The Painted Churches of Texas: Echoes of the Homeland

Czechs in Texas

By Susan Kaderka

The Czechs who settled in Texas in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a Slavic people originating from the provinces of Moravia and Bohemia in what is now Czechoslovakia. They began immigrating to Texas in the early 1850s, attracted by the promise of land. At that time, Texas had just become a state and needed settlers. The Czech provinces, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were heavily populated and most farmers had only small holdings -- an average of 5 to 10 acres -- with no prospects for acquiring more land. When they read letters and newspaper accounts of the abundant, fertile farmland available in the vast territory that was Texas, many decided to pack up and leave their homeland.

The pattern of Czech settlement in Texas is sometimes called "chain migration," meaning that people from one area of the homeland would congregate in the same area of the new land. The early settlers would write back to their villages describing conditions in the new country, offering advice and information about the journey and otherwise urging relatives and friends to follow. As a result, people who were neighbors in the old country would sometimes be neighbors again in the new land. Czech Texans came primarily from villages in northern Moravia and northeastern Bohemia.

The journey to Texas was long and arduous, taking anywhere from 10 to 17 weeks. Of the first group of 16 families who left Moravia in 1851, only about half of the 74 person party survived the trip. Czech émigrés typically left Europe from the port of Bremen, Germany and sailed to Galveston, Texas. From there they took a steamship to Houston, loaded their children and belongings into oxcarts and walked the 60 miles to their destination: Cat Spring in Austin County. In the early 1850s, Cat Spring could scarcely be considered a town. It consisted of a farm and a single store, owned by businessman and land speculator Jan Reymershoffer. Reymershoffer had sent back letters to Moravia extolling the virtues of life in Texas. One disappointed new arrival described Cat Spring as "not much more than a prairie and a heavy forest that was full of wildcats."

Once in Texas, the Czech immigrants often worked as tenant farmers (usually for German settlers, who preceded the Czechs to Texas by several decades) until they could save enough money to buy land of their own. As a people, the Czechs were frugal, hardworking and self-sufficient. Above all else, they valued land.

This new Czech community grew slowly at first. In 1861, there were only about 700 Czechs in Texas. Immigration halted during the Civil War due to a Union blockade of Texas ports, but picked up again in the 1870s. By 1910, there were more than 15,000 foreign-born Czechs in Texas; they were second only to Germans in population.

Although a significant number of Czechs who left Europe for the United States were Protestants or Freethinkers (a group who disdained organized religion), the vast majority of Czechs who settled in Texas were Catholic. As a group they were anxious to preserve both their social and religious heritage, which they accomplished by forming civic and fraternal societies and building schools and churches.

Initially, Czech settlers would travel to a neighboring town -- sometimes 20 or 30 miles -- to attend religious services. Or they would persuade a priest in the area to visit them once a month and say Mass is someone's home. In 1872, a group of Czechs from Fayetteville, Texas petitioned the Bishop of Galveston to bring over a Czech priest from Moravia. Father Joseph Chromcik arrived on Christmas Eve of 1872. He served Czech Catholics in a seven-county area for the next 37 years, traveling on horseback to say Mass, baptize infants, officiate weddings, provide religious instruction and bury the dead.

In this rural missionary environment, the establishment of a church was a great milestone for a community. Securing a permanent pastor was an even greater accomplishment. Czech communities contributed enthusiastically to the building of their churches: land, materials and labor were often donated, and whatever debt was incurred was swiftly retired. The dedication of a new church was a major event, attracting hundreds of people, all dressed in their finest. Church histories compiled at major anniversaries of a parish -- the 25th or 50th or 100th -- lovingly chronicle the tenure of each pastor and diligently record the parish's first baptism, first wedding and first funeral.

The churches featured in The Painted Churches: Echoes of the Homeland were often the second or third church building these communities erected, replacing earlier structures that the community had outgrown, or, in some instances, that were destroyed by fire or tornado. The churches embody the aspirations of immigrant communities that had reached a certain maturity. They had survived the transition from the homeland, acquired the much-sought-after land, built schools for their children, and finally, established beautiful churches to nurture their spirits and sustain their faith.