)
Columbus RV Park
1011 New World Drive
Columbus, TX 78934
Happy Oaks RV Park
P.O. Box 868
Columbus, TX 78934
Motorcoach RV Park
2965 Hwy. 90 E.
Columbus, TX 78932