The Painted Churches of Texas: Echoes of the Homeland

On The Road With Father Alan

By Father Alan Oakes, C.S.P.

Filming Update

In June, the film crew of the upcoming documentary The Painted Churches of Texas: Echoes of the Homeland was quite busy. We interviewed Buie Harwood, a former University of Texas professor who spent more than 15 years researching decorative painting in Texas. She has written a book on the subject in which the painted churches are prominently featured. We also did extensive filming of the High Hill church. Addie Winkler, a life-time parishioner of High Hill was interviewed. She recalled for us what it was like as a little girl going to church on Sundays in horse-drawn buggies.

We also filmed the Father’s Day Mass in Ammansville. Father Peter presided over the joy-filled celebration. (I worried that our little camera crane was going to bump someone on the back of their head –- which thankfully didn’t happen). The next day the crew filmed the Father’s Day Celebration as well as the interior of Ammansville. Thanks to the whole parish for being so helpful and hospitable especially our 90 year old Czech reader! Thanks also to Marie Klekar who we also filmed in Ammansville reading from a Czech Bible.

On Visiting Churches

One of the great joys in life for me is to visit churches in which I have never been. Each church has its own story to tell. From the simplest country church to the most ornate baroque confection, one way or another I feel blessed walking into these buildings. As so many people plainly put it, churches are God’s houses. They are where we find it comfortable to worship our Lord in private or amongst our family and friends.

Each church we walked into reveals what is important to that community in their faith lives. All of the joys and sorrows of life are celebrated, surrounded by and even recorded on these sacred walls.

The painted churches of Texas are magnificent structures that have many stories to tell. Walking into one, I almost feel as if I am transported back 80 or 100 years or so when many of the churches were first constructed -- so much detail has either been left untouched or has been lovingly restored.

One of my favorite churches is Saint Mary’s Church of the Assumption in Praha.

Painted Churches Documentary Completes Filming

The documentary of the painted churches of Texas completed its last day of filming on Saturday, Aug. 19 at Ascension of Our Lord Parish in Moravia, Texas.

The Ascension of Our Lord Church is unique among the painted churches of Texas. It is the only church that is cruciform in shape. That means if you were to look down on it from the sky, it takes on the shape of a cross.

The cruciform shape has been used for centuries throughout the world in sacred structures. But the church in Moravia is unique. Father Schindler who was the pastor in 1913, designed the church. He championed the cruciform shape for a practical reason. A hurricane in July of 1909 wrecked several churches in its path. He believed a church with the shape of a cross would better withstand the devastating winds of a hurricane compared to a standard rectangular building. The fact that the church, which is completely built of wood, is standing more that 80 years later is testimony that Father Schindler was correct.

The squat steeple of the Ascension of Our Lord church was also streamlined on account of the wind. When first built, the steeple was much taller. Parishioners heard the steeple creaking and groaning when strong storms moved through the area, so they shorted the steeple to what you see today.

The interior of the church was masterfully painted by Fred Donecker and his sons ten years later in 1923. Four years earlier, Donecker painted the interior of Saint John the Baptist church in Ammansville (the "pink church.") We also have records indicating that he painted the interior of the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Peace in Sweet Home.

The painting in the Moravia church is significant because of all of the painted churches it probably has been left the most untouched since it was first painted. It is a fine example of Donecker's mastery of a variety of painting techniques. The image of the Lord's ascension is particularly moving. I also enjoyed the painted dove of the Holy Spirit which is on the ceiling of the church. For me, the dove is a reminder that in some way all who enter this church were led by the Spirit. The dove beckons us to follow and gather around the sacred altar of Christ.

We wanted to thank the wonderful parishioners and pastor, Father Brian P. Crookes for allowing us to film their church. We were also able to film the church's choir who performed old Czech hymns for us. Special thanks to Thadious Polasek who provided a terrific interview for us as well as Choir Director Loraine Deem, Mary Richburg and Cathy Gueinter who helped make the arrangements for our visit to Moravia.

Painted Churches Documentary Pauses to Remember a Beloved Brother

In September, I received a phone call from, Tom Spencer, the director of the KJZT-sponsored documentary. Tom told me that his younger brother, Jeff, who was in excellent health, had just been diagnosed with cancer and that he would need time off to be with his family who live in Houston.

As the doctors began an aggressive treatment program, Jeff experienced kidney failure. His health deteriorated further with other complications. Jeff Spencer died a day short of his 41st birthday on October 20th.

Jeff attended both the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Houston earning honors when he graduated with a B.S. in accounting. He rose quickly through the ranks at Bank of America, where he was employed as a vice president of Interactive Banking Operations in Houston.

We decided it would be in the best interest of Tom and his family if he took time off to be with his family during this painful process. So we have postponed the debut of the documentary until February.

As I am writing this, Tom is back at work writing and editing footage for the documentary as well as resuming his regular responsibilities at KLRU. I encourage you to pray for Tom, his sister Diana and their parents Guy and Mary Spencer.