Exuberant churches of Gothic vaulting and delicate rococo colors united the two worlds of Czech immigrants who landed on Texas soil
“If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, then, by God, it is good enough for the rest of us.” This statement, usually attributed to Miriam A. (“Ma”) Ferguson, the governor of Texas in the 1920s and 1930s, could only further alarm the Czech and German farmers of Central Texas—the Czechs especially. They had come here to escape the repression of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had suppressed the Czech language in favor of German. When the state of Texas demanded that public schools’ classes be taught in English, the Czechs had formed their own schools, and they were determined to run them in their native language. “It wasn’t for nothing that we traveled halfway around the earth to settle in this new country,” one settler commented. “Why, it was for freedom, for liberty, for the right to choose.” And for the land, of course. They laid claim to one of the world’s richest soils, the edge of the Black Prairie, which ran in a wide, fertile swath through eastern Central Texas. During the second half of the nineteenth century, more than a million Czechs and Germans moved to Texas, more European settlers than in any other Southern or Western state. The Czechs were lured to Texas by the descriptions of cheap, fertile land and the promise of religious freedom. Having lived for centuries as an oppressed minority, they yearned to celebrate Mass without fear of reprisal.
The central parish church for Texas’s Czech population is the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, in Praha, the Czech name for Prague. Settled in the late 186Os, the community grew steadily, helped by its selection as a stop on the old Galveston, Houston and San Antonio railroad. By 1894 the parish at Praha was prosperous enough to build a new church. Materials were so scarce on the prairie that wood and stone had to be hauled in by oxcart from as far as Houston, seventy-five miles away. When the church was completed a year later, parishioners commissioned a Swiss-born artist, Gottfried Flury of San Antonio, to decorate the interior using a combination of faux marble, stenciling, and trompe l’oeil.
Every August, for more than 135 years, the church has celebrated Prazka Prout, or homecoming, which attracts thousands of people from all over Texas. Beginning with Mass at 10:00 A.M. , followed by an all-day picnic, Prazka Prout is a lively mixture of hot polkas, cold beer, Czech beef stew, golden fried chicken—and reminiscences.
It was at Praha that the argument over language finally came to a head. Like many parishes, the town built a public school in association with its church. In 1875 Fayette County Judge Augustine Haidusek, who was Czech, ruled that all teachers at the school had to be certified in English. Community sentiment agreed with the judge that their children should learn English as well as Czech, but the ruling threatened the school’s teachers, many of whom spoke little English. Nevertheless, within a year, most of them had learned enough English to pass the certification exam, and the school at Praha became the first in Texas to hold classes in both English and Czech.
Just a few miles down old Highway 90 from Praha lies the parish church at High Hill. While many churches in this area can claim Czech heritage, none of them are as large or as beautiful as those at Praha and High Hill. Unlike Praha, though, which was always a rural community, High Hill once was one of Texas’s fastest-growing cities. Naturally, when the owners of the new GHOcSA trunk line came through in the late 1860s looking for rights-of-way, they wanted to put a station there. But the town rebuffed them, claiming that trains were noisy, smoky things that would pollute the community with undesirable characters. So the new station opened three miles to the south, just across from Louis Schulenburg’s farm. Within a few years all the businesses had moved to die new town of Schulenburg, which had sprung up along the tracks, and downtown High Hill was empty.
Still, enough people remained in the area to build the present St. Mary’s Catholic Church in 1906. The third sanctuary built at High Hill, it was constructed with material salvaged from the former churches, including eighteen stained glass windows from an 1876 structure.
In 1912 the congregation hired Herman Kern and Ferdinand Stockert of San Antonio to paint St. Mary’s interior. Like Praha, St. Mary’s at High Hill contains elaborate examples of decorative church painting. Marbleized pillars capped with intricate green and gold capitals run the length of the sanctuary; the deep blue nave is outlined in gold filigree.
The parish at High Hill also maintains St. John the Baptist, another beautiful church ten miles away at Ammansville, one of the first communities settled by the Czechs in Texas. The present Ammansville church, dating from 1919, is the third to occupy its site. Nowadays the St. John the Baptist church holds services infrequently, but it is still carefully preserved down to its highly decorative stenciling, executed in a delicate pink offset by green and bordered in white trim.
Though the parishes at High Hill, Praha, Wesley, and other Central Texas communities continued to grow throughout the early part of this century, the First World War brought a sudden halt to Czech immigration in Texas. In 1919 the nation of Czechoslovakia was created from fragments of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the rush of emigration eased when it seemed that a viable democracy could rise in the Old World.
Eventually the Czech influence in Texas began to wane. Though many of the churches survived, their schools did not, and by the late 1950s most were empty, the battles over language forgotten. Even the school at Praha could not endure, finally closing its doors in 1972.
The land has changed too. Today the Black Prairie is gone, a victim of the steel plow. Where once stood a sea of waist-high grama grass is now a land of tall corn and Bermuda hay.
As young people leave the land, the churches see far fewer baptisms and marriages. And when the present generation of farmers is gone, much of Texas’s Czech living heritage will be gone too.
Still, that heritage is imprinted on Central Texas. Most churches in the area hold services in German or Czech at least once a month, and radio stations broadcast them. Lee Roy’s “Czech Hour” on La Grange’s KVLG-AM runs three days a week from 12:45 until 2:00 P.M. , offering local news, polka music, and commercials. In Czech, of course.
So the little towns and churches hang on. Where once the railroad ruled, now communities like La Grange and Schulenburg cling to the interstate. Other towns, like Round Top and Winedale, have been “discovered” by urbanités trying to escape the hassle of the city, even if just for the weekend. Bed-and-breakfasts abound. And Mass is still held at seven-thirty each morning in Praha, nine o’clock on Sundays.