Texas Travel

A Peek at Texas’ Painted Churches of Little Bohemia

By Peter Simek 6.19.18

For more than a century, they were a well-kept Texas secret: a handful of little churches in a rural county in southeastern Texas that you could have driven by a hundred times and never guessed at what they contained.

That’s until an amateur historian began taking photos in the 1970s of the churches built by his Czech ancestors, some of the original European settlers in Fayette County. When Ben Sustr’s photos were published in Texas Highways magazine, readers could not believe what they saw. Today, the “Painted Churches of Texas” are like the Lone Star State’s Sistine Chapel. 

1. St. Mary Catholic Church, Schulenburg

Begin your tour in Schulenburg, which is home to four of the 15 painted churches of Texas. The Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce has maps that you can use to take a self-guided tour, or you can sign up for a guided tour. St. Mary Catholic Church lies just north of town. Rebuilt in 1906 and painted in 1912, it is perhaps the most opulent of the painted churches, with a beautiful tall apse adorned in robin’s-egg blue and gold trim.

Many European migrants who began arriving in Texas in the middle of the 19th century made port in Galveston, about 150 miles southeast of Fayette County. Many were driven out of their homelands in Germany and the kingdoms of Moravia, Bohemia, and Silesia (now part of the Czech Republic).

Some were escaping poverty and saw opportunity in the wide-open landscape of the American West. Others were fleeing the European wars or seeking to avoid conscription into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Photo by Jerry and Pat Donaho

2. Nativity of Mary, Blessed Virgin Catholic Church, Schulenburg

Your next stop is one of the first churches built by the German-trained Texas architect Leo M.J. Dielmann. The interior reflects the influence of neo-Gothic architectural style, with dramatically vaulted ceilings carefully decorated with interlacing vine and floral patterns. 

As with most immigrant communities, the Czechs tended to stay among themselves, though their command of the German language made them friendly neighbors for the many German migrants who were also flooding into Texas around the same time.

They acquired farmland, founded towns, and began to establish the social institutions that were familiar from back home. They built dance halls, which served as social gathering spots and community meeting halls. And they built churches.

3. St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, Ammansville

Less than a 15-minutes drive north lies the town of Ammansville. The rose-colored walls and bright windows set this painted church apart. It was constructed in 1919 after the first building was destroyed by a hurricane and the second was ravaged by a fire.

Church life was central to Texas’ Czech communities; and so once they began to establish themselves financially, they invested their money in erecting church buildings that reminded them of the cathedrals from their homeland. In Texas, however, they faced a few new obstacles.

Some of the early churches were damaged by frequent hurricanes, so the Czechs began erecting them with quarried red brick to fortify the churches’ exteriors. From the outside, the churches are stately and utilitarian — not too dissimilar from some chapels in New England. The artisanship and artistic expression were saved for the inside.

painted churches

Photo by Whitt Duncan

4. St. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church, Dubina

From Ammansville, it is only a six-minute drive to the tiny farming community of Dubina. The town’s church is notable for its stately steeple, simply trimmed interior arches, starry blue ceilings, and vibrant altarpiece.

What’s particularly striking about the style is the ornately painted ceilings of the apses, as well as the use of color — bright pastels that accentuate the way the crisp Texas light enlivens the interiors.

The Czech communities couldn’t afford to erect the massive gothic structures they remembered from back home, so the paintings often served to imitate the look of the grand cathedrals of Bohemia.

painted churches

Photo by Whitt Duncan

5. St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption, Praha

Drive west to Praha for the last stop on your tour. Unlike some of the other churches, which are most notable for the frescolike designs and ornamentation on their walls and ceilings, St. Mary’s features many oil paintings depicting religious scenes that were created by local artists.

For more of Texas’ hidden gems, travel down the East Texas music highway or the historic Texas Forts Trail.

© 2018 Texas Farm Bureau Insurance