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October Turkey

On Saint Mary’s church in Fredericksburg, Texas.


The first thing a visitor notices upon arriving in Fredericksburg, Texas, is the width of Main Street. The road is wide enough to hold four lanes of traffic comfortably, with a left-turn lane and pull-in parking spaces on either side. This is not a newly widened road to accommodate the tourists who visit the shops lining Main Street in limestone storefronts and buildings erected in the frontier past. It was planned that way, when the German immigrants who settled Fredericksburg in 1846 made the street wide enough for their ox carts to make a U-turn.

On one side of this Hauptstrasse, as the street was known until well after World War I, the Germans built a town courthouse. Opposite the courthouse, they laid out a Marktplatz. (The town square still retains its German name). Between the courthouse and the square, in the middle of the broad road, sat the Vereinskirche. This was a Carolingian octagon, like those found in Germany, modeled on Charlemagne’s famous eight-sided Palatine Chapel in Aachen. The original was torn down in 1897 so the road was no longer obstructed, but a replica from 1934 now stands in the Marktplatz. Both the original Catholic and Lutheran settlers worshipped in the Vereinskirche—men and boys on the right, and women, girls, and infants on the left.

The Catholics soon built a small wooden church in 1848 a couple blocks down from the Vereinskirche. Almost immediately, that church was deemed too small, and in 1861, they built a new one and dedicated it to Our Lady. The Marienkirche served as both church and schoolhouse for forty-five years and is still in use today for daily Mass and perpetual adoration. I do not know what it looked like in the nineteenth century, but today the plaster walls and wood ceiling are whitewashed, and the stained windows are a pattern of blue diamonds. A small white Communion rail separates the sanctuary, where an unadorned wooden altar sits in front of a small but tasteful high altar and tabernacle, painted white with gold trim. Aside from these furnishings, one small statute of Mary stands in an alcove to the right of the altar and the unobtrusively beige-colored stations of the cross line the white walls. It is not iconoclastic, but a visitor would be forgiven for thinking this was a minimalist Carthusian chapel.

This too proved to be too small, and in 1901 the congregation asked the San Antonio architect Leo Maria Joseph Dielmann to design a larger one. (Dielmann’s work, including over one hundred churches and public buildings around Texas, are worthy of a separate architectural study). Dielmann drew up plans for the large neo-Gothic Saint Mary’s Church completed in 1908. “New Saint Mary’s,” as it is still called over a century later, stands adjacent to and towering over the Marienkirche, “Old Saint Mary’s.” Like the Marienkirche, Saint Mary’s has a plain exterior of whitish, rough-hewn local limestone, with buttresses regularly studding the flanks. The façade is unusually asymmetrical, with a bell tower on the right, two central doors under the apex, a third door under the tower, and a stained-glass window on the left. From the outside, it appears to be a large unremarkable church.

But open those doors and a world of color and light awaits. Saint Mary’s is one of the “painted churches” nestled in the towns founded by German and Czech immigrants across central Texas. Like a geode whose dull exterior conceals a dazzling crystal inside, these little churches are painted floor to ceiling in blue, white, green, and pink, with stenciled patterns lining the walls and decorated high altars and colorful statues filling the sanctuary. The Germans and Czechs built and painted these churches to bring some of the European splendor to their frontier homes. Many have been well preserved and can be visited in small towns such as Fredericksburg, Schulenburg, and Dubina.

At Saint Mary’s the brown-stained wooden pews sit on a rich blue carpet beneath a tripartite vaulted nave. The gothic arches and bays are painted white and accented with green and gold ribs, in-lining, stenciling, and trim. In the clerestory of each bay in the central vault are hand-painted medallions of the Apostles and Saint Paul. Five stained-glass windows line each side aisle wall with images from the life of Our Lady. The donors and their families are identified in German along the bottom of the windows. The middle window on each side is a small medallion near the top of the wall, one of Our Lady and the other of Our Lord. Below these are the confessionals of carved dark-stained wood built into the walls, with a middle door for the priest and doors on each side for the penitents. At the back of the nave is a choir loft with the original pipe organ installed in 1906 and still in use. Under the stairs leading to the choir loft is a painted Pietà. Through the nave run two rows of white piers with golden square bases and Corinthian capitals supporting the central vault. The grand arch that separates the front of the nave from the sanctuary comes down lower, and its painted face depicts Christ seated on His throne, with the words Ego Sum Panis Vitae painted in Gothic script on either side. Below and in front of Christ the King at the front of the nave are a pulpit on the left pier and a large crucifix on the right. 

The sanctuary is also separated from the nave by an ornate dark brown Communion rail. The vaulted sanctuary bays are painted dark green with a hint of blue, against which stars twinkle between white ribs reaching up from the white walls below. The main high altar rises up to and partially obscures the central stained glass window at the back of the sanctuary. A crucifix is in the middle top of the altar, with statues of Saint Anne and Saint Mary on either side and just above the tabernacle. Below the tabernacle and altar is an image of the Last Supper. In the clerestory surrounding the high altar are five stained glass windows arranged in a semicircle. The second and fourth windows depict a young boy and girl in their First Communion outfits, with guardian angels behind them; they are the children of the builder, Jacob Wagner. Angels appear in the other three. Together they flood the sanctuary with blues, reds, oranges, and greens on a bright day. Hidden from view on the side sanctuary walls are two paintings, one above each sacristy entrance. One depicts Melchisedech’s sacrifice of bread and wine, and the other shows Christ breaking bread on the way to Emmaus. Saint Tarcisius watches his altar servers from an alcove above where they sit near the back left. Closer to the front of the sanctuary are two side altars. The left is dedicated to Mary Queen of Heaven with her foot upon the serpent, and she is joined in the altar by Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Mary Magdalene. To the right is Saint Joseph with his flowering staff, flanked by Saints Peter and Paul. Separate statues of Saint Anthony and of the Sacred Heart of Jesus complete this early twentieth-century vision of Heaven on Earth. The only concession to post-conciliar fashion here is the table altar in the middle of the sanctuary.

The history of Fredericksburg’s beautifully preserved Catholic churches tell one story. It is a story of German immigrants cutting a rough pastoral livelihood out of the limestone hills. The oldest of the locals still speak Texas German to each other as they did when they were children. Family lore runs deep here—many locals trace their lineage back to one of several founding families. It is their names—Stehling and Weinheimer, Kneese, and Knopp—that appear in the stained glass windows. Family heritage and a lingering sense of pioneer life mean that the town retains the look and feel of its past. Marktplatz is still the gathering place for the annual Oktoberfest, Kris Kringle Market, and other festivals. The grand old courthouse was repurposed as the county library when the new courthouse was erected. Likewise, the churches seem to multiply as the old remain standing next to the new. 

With its Texas German charm and well-maintained frontier-era architecture, Fredericksburg has become a weekend getaway for Texans in Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. Today, more than a million tourists visit the town each year. Thus, unlike many small towns in West Texas that have struggled or even shriveled as jobs and people move away, Fredericksburg has thrived as newcomers move in, either bringing their families or retiring there. In 1970 the population was five thousand; in 2010 it was more than ten thousand, with more still living in the hilly countryside.

The town itself does well in the new tourist economy, but at what cost? The shops and restaurants in town get more upscale each year as Dallasites, Houstonians, and even Californians move in. Many of the old staple restaurants and shops are gone, replaced by new ones aimed at opening up bigger wallets with tackier merchandise. Meanwhile, vineyards and luxury ranch homes have supplanted the peach orchards and cow pastures. For as long as I can remember, the town newspaper’s foremost responsibility was keeping up a good front for the tourists, rather than reporting on local issues. As I graduated from high school in 2003, concerns were raised that the new mayor—the first out-of-towner—was more concerned about revenues and commerce than the locals. And of course, as property values increase, some of the old local families are finding it more difficult to keep hold of their homes and land, whether due to taxes or to an offer to sell that is too good to refuse.

How long can Fredericksburg survive this tension between its past and its present? When we talk about the long-term survival of rural America, we are right to worry about those towns that crumble under the weight of unemployment, depression, and drug addiction. But if a town survives only by becoming a weekend getaway, it is no better than a playground or, worse, a museum. I fear the day when Fredericksburg gives itself over completely to the modern tourist economy, while Saint Mary’s becomes little more than an installation piece showing how once upon a time people prayed, just as they shoed horses and repaired wagon wheels.

It’s not there yet, though, and I like to think that the painted church of Saint Mary’s is part of the resistance. Here, Old Saint Mary’s and New stand side by side as symbols of permanence, and the school fosters a parish community around its October turkey dinner and spring Maifest fundraisers. People who might otherwise paint over an old canvas are instead moved to preserve and restore the colors that enliven it. I am encouraged when I visit and see old high-school friends still attending Mass, now with wives and children in tow.

I have moved away from Fredericksburg now, but the colors of Saint Mary’s are vivid in memory. I brought my wife in to show her the church when I asked for her hand in marriage, and I carried the ashes of my parents out after their funerals. I still pray at the end of each Mass the concluding prayer recited in unison by the parishioners for over one hundred years: “O my Jesus in union with all the angels and the saints, I adore You in the most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, in which You are concealed for the love of me. I adore You as my Lord and my God, my Creator and my Redeemer. Amen.” After all, when you keep a church well painted, some paint gets on you as well.

Jake Neu is a patent attorney writing from Nashville, Tennessee.

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Jake Neu is a patent attorney in Nashville, Tennessee.