“The Holy Spirit is at work here,” one of the parishioners said to me after Mass.

I believe him. I could feel it for myself.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Plantersville, Texas is one of the historic “Painted Churches of Texas,” and I visited there one recent Sunday morning.

In fact, it was the Spirit who led me to St. Mary’s.

I’d been researching Marian pilgrimage sites for my ongoing project, Marian Pilgrimage: Discovering Mary Across the USA when I happened upon a brief article about the Catholic heritage of Galveston, Texas. Labeled “The Ellis Island of the West,” the gulf island was a prominent entry-way for European immigrants from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s – many of them Catholic.

As they made their way deeper into Texas, they looked for suitable places to establish homesteads and start a new life in a new country. They also looked for suitable places to establish places of worship. Missing home, they built churches that reflected their heritage – German, Czech, Polish, Austrian, and Ukrainian among others. The churches, colorfully painted and brightly decorated, became known as the Painted Churches of Texas. There are more than 20 of them that speckle the landscape of Central Texas. Each one is a work of artistic beauty that is the result of hard work, expert craftsmanship, lots of sweat (especially in the Texas heat!) and boundless love.   

St. Mary’s Catholic Church (originally named the Church of the Nativity of Mary) caught my eye because it’s located the general area I’d be visiting for family reasons. To my delight, I discovered that it was the church where we’d be attending Sunday Mass.

The Spirit at work, to be sure.

Founded in 1894 by Catholic Ukrainians of German descent from Russia, the Church of the Nativity of Mary is crafted in what its pastor, Father Edward Kucera calls “country gothic.” The current church was built in 1917 – toward the close of WWI – to replace the original which burned down after its bell tower was struck by lightening. The church was immediately rebuilt that same year, this time without a bell tower. In the 1950s and 60s, the church underwent significant changes, with much of the ornate stenciling painted over or otherwise covered and many the interior items removed. Thanks to Fr. Kucera’s drive and wise direction, restoration began in 2002 and continues until today. Much of the interior glory has been recaptured and several of the original items recovered, including some from the 1894 church that had been rescued from the fire.

Entering the church, I would never have guessed that a single thing had been lost or covered over. It is absolutely gorgeous!

Basic yet pleasantly inviting from the outside, the inside walls are elegantly stenciled in vibrant colors and beaded board. Dazzling stained glass fills the window frames. In the entrance are inscriptions above the door hosting the names of the 1917 re-builders and inscriptions that were meaningful to them. One says, Come to me all ye who work hard and have a burden and I will give you rest. During WWII, is was all painted over because the parishioners didn’t want to be identified as German. It’s now restored for all to see. The pews are the originals from the 1917 church, except for the last two on either side – they’d been saved from the 1894 church during the fire. The sanctuary is majestic, with paintings of incensing angels surrounding the Victorious Lamb – a common theme in the Painted Churches. The Holy Spirit is there as well, in all his glory. The altar, according to Fr. Kucera, resembles the altars in the other Painted Churches, all of which likely were made by the same company in San Antonio. The statues of the Sacred Heart and Adoring Angels are from the 1917 church, as are the side altars and statues of St. Anne and St. Anthony of Padua. However, the statues of the Blessed Mother, St Joseph, and the boxes of Holy Oils and the Holy Eucharist are thought to be from the 1894 church.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church is a masterpiece!

For as much as the church itself impressed me, the congregation impressed me as well. A burgeoning parish with 1,100 families (and counting!), its required an expansion of its worship space – twice – and the addition of a church hall for functions and activities. The liturgy is reverent yet lively and the atmosphere spirited-filled and uplifting. On most Sundays, there’s a potluck meal after Mass in the hall and everyone is welcome. Clearly, these parishioners love their parish!

I do, too.

The hard work, dedication, devotion, love and heritage of its founders is palpable. It didn’t take much to step back in time in my imagination and once again “hear” the guttural German accent of my own family heritage or to “see” the weather-worn yet joy-filled faces as they worshipped God and gave honor to his Mother in this building that is so much more than a worship space.

It’s a spiritual home, and the Spirit is at work there.

To learn more about St. Mary’s Catholic Church: http://smsj.org/.