This summer we're taking a look at interesting, odd, historic and just plain worth it road trips in and around the Lone Star State.
Hear the words "Painted Churches of Texas" and it's easy to become intrigued. And so it went for Austin-based television and radio host Tom Spencer (we know him from PBS's Central Texas Gardener) when he embarked on a road trip to check out some of these artistic remnants of Texas history.
"I went out on my own and spent the day traveling around looking at them and photographing them," says Spencer, who describes the churches as super cool and mind-blowing. "I shared the experience with a colleague at the television station."
Not long after, Alan Oakes — who at the time was associate pastor of Saint Austin Catholic Church — called KLRU-TV because he had a vision for producing a documentary about the painted churches. Oakes happened to get on the phone with the same person who had just viewed Spencer's photographs.
Chalk it up to coincidence or divine intervention, but a project was born and the collaboration — with Oakes as executive producer and Spencer as filmmaker and director — resulted in the award-winning, hour-long documentary Painted Churches Of Texas: Echoes Of The Homeland. "The program happened by happy accident really," says Spencer.
The good news is that, of the 20 or so painted churches throughout Texas, several of them are within 90 to 120 minutes from Houston.
"Some of the very best ones are clustered around the town of Schulenburg. It would make a great place to grab a bite to eat and tool around to see four or five of the very best," says Spencer.
"Saint Mary’s Church in High Hill is just literally five minutes from Schulenburg. And in terms of wow factor it’s just spectacular. It’s covered with dramatic painting, of very high quality. When you walk through the door your jaw just drops. It’s just 'Oh my goodness;' it’s just stunning. Not just the painting, which is spectacular, it also has exquisite stained glass. It's genuinely extraordinary."
Spencer says the tiny town of High Hill is now almost a ghost town. The "grand, almost cathedral-like church," intended for hundreds or even 1,000 worshipers, has an air of aloneness and isolation in the quiet, sleepy town.
"Most of the churches from the exterior look like typical country churches. A lot of them are just wood frames painted white — your classic white church. But when you get inside you realize they’re quite extraordinary. There’s one in Ammansville that is one of my favorites. It is in the tiniest community you could possibly imagine. It’s a big church, but a plain white exterior; you wouldn’t think it would have anything remarkable inside," says Spencer.
He describes the peachy pink coloring of Ammansville's St. John the Baptist Catholic Church as mind-blowing. "It’s like a swirling confection. It has very handsome stained glass as well," says Spencer. "And one thing that a lot of the churches have — and I recommend in Ammansville — there are cemeteries adjoining the churches that are immaculately kept. You see folk art, photographs on the graves of the early pioneers who built the churches, lots of statuary. A lot of the writing is Czech or German, depending on which church. They're poignant."
Spencer says most of the churches are open for self-guided tours, with the exception of Sundays. He suggests visiting St. Mary's Church of the Assumption in Praha while in the Schulenburg area. "It’s glorious. It has less painting than High Hill but it’s really high quality painting. It's a super impressive building.
"When it was built it was the largest church between San Antonio and Galveston; a center for the Czech community and immigrants," says Spencer. "It's really beloved. The ceilings are painted in a Garden of Eden motif: beautiful tropical plants and flowers. They simulate this really elaborate woodwork, but it’s all painted. And again, really interesting and handsome stained glass," says Spencer.
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"There’s another one close to Ammansville but you can only step inside the front door and look through these bars at the church; it's in Dubina. It’s one of my favorites. It’s worth seeing even though you can’t really get inside. It’s just down a country gravel road five minutes from Ammansville. It’s super cool."
KLRU Passport holders (sustaining members) can view the documentary, Painted Churches Of Texas: Echoes Of The Homeland, at klru.org.
The project's companion website outlines the history and addresses of the painted churches, along with photographs. Discover more at klru.org/paintedchurches/index.html.
The Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce operates van tours of the churches during the spring and fall, as well as private tours Mondays-Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information, call 979-743-4514 or visit schulenburgchamber.org/painted-churches-tour.