Preserving "Polonia's Plymouth Rock": Panna Maria, Texas
Polish American Journal, June 1997
by Eugene Obidinski

PANNA MARIA, Texas—In a historic Texas hamlet founded by Silesian immigrants in 1854, Loretta Dziuk Niestroy and Elaine Dolores Moczygemba help visitors from throughout the world experience Polonian community life by following in the footsteps of Polish American pioneers.

Along with other dedicated volunteers and members of the Panna Maria Historical Association, Loretta and Elaine greet many visitors to Panna Maria, Texas, located some 55 miles southeast of San Antonio—near the junction of the San Antonio River and Cibolo Creek, where Father Leopold Moczygemba helped 100 Silesian farm families find a challenging new world of obstacles and opportunities.

Fortunately for Polish American historians, several informative studies describe Panna Maria's evolution—in more detail than is appropriate here. (1) But beyond the books, Elaine, Loretta, and other volunteers maintain a living history shaped by records and reminiscence.

During our conversations at the Panna Maria Visitor's Center (the 1875 Pilarczyk Store building donated by the Dworaczyk family in 1991), Loretta and Elaine shared resources such as a genealogical record of the Panna Maria pioneers and a copy of the passenger list of the Weser, the ship which reached Galveston December 3, 1854 with 304 Polish immigrants after a nine-week voyage from Bremen, Germany.

After an exhausting overland trek from the Gulf Coast, the Polish pioneers reached a site acquired by Father Moczygemba, and on December 24 joined him in celebrating Midnight Mass under a live oak tree which still stands beside the parish church. Although Father Moczygemba was never assigned as pastor to Panna Maria and was buried in Detroit after his death in 1891, his remains were reinterred near the live oak in 1974.

The live oak provides repose to visitors drawn to St. Mary's Church (Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church), which remains a focal point of community life. The original church, completed by immigrants a few years after their arrival, was destroyed by lightning in 1877. It was replaced with another church which was repaired in 1937. Since 1990, extensive renovation and restoration strained limited resources of the parish containing less than 100 families whose many elderly members are on fixed incomes.

Efforts to restore, acquire, and maintain the church and other buildings of the pioneer period are a continuing challenge to the Historical Association and volunteers who prepare grant applications, organize fund-raising campaigns, and happily accept donations of any size.

Some support may come from the current 2,000 Bricks by Year 2000 drive involving contributions to purchase memorial bricks—with engraved family names—for a sidewalk at the church. Contributors may contact the Panna Maria Historical Society, Box 52, Panna Maria, TX 78144, or by calling (210) 780-2650.

Sidewalks or not, there is a steady stream of pilgrims to Panna Maria, according to records—cited by Elaine—and names in a Visitor's Book in a church. During the last quarter of 1996, there were visitors from England, British Columbia, Quebec, Germany, Poland, twenty-six states of the U.S., and 75 Texas locations.

Elaine assumes some of the visitors "deliberately plan a stop while other are attracted by highway signs" for Panna Maria and nearby communities at Helena, Cestohowa and Kosicusko (Texan translations of Czestochowa and Kosciuszko), where Poles and Polish Americans often find evidence of Polonian rural life.

Panna Maria remains much the same ethnic enclave I first visited in 1962 when I drove down from Austin for a visit with a fellow graduate student, Father John Mullaly, a chaplain at the Yorktown Hospital who assisted at Sunday Masses at Helena and Panna Maria. His "Rogation Day" homily on a warm Spring Sunday emphasized renewal of nature and the human spirit.

The preservation of Panna Maria—a form of ongoing ethnic renewal—contrasted to some form of change in Polish urban neighborhoods described in my sociological studies. When I returned to Panna Maria in 1969 for interviews with descendants of the 1854 pioneers, I found strong traces of Polonian ethnicity but little organized activity beyond church-related events.

During a visit in 1994, I realized that Panna Maria's past was a prologue to current preservation goals of the Historical Society activists such as Loretta, who served as president for several years after the Society was created in 1991, and Elaine, current president. Their mission and the contributions of the Historical Society deserves more attention in a future article.

However, the Society's thoroughly informative, quarterly Newsletter is the next best thing to a visit to Panna Maria and should be required reading for students of Polish American ethnicity. The March 1997 issue described preservation and church renovation projects, current fund-raising activities and details of a farewell celebration for Bishop John Yanta, recently assigned to the Amarillo diocese, and historical vignettes by Loretta and Elaine.

Genealogists will appreciate details of a Silesian Profiles project documenting surnames of Polish pioneer families. Another article by local historian Antone M. Wolfe describes resources for tracing descendants of such families. The Newsletter, available to persons who join the Historical Association (at the address listed above), also lists ongoing research projects and annual events, such as an outdoor Mass on the first Sunday of May, recreation of the Pony Express, Christmas Along the Corridor celebrations, and especially, the Annual Homecoming Turkey Dinner on the second Sunday of October.

A principal fund-raising event for the past 20 years, the dinner attracted some 2,500 guests in 1995, according to an illustrated article in Texas Co-op Power (December 1995), which concludes with a recipe for preparing 100 25-pound turkeys and 800 pounds of dressing. Quite a meal—even without pierogi—but, still, food was running short by late afternoon.

Hospitality and history are never in short supply for visitors to the 3,000-acre historic district of Panna Maria. The two-story St. Joseph's School, completed in 1868 and renovated over the years, contains the St. Joseph's School Museum. The second floor—which once housed teaching nuns—serves as the St. Joseph Convent Bed and Breakfast, available to visitors through reservations with the Historical Society.

Nearby historic buildings include the Felix Mika House, built by Joseph Moczygemba, brother of Father Leopold; the John Gawlik House; and Snoga's Store—originally a barn built by nineteenth century landowner John Twohig and now used by the Post Office and as a social center.

The church contains cherished relics of Polonian culture such as a beautiful mosaic of Our Lady of Czestochowa created by Polish artist Jan Krantz, and presented by President Lyndon Johnson in May, 1966 to commemorate the Millennium of Polish Christianity. During his 1987 visit to San Antonio, Pope John Paul II held a private audience with parishioners and presented an elegant, gold and jewel-encrusted chalice to the church along with beautiful wooden chairs used during his visit.

The Pope also defined the meaning of Panna Maria shared by descendants of the Polish pioneers. "Panna Maria is very famous in Poland," he said, "and all our great American Polonia credits its origin ... the first nest built on American soil by Polish immigrants inspiring others to follow in their footsteps."

(1) Along with Father Dworaczyk's early study, other books available from the Panna Maria Historical Society, P.O. Box 52, Panna Maria, TX 78144, are scholarly studies by T. Lindsay Baker, First Polish Americans and The First Polish Texans; Joseph Jaworski's photographic essay, Panna Maria: An Image of Polish Texas; Rita Kerr's children's books, The Ghost of Panna Maria; and Panna Maria: The Heart of Polish Texans, a 17-minute color video tape prepared by the Institute of Texan Cultures of San Antonio.

Pilgrims to Panna Maria
For reasons described by Rev. Edward Dworaczyk in his classic 1936 book, The First Polish Colonies of America in Texas, the successive waves of Polish immigrants to Panna Maria created a close-knit community which survived but never developed into a large, prosperous town.

Quoting comments written by S. Nesterowicz in 1909, Father Dworaczyk wrote, "The uproar of a big town would only be a desecration of the secluded nook drenched with sweat and tears of the exiles who sought shelter from poverty and oppression and wanted no more than the freedom and a piece of bread."

Descendants of the Panna Maria pioneers who organized the Panna Maria Historical Society and opened a Visitor's Center in 1991 sometimes wondered why so many visitors were drawn to their community.

An item in the Fall 1992 Panna Maria Newsletter provided an answer. "We found that many (visitors) experience the same sort of peace and centeredness that we know. And at the same time, many cried ... We have had a great year of connections with each other, with our extended families, and with people from all over the world."

Surprisingly, many of the names in the registry near a mosaic of Our Lady of Czestochowa inside the church are not of obvious Polish origin. For the first three months of 1997, 62 of the entries were apparently Polonian; however, 99 entries were "non-Polish:" 87 were Hispanic; and 32 were of undetermined ethnic origins.

Most of the visitors (179) in the first quarter were from Texas, while others came from 19 other states, Poland, Canada, Germany, Italy, and New Zealand. As pilgrims, the visitors discovered that Panna Maria is not so much a place as a poignant experience.

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