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Thursday
Apr072016

The Painted Churches of Texas

Photograph by Jessica Brown

I kept imagining what it would be like if we had accidentally found these churches. What if we had arrived with no expectation of what was inside?

We would have had to accidentally turn down one of these small country roads—and not only drive by one of these churches (for they look, as one architectural historian said, “very conventional, even dour” on the outside), but somehow—maybe wanting a spot for prayer, or maybe if someone in the car had needed to go to the bathroom—we would have had to get into the church. We would walk in expecting the usual ecclesiastical interior of nave, pews, altar. Wood and brick. Solemn, plain.

I imagine it. I walk in, looking around for the small 1980s fake-wood sign: restrooms. It’s a little dim after the winter sunlight. Eyes adjust. Hues from stained windows wobble across the backs of the pews—I look up—

The sculpted ceiling rises above. 

Warm, splendid colors wash across the walls—flowering embellishments entwine at corners and cornices—delicate stenciling in gold and blue and pink parade through. 

Huh? 

Where am I? Where did the little country church go?

When did its sweet domestic exterior turn into this—this sublime rendering of sacred space? How did this place come to be, this jewel-like, pearly, vaulted sanctuary, out here in empty prairie land? 

And I would be bowled over not only at the exquisite craft, but first, the existence of such a thing, an expression of a place of worship that took such stunning form, not in a city like Chicago or Boston, where other painted churches were built at the turn of the century, but out here in farm and ranch land. 

It’s a shock, like the sublime always is; a kind of shiver moves through me. I feel smaller, and larger, than before.


Even when we did know what we were looking for, even when we had the little guide with its pictures, and eyewitness accounts from friends, I was bowled over. The soft, rich colors kept catching me by surprise.


That Friday morning, my parents and my little son and I headed out from my parents’ home near southeast Houston. We had travel mugs of coffee and oatmeal cookies ready for our mini-road trip. I had come from Los Angeles to visit in November and at Christmas, but it had been too busy then to make the trek to south central Texas, near the old towns of Schulenberg and Shiner, where a cluster of beautiful, painted churches were nestled along small roads in rolling prairie country. We had set aside today just for this. 

It was kind of like a pilgrimage. A motley crowd in a fast minivan was heading to sites of worship that other people also traveled to see. For some reason, I felt a little jumpy—maybe I wasn’t sure how a two-year-old would fare being hustled between carseat and quiet churches. Maybe I was nervous, like I often am, at the prospect of beholding for real what my mind has built up in cerebral, imaginative, form.


We arrived to Schulenberg around noon and had lunch at The Garden Center. We sat outside at a wooden picnic table, half in the bright, warm sun and half in the cool shade. With a glass of light red wine, I had a cup of creamy basil tomato soup and a salad with smoked trout. My dad had a burger made of bratwurst, loaded with house-made sauerkraut, and my mom had a burger with maple bacon and a crisp fried egg. It felt cozy as we sat together in a new place. My dad said a blessing for the food when it arrived. He prayed that we would find “the joy in the buildings” that we were about to see.


After lunch we took Highway 77 north to High Hill. While we were still far away, we spotted the steeple of St. Mary’s, a slender marker in the pale blue sky. We turned onto a small road, and then another even smaller road, which dipped down a brown-green hill before rising up into a little nook of buildings. Surrounded by oak trees, a large but plain stone church stood there, right across the street from a small neighborhood and, beyond that, prairie.

We parked, walked over on the slanted sidewalk. We opened the heavy doors, and entered. 

The space vaulted to high ceiling. Creamy yellow and pale green arcs drew the eye high and back to the rich turquoise arc above the altar, and then, the pearly blue apse behind it. 

The majestic, delicate colors mapped something of the soul in the space of worship and the procession of the Mass—domestic yellow and grassy green ground the nave, the main section where tired muscles and bones sit every Sunday morning. The apse, with its pearly, ethereal blue, gestures to heaven. And the altar in between, where the Eucharist is received, sits under the rich, dramatic color of blue and green combined, a deep turquoise. All throughout these colors are stenciled delicate floral designs, glistening with gold leaf accents, signs of life and growth and gracefulness. 

The church was a place of incredible, deliberate, beauty. It had been some time since I’d been in a place of worship so utterly beautiful. As I walked down the main aisle and then the smaller aisles at the south and north portals, my son walked beside me. He’d never been in a church like this. It was his first time to behold, and in his little mind configure, how a church can look like this. Here is a human-made artifact of craftsmanship that, somehow, actually embodies the joy—the nearly incomprehensible reality—of Emmanuel, God with us.

We exited the church. My son did a dance on the front steps and bounced along the sidewalk to the van.

Who had decided to build a church like this? Why? How? 


The church in Praha was closed, so we headed up north to St. John’s in Ammansville. This church was smaller, a white wooden building set in the deep green of Texas meadowland. The interior of this church was soft and peaceful,the walls a delicate pink with dark pink stenciling and accents of green and gold and blue. The ceiling was sculpted with strong, simple arcs and curves. There was something here almost maternal, a kind of safety akin to a mother’s embrace. 

Again I wondered about those who decided to build a church with such an interior. Why was it a vision for them, to have time on Sunday mornings in a place that looked like this?

On to Dubina, where again the typical white wooden church belies the existence of such sublime interior. The sky-blue ceiling is delicately studded with gold leaf stars; the white arcs opening above the nave are etched with green vines. The way the simple beams are painted with this gorgeous excess of color expresses such deep, rich, abiding joy. It’s like the church dares you to not think of how heaven meets earth, or earth meets heaven, when worship happens.

Before we went to our last church in Shiner, about forty minutes away, we went to the family-run Friday’s Fried Chicken, where I got a slice of dewberry pie and a cup of diner coffee. Dad got some soft serve ice cream. The four of us sat in our little booth. I think we were all tired. It is strange to behold such beauty, I think, and then move on quickly. It’s like the soul is running to catch up. 


The churches that we saw that day had been built in the first decade of the twentieth century, usually on locations where previous churches had existed in that parish before, land set aside for worship since the early days of the small settlements. 

The narratives of the history of the churches run along similar lines: a group of Austrians, or Germans, or Czechs, leave their homes to sail the 2- to 4-month journey across the Atlantic. They arrive at Galveston Bay and head inland. Those in Dubina stop during a wretched storm under a copse of oak trees, trying to stay alive by the warmth of a fire, and they decide to stay (“dub” is “oak” in Czech). Those who stay in High Hill do so out of love for the height of the tiny hill, perfect for a new town. 

A few years go by. The settlers have to travel to receive their beloved Eucharist. Land in the town is deeded to a church, and the first building is built. Hurricane or fire destroys it. They build another building. For High Hill, it too comes down.

Then, around forty years after first arriving, those in the parish decide to build a painted church. How many of them recalled buildings from the Old Country? Was it their children, now grown, who treasured such ideas of worship space? Did they hear tales of the painted churches in the bigger cities up north?

It takes time, to build a church like this. Many stages. Artisans—like Leo M. J. Dielmann, “Architect: Ecclesiastical Buildings a Specialty,” or Fred Doneckar, “Fresco Artist, Church Frescoing a specialty”—are hired. It’s said that the man who painted the inside of St. John’s at Ammansville was a drifter. Imagine drifting around, painting like that. The painters used different methods to create the interiors—stenciling, infill painting, freehand, feathering. The artists could achieve illusions of stonework, marble, and wood. 

I read the brochures, research online, watch the documentary made for PBS. I learn a little about the history of the settlers—how so many came from the Old World with exciting ideals of community and freedom. I read about the craftsmanship of how painted churches are created. 

The larger questions, though, resound.

How did those in these parishes decide to create such a building? What were their conversations like, as they came to the decision—yes, let’s paint the inside of our churches with frescos, let’s paint scrolling seraphs on the ceiling, on the walls, around the windows? Did one woman or one man get the idea—a kind of flash, a dream—and tell the others? Did it take long to be convinced? Did they recall voyages across the dark waters of the Atlantic, splices of home churches in the Old Country? When and where were they, when they stood upon such open prairie land, and said, let’s build a church that looks normal on the outside—white-painted wood or pale stone—and then, on the other side of the threshold, create something that will take someone’s breath away by its sheer and appalling, sweet, sublime beauty?


Sts. Cecil and Methodius Church in Shiner was different that the other churches. The outside was larger and grander, and the inside, though spacious and vaulted, was less embellished. The huge, bold painting in the apse is really what the whole church draws your eye toward. It’s of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

When we arrived, a Lenten service had just ended. Many people were just leaving, and after they cleared out, we walked in. It wasn’t quiet or hushed. Instead, four elderly ladies were energetically vacuuming the nave, each going down their section of pews row by row. 

The sight was breathtaking. In this huge, artistic space, these ladies looked small and busy—and gave human, real-time form to the questions in my mind all afternoon. I had been longing to know about the people who made these buildings. And these ladies were part of the answer. Normal people. Normal people who saw themselves as part of the drama of worship.


That day, I kept thinking of our family friend. She’s the one who told my mom about the church in Shiner. I love what she told my mom—that when she arrives, she peeks in to see if there’s anyone else there before stepping in. It’s too much otherwise, she says, to go in all alone. 

I imagine going in alone. She’s right. It would be almost terrifying—the deep silence, the high arc of space, and that realistic, thrilling painting in the apse of Jesus, in all his agony and surrender in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

I remember one time this woman told me another story. She and her husband had, I think because of car trouble, pulled over to the side of the road. It was night on an empty road in Texas. She stepped out of the car, not thinking or expecting anything, and then, looked up to experience the hugeness of the night sky—the weight of deep dark, the white brilliance of millions of stars. She told me that she fell down, like a little girl, and crouched against the car. 

It strikes me that my friend’s heart knows something precious about not just the sublime, with its ideas of the terror and awe of beauty, but also the spirituality of the sublime. Her Texan roots go back to the Bohemian Czechs who settled this part of Texas. Growing up, she walked down the street to receive Mass every morning. Is it something in the DNA, or family history, or the deep patterns of Mass, that equips my friend to respond so honestly, openly, viscerally, to the encounter of the night sky or the empty, silent, splendid church? 


When I think about a spirituality of the sublime, what impresses me is that it’s not about being a spectator. In the theoretical framework of the sublime—the notion or experience of beauty that is utterly overpowering—the viewer is often rendered as passive, a spectator. But in the drama of worship, for all of its sublime beauty, we are totally integrated into it: an essential piece, at least for worship of God that happens here on earth. Like those ladies vacuuming, like the drifter who painted frescoes, we have the ability to help create—hew, paint, clean—our encounter with a living, loving God. Out in the desert God had his people crafting their gathering place, the temple, on gorgeous, sublime designs. Worship is perhaps one of the most dramatic events in a human life.

But I forget all of that most of the time. I forget about worship, let alone the deep drama of it, the face-to-face meeting of man and God. I have stuff to do. I have a headache. I’m lonely. The energy it takes to recognize the nearness of holiness, and my place in that, is too much.

I think of these early settlers. How easy it would be to forget about worship then, too. They would have had crops to plant and harvest, food to gather and preserve. They would have had cotton to pick, seed, card, spin, weave, and sew. They would have had lumber to fell and buildings to build.

For all of our high ideals and love for holidays and heroics, I think we are apt to forget about the dramatic things; somehow daily work and rhythms become louder, more pressing. That’s why we tell stories, I think, and sing songs, about love and tragedy and hardship and belonging. It’s to help us remember the more sublime aspects of being alive.

And the more sublime aspects of being loved by God? Of having the chance to meet with God, regularly, weekly, by the hour, by the minute, the second? What could we ever do to remind ourselves of that?

I guess one answer is we could make a church like the painted churches of Texas. Some edifice, some craft, that gives a little glimmer of what prayer looks like. What Communion looks like. What the arcs and columns of contemplative repose look like. It would not be so easy to forget, I think, even with harvest and haying, or job interviews and diet plans, how spectacular a thing it is, to settle into a pew and open a hymnal.

Photograph by Jessica Brown

With graduate degrees in literature and creative writing, Jessica Brown is now studying spiritual formation and soul care at Talbot School of Theology. Her work has has been chosen by Relief Journal, Dappled Things, Journal for Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, and the book Jane Austen and the Arts. She is currently working on a book about the grace to be human (Kalos Press, 2017). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. You can follow her blog Salt+Water at http://saltandwaterblog.tumblr.com/.

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