By Zbigniew Wojcik, Polish Immigrant, Author of the book “Slaying the Soviet Beast…”
Polish Pope John Paul II visits Texas and prays near Panna Maria.
I learned of the small town of Panna Maria located in Texas during the visit of Polish Pope John Paul II to the US in September 1987 to San Antonio. The Polish descendants living in Panna Maria, located south-east of the city, and in a few neighboring towns, were praying and lighting candles, hoping that the Polish Pope will drop in for a visit in their first Catholic church built in America. Unfortunately, the Pope could spend only one day in Texas and celebrate one Mass in San Antonio. I attended this Mass taking a memorable trip from Wichita, Kansas. I needed spiritual support to reunite with my family; I left Warsaw as I had political and passport problems because of the Cold War.
What is Panna Maria, and how it was established
Immaculate Conception (or Panna Maria) is the oldest Polish-American parish and the first completely Polish colony in the United States. A hundred Polish families from Upper Silesia and Cracow arrived at Galveston, TX, in 1854, under the supervision of their Father Leopold Moczygemba. Increasing misery in Upper Silesia was the factor forcing Poles to emigrate. Moczygemba wrote highly encouraging letters to his family in Silesia, attracting many Poles to make the trip. From Galveston, the Poles were coming by foot towards Texas’s center carrying tools among unimposing belongings on a few rented wooden carts. The trip took them nine weeks by sea and four weeks by land. Many did not make it. On Christmas, they had found rest under an old oak tree near two streams. They organized and celebrated the traditional Polish Christmas Eve Mass at midnight under this oak. After Christmas, they were making burrows nearby covered with brush, grass, and stalks and were using them as temporary shelters. Nothing was around except bushes, tall grass with snakes and trees.
The great oak tree and the church
In 1855, the Poles started to build their first church close to this oak tree, celebrating masses near the oak while the church was still under construction. Father Leopold Moczygemba formally blessed the cornerstone of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in August 1855. The Poles settled in the fields of today’s Panna Maria paying between 5 and 10 dollars per acre, a few times more compared to the market price at that time. Their first church was destroyed by lightning and fire. The church was immediately rebuilt in 1878 and stands till this very day. And the great oak tree still grows there.
The first Polish school in America
Panna Marias also established the first Polish school in the US in 1868. I visited the school in about 1993, and it is a museum now. I was impressed by seeing small hand-made benches for the children.
Creation of the Polish Heritage Center by Bishop John W. Yanta
Bishop John W. Yanta, a descendant of those Poles who immigrated to Panna Maria, started building the Polish Heritage Center near the church several years ago. The Center was planned to be a 16,000 sq. ft. structure for exhibits, a small theater, an oral history collection, genealogy, library and reading room, event space, and gift shop. Presentations cover the great immigration story of Poles to America and the modern history of Poland. The center is exquisite.
The misery of Polish immigrants who settled in Panna Maria
The Poles suffered misfortune in Panna Maria for several generations because of its lack of industry and the surrounding areas. The tower of the Immaculate Conception Church had been the tallest building for about 150 years in all of Karnes County. Many Poles escaped from the town looking for jobs. The population dropped from the initial 100 families to just a few tens of them today.
The miracle of making poor immigrants millionaires in America
The intensive prayers for John Paul II’s visit to Panna Maria had produced an effect. Though the Pope, now Saint, did not come to the first Polish church in the USA, God blessed the Poles and, one could say, made a miracle. The situation started to change drastically after the Eagle Ford Shale geological formation began to be exploited. Today, the oil rig towers over the church. Wealth came to the doors of Panna Maria’s citizens. I have heard the companies pay farmers for pumping oil from under their fields. The wealth affected Panna Maria households. I recall relatively wretched hovels I saw at the beginning of the 1990s. Now, with the assistance of oil, quite large homes, well-built, can be seen from the road. Funds for the Polish Heritage Center started to be available, and the dreams of Bishop Yanta came true.
Significant tourist attractions of a big city located nearby Panna Maria
It is worth visiting the Panna Maria Center, together with the beautiful City of San Antonio. Several tourist attractions in San Antonio impressed me so much during my trip to attend the John Paul II Mass that I decided to find a job in this city and settle down here with my family. There are several original Catholic missions here: Mission San Jose, Mission Conception, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission San Francisco De La Espada, the Governor’s Palace (from the XVII century). The Polonia Woodrow Wilson Society building located at Mission Road is close to the Mission Conception. The River Walk with River Cruises downtown is as lovely as Venice’s canals in Italy. Adjacent to the River Walk is a big shopping center and the historic fort of the Alamo. Also, a reasonably sized zoo is a big attraction for children. I also recommend the McNay Art Museum, located near the city center, and the Botanical Garden. Panna Maria and San Antonio are worthy of a ten-day family trip. Parish-organized pilgrimages are encouraged because of the Panna Maria miracle, a few Catholic missions left after the Spanish presence, and several Polish churches in Central Texas located around San Antonio.
Central Texas is densely populated by Polish immigrants
And there are more sites to visit in Central Texas: St. Stanislaus Parish in Bandera, about 100 miles west from Panna Maria, was founded by Panna Marians, becoming the second Polish parish in the US.
St. Hedwig parish was established by the next wave of Polish immigrants from Upper Silesia. The town of Cestohowa, located a few miles from Panna Maria, has the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church also founded by Panna Marians. Silesians built St. Ann’s Church in Kosciuszko, TX. And there are quite a few more Polish churches/parishes in Texas, for example in Falls City, Wallis, Chappell Hill, New Waverly, Brenham, Stockdale, Helena, Karnes City, Kennedy, McCook, San Marcus, Bellville, Stoneham, Anderson, Hempstead, Sealy, Plantersville, Bremond, San Antonio, Houston (Our Lady of Czestochowa Church), Industry, Yorktown, Frydek, Bryan, Rosenburg, Marlin. Misspelled names of Kościuszko and Częstochowa are used as recorded in the State of Texas.
The authorities of the Republic of Poland recognized the significance of the Panna Maria Heritage Center
Poland’s leaders recognized the importance of the first Polish church in America: the Prime Minister of Poland at the time, Jerzy Buzek, visited Panna Maria in 1998. Holy Mass was celebrated outdoor under the great historic oak tree by Bishop John Yanta. I attended this Mass. In 2019, the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, awarded Bishop John W. Yanta the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland for the leadership in founding the Polish Heritage Center in Panna Maria.
In the Polish Catholic Mission at San Antonio, we had a Polonia activist who decided to be buried in the Panna Maria cemetery.
Global significance of the Polish Heritage Center in Panna Maria
Panna Maria has grown into becoming a Center of Polish Heritage of global significance, not only in America, for all Polish emigrants and their descendants. A miracle finally rewarded the first Polish immigrants’ difficult beginnings, hard work, and prayers: oil found under their fields made subsequent generations millionaires. Panna Maria, Texas, is evidence of God’s blessing for hard work.
Many tourist attractions in the big, beautiful city of San Antonio located nearby make Panna Maria attractive and worth paying a family visit to for several days.
Political immigration of Poles to Texas in the 19th Century
The first Poles in Texas were identified in 1818 by the Champ d’Alise colony (political asylum camp) established by French military forces. The failed 1830/1831 November Uprising where Poles fought for their independence from Russia (Poland lost its independence after being partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria) pushed many Poles persecuted in their homeland to emigrate to Texas. After their arrival, they became involved in the fight for an independent Texas. Mexican soldiers killed Michael Debicki, Adolph Petrussewicz, John Kornicky, and Joseph Schrusnecki during the Goliad Massacre. Felix Wardziński fought in the Battle of San Jacinto, where he captured General Santa Ana, the dictator and President of Mexico. “Felix Wardzinski is accredited with capturing President Santa Anna the day after the battle (San Jacinto) and presenting him to General Sam Houston.” “Lt. Col. Felix Wardzinski was listed in the Texas Hall of Fame alongside Sam Houston, Liberator & First President of the Republic of Texas, and Stephen F. Austin Colonizer & Father of the Lone Star Empire.” The dictator Santa Ana agreed for the independence of Texas under these circumstances.
I suggest the name Wardziński be used in the name of the Polish American Texas organization.
The Broad Emigration of Poles to Texas in the 19th Century
The significant emigration numbers of Poles to America started with the Panna Maria settlement in 1854. Twelve years later, a major second wave of Poles’ immigration to Texas occurred after the failed 1863 January Insurrection in Poland. Hostile powers occupying Poland increased repressions against Poles forcing them to look for freedom and a better life in America. Over 250,000 descendants from the two early immigrations reside in Texas. Poles from the regions of Poznań, Gniezno, Pobiedziska (Ostrów Lednicki), Inowrocław, Toruń, and Bydgoszcz immigrated to Texas. They settled in Brazos Valley (New Waverly, Chappell Hill, Brenham, Anderson, Bryan, Stoneham, Marlin, Bremond, Belleville, Hempstead, Industry, Rosenburg, Richmond, and Houston) contributing with their hard work to the prosperity of Texas. Later, Polish immigrants from Galicia joined the existing Poles on the Brazos River. Today, their descendants are proud to organize Polish Texan and Polonia festivals, cultivating Polish traditions, music, and folk dances. The 19th Century Wielkopolska Polish Language, music, and traditions are alive and active across the Brazos Valley.
The immigration of Poles to Texas after Poland regained its independence in 1918
Poland’s independence as of 1918 rewarded Poles with freedom and with it gave them access to education. Highly educated, with advanced professional degrees, Poles emigrated then to America. Among their ranks, there was, e.g., Professor Stanislaw Marcin Ulam invented the Monte Carlo method that he used in nuclear physics when conceiving the hydrogen bomb. As the result of much better access to advanced education in Poland, the 20th and 21st-century immigration of Poles to America, including Texas, consisted of many Polish university professors, medical doctors, priests, lawyers, engineers, and other skilled English-speaking professionals. The author of this article, Zbigniew Wojcik, emigrated to America in 1986, was invited to be a university professor.
We all have to remember the hard times of the 19th Century when Poland was not free. Poles were oppressed by their country’s occupants and had a chance to prosper only after they escaped to America, basically thanks to their hard labor and prayers. Therefore, Panna Maria’s miracle must be noted and celebrated by all Polish immigrants and their descendants as a God-given prize.
The author and the Polonia Institute thank Dr. Jim Mazurkiewicz, a Polish immigrant descendant from Wielkopolska, for his precious comments on this article.
Panna Maria Historical Society, firstname.lastname@example.org 830-780-4471
Edward J. Dworaczyk, “The First Polish Colonies of America in Texas”, 1936, The Naylor Company Texas’ Own Publishers, San Antonio, Texas.
Mattie Austin Hatcher, “The Opening of Texas to Foreign Settlement”, University of Texas Bulletin, No,2714, April 8, 1927, pp.219-220)
- Waclaw Kruszka, “Historya Osad Polskich w Ameryce”, Milwaukee, 1905.
https://polishamericancenter.net/first-time-in-sa/klub-polski/ Polish Club in San Antonio
https://www.pmk-sa.com Polska Misja Katolicka (Polish Catholic Mission), San Antonio, TX
https://www.SlayingSoviet.com One story of Polish family immigration to the USA during the Cold War. Zbigniew Wojcik, “SLAYING THE SOVIET BEAST: A True Story about How the Cold War was Won. WHAT NEXT?”, 2019;
More about the Panna Maria Polish Heritage Center can be found in the following thesis in history submitted to the Graduate Faculty of Texas Tech University in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of MASTER OF ARTS