American Polonia Celebrated its Sesquicentennial
12/29/2004 - American Polonia Celebrated its Sesquicentennial
By Kathryn G. Rosypal
Panna Maria, TX – A memorable celebration in honor of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the first permanent Polish settlement in the United States was held at Immaculate Conception Church in Panna Maria, Texas, on Saturday, December 11th. It was here, on virgin land in a remote section of south-central Texas, that the first group of Polish pioneers from Upper Silesia settled.
When the first settlers arrived in Panna Maria on December 24, 1854, their organizer – Rev. Leopold Moczygemba – gave thanks and praise by offering Mass beneath a Live Oak tree. One hundred and fifty years later, this sesquicentennial celebration also began with an outdoor Mass held beside the same historical Live Oak that witnessed the initial liturgy.
A year-long anniversary celebration began in February with an appreciation day honoring the nuns and priests who served at Panna Maria, Texas. It extended throughout 2004 and included two parades, several dinners, a visit by former President of Poland, Hon. Lech Walesa, and a reunion. The December 11th events marked the gala culmination of a year of celebration.
The main celebrant at the Mass was Adam Cardinal Maida, Archbishop of Detroit, concelebrating with Most Rev. Jan Wieczorek, Bishop of Gliwice, Poland; Most Rev. Patrick Flores, Archbishop of San Antonio, TX; Most. Rev. Patrick Zurek, Auxiliary Bishop of San Antonio; and Most Rev. John Yanta, Bishop of Amarillo, TX, whose family was among the original settlers in Panna Maria. Other clergy participating included Rev. Wojciech Reisch, Pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Panna Maria; Msgr. Frank Kurzaj, President of the Fr. Leopold Moczygemba Foundation, who is originally from Silesia, Poland; Msgr. Daniel Plocharczyk, President of the Polish American Priests Association and about 27 priests, both local and from as far away as New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and New England.
A huge crowd of about 600 people attended Mass on the grounds of Immaculate Conception Church, shaded by a huge tent. Guests were met as they entered town by local ranchers on horseback, who expertly directed parking while striding their sturdy steeds. They gave everyone a warm, down-home Texas welcome that was as authentic as they were.
Many of the local people are descendants of the original Polish settlers who came from Upper Silesia in Poland and they are still cattle ranchers in nearby counties. Not only did people come from across America to participate in this momentous event, but also 44 special guests from the Silesian region of Poland were present. Some of these were distant relatives of the families who originally settled in Panna Maria. They were attired in authentic Silesian folk dress that reflected how the original Polish pioneers must have looked, with women wearing a high-neck, long-sleeved black woolen jacket that was fitted to the waist and then flared out to the hips; a full black skirt that reached to mid-calf, a white apron with colored embroidery in a single horizontal line at its hem, a white woven shawl and a scarf on the head. The men wore knee-high black boots, black baggy pants, a white shirt covered by a hip-length woolen vest, a long coat with a cape at the shoulders and a broad-brimmed black hat. Many other guests were attired in a variety of frontier costumes from the 1800s. All were showcased in a Fashion Show held later in the day.
Finding the town of Panna Maria – 55 miles southeast of San Antonio - is pretty straight forward, provided you have a map with enough detail to list the town on it. Many maps don’t. How can this be? However, when you reach Panna Maria, you understand. As you turn off the main highway onto farm road 81 to enter the town, folks are greeted by a sign "WITAMY" (welcome) hand-painted on the side of an old cotton gin. The road takes you past a few farms and into town. It consists of one main street with four houses on it, plus a Visitor’s Center, and a 148-year-old stone building that was originally a barn and is now an old store that doubles as the post office, a community hall and the church with a small rectory.
Behind the church is the former St. Joseph’s School, which is currently being renovated as a museum and should be open in 2005. There are two more houses not far from the school. Behind the community center is a short street that runs for about two blocks and circles back to the main street with four houses on it. So, Panna Maria has about ten houses and one beautiful church, whose tall white steeple can be seen for miles around. Of course, parishioners’ homes are scattered for many miles throughout the rural area and therefore are not visible from the town.
Nestled between the San Antonio River and Cibolo Creek, Panna Maria enjoys a plateau location that is higher than most of the land in the area, therefore views from the town are expansive. The scenery consists of farmland and grassy rolling prairies, interrupted occasionally by low barbed wire fences and a few short live oak trees or bushes. It looks like it hasn’t changed much since its virgin soil was first broken by the brave and hardy Poles who settled here 150 years ago.
The Mass began with the presentation of colors by a local Boy Scout Troop. The National Anthem was led by Bernadette Zaiontz Horton and Kathy Lyssy Jendrusch. Welcoming remarks were made by retired Karnes County Judge Robert Thonhoff, Master of Ceremonies, who was attired in a top hat and 3-piece suit like those used in the 1880s. The Knights of Columbus Assembly 1088 from Falls City, Texas, formed an honor guard as the clergy processed to the altar. Readers were Maria Panczyk-Pozdziej and Loretta Niestroy; the Seraphic Sisters did the Responsorial Psalm and Alleluia, Fr. W. Reisch read the Gospel and Cardinal Maida gave the homily. The Prayer of the Faithful was read by Gerard Kurzaj and Rosalie Moczygemba. The youthful gift bearers were Kali Dragon, Jacob Janysek, Natalie Manka, Ryan Pawelek of the 1st Communion Class. Ushers included Gene Dragon, Greg Moczygemba, Leo Moczygemba, Jr., Kevin Labus, Michael Moczygemba, Randy Pawelek and Russell Pollok. All of the lay participants in the Mass are descendants of the original Polish settlers.
Before the Mass was concluded, Senator Maria Tanczyk of Silesia, Poland – formerly a popular daily talk show hostess for Katowice Radio in Poland – presented a magnificent bell as a gift from Silesia to Panna Maria, Texas, to further solidify the close ties that these geographical areas enjoy. The bell was blessed by Cardinal Maida.
After Mass, festivities continued with exhibits of quilt making, yarn spinning, soap making, cornmeal grinding, making kettle popcorn and fried pork skins and donkey rides for the children. The men enjoyed an exhibit of antique cars, trucks and tractors, and an antique cider press. The Polish Genealogical Society of Texas was also on hand to help with genealogical research.
Inside the community hall, everyone enjoyed a traditional Texas Barbeque featuring beef that was finger-licking good! Folks ate while M.C. Robert Thonhoff recognized the committees and dignitaries, read proclamations, including one from Texas Governor Rick Perry; kicked off the 1850s Fashion Show and introduced the Polish folk group "Silesia" who sang Polish Christmas carols and Polish songs.
Karnes County Sheriff Bobby Mutz was at the celebration and he graciously consented to have his photo taken with the Fashion Show models and with visiting guests. To Texans, Sheriff Mutz was just another lawman. But to folks like this reporter, from Chicago, he looked like he walked out of a cowboy movie, complete with dust-covered boots, a belt buckle the size of a fist, a huge pistol strapped to his left hip, shiny sheriff’s badge and a cowboy hat that marked him as a man of distinction.
In northern states, people assume Texans just dress like cowboys when they work on a ranch. But the fact is, they dress like that all the time – and with good reason. You need a big-brimmed hat to protect you from the hot Texas sun – even in winter. And whether you’re riding a horse or not, you need boots in Texas to deal with dusty unpaved country roads and to protect from rattlesnake bites. Yep, those snakes are still out there and signs are posted to prove it.
The afternoon festivities ended at 4 p.m. with the raffling off of a unique handmade quilt with the State of Texas sewn in to the center of it and surrounded by various historical symbols. Guests had just enough time to get back to their hotel rooms and make a quick change into their evening clothes, for the gala banquet at the St. Anthony Hotel in Dan Antonio, TX that marked the official conclusion of Panna Maria’s Sesquicentennial celebration, which coincided with Karnes County’s 150th anniversary year. Evening clothes? In Texas, for men that translates into black boots with shiny silver tips and a 2-gallon black cowboy hat to go with a Western cut black suit and a handsome bolo tie on a white shirt. Yep, day or night, the Western look is the real thing in Texas!
A Silent Auction was conducted at the hotel, where guests could bid on interesting items during the reception. Many of the auction items were imported from Poland or had some connection between Texas and Silesia. This reporter’s name is "Rosypal" which means "to scatter" She was fortunate enough to successfully bid on a hand-carved wooden statue of a Polish "sower" scattering oats, which will be a timeless memento of this most momentous historical occasion in Polonia’s history.
The banquet was officially entitled the 1st Annual Father Leopold Moczygemba Foundation Gala. Fr. Moczygemba was the missionary priest came from Poland to Texas in the early 1850s and who wrote back to his family, friends and relatives in Upper Silesia, urging them to come and settle in Texas in 1854-1857. Therefore, it is thanks to him that the first permanent Polish settlement in the United States was founded.
Msgr. Frank Kurzaj, Pastor of Holy Name Parish in San Antonio, TX, welcomed everyone to the banquet and was a marvelous MC. This priest should have his own talk show! What a “mover-and-shaker”! The invocation was delivered by Sr. Jule Adele Espey of the Congregation of Divine Providence. The cherished ancient Polish tradition of sharing the Oplatek was observed by everyone present, including a half-dozen Polish soldiers who were stationed in Texas for language and special skills training.
After dinner, entertainment was provided by the musical folk group "Silesia" from Lubniany, Silesia, Poland. Accompanied by an accordion and fiddle, singers performed several Polish Christmas carols, as well as singing traditional Silesian folk songs from the 1850s.
The keynote address was made by Most Rev. John W. Yanta, Bishop of Amarillo, Texas. He exquisitely expressed in words the heartfelt connection that he – and so many others involved in this Sesquicentennial – have made with the Polish homeland in general and Silesia, in particular. Thanks to the cooperative spirit which has marked the association of the people of Panna Maria with the people of Silesia, the bond that bound these two localities together 150 years ago is just as strong today. There is a mutual appreciation for each other’s history, traditions and culture, which is something very precious and rarely found nowadays.
Bishop Yanta talked about the outstanding contributions made to the Polish American community throughout the U.S. by Father Leopold Moczygemba. He helped to found the first Polish seminary. He founded the first Franciscan Motherhouse in the U.S. He established numerous churches and parishes in Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, New York and Michigan. Everywhere he went, he urged the establishment of schools because he knew that education was the basis for beginning the upward climb in American society.
He noted that the goals of the Father Leopold Moczygemba Foundation, which is a 501©(3) non-profit tax-exempt corporation, are to:
•strengthen and deepen the relationship between Texas and Silesia
•serve as a unifying instrument for the many individuals and families who find their roots in Silesia and foster among them an appreciation for their rich culture
•document the history of the immigrant from Silesia to Texas
•organize and sponsor cultural exchange between Texas and Silesia
•initiate contact between educational and cultural institutions of Texas and Silesia, and
•provide scholarship funding for those interested in promoting the causes of the Foundation.
Presentations were made to dignitaries in an award ceremony and the esteemed title of "Hildalgo" was officially conferred by the Board of Commissioners of the County of Bexar, Texas, upon Most. Rev. Jan Wieczorek, Bishop of Gliwice, Poland by Commissioner Tommy Adkisson.
This was followed by everyone enthusiastically singing Polish and English Christmas carols. When the carols concluded, Rev. Wojciech Reisch, Pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Panna Maria, TX, gave the benediction.
He thanked the people involved in the planning and execution of this sesquicentennial celebration. Fr. Reisch candidly admitted that his parish has a core of only twelve people who volunteer to help. They did a tremendous job in planning and carrying out these year-long celebrations. Bravo!
Not only is it amazing that such a small committee could organize and successfully run two major undertakings in one day, but it is incredible that they would even consider doing so with such a small committee. The coordinators of Panna Maria 150-Anniversary Celebration on the local, state, national and international levels are: George J. Dabrowski, Virginia Hill, John Kaminski, Bertha Korzekwa, Betty Kowalik, Prof. Anthony Kruszewski, Dr. Marian Kruzel, Msgr. Frank Kurzaj, Dr. Witold J. Lukaszewski, Loretta Niestroy, Dorothy Pawelek, Rev. Wojciech Reisch, Zbigniew Wojciechowski. The parish committees are:
Advertising - Rosalie Moczygemba and Mary Ann Pollok
Billboard and Signs - Randy Pawelek, Mark Janysek
Choir - Elaine Moczygemba, Sr. Emilia Rzeznik
Decorating Committee - Greg & Lisa Moczygemba
Events & activities - Joyce Rives and Elaine Moczygemba
Food Committee - Bernadine Labus and Ethel Pawelek
Honorary Committee - George and Betty Kowalik
Liturgy Committee - Adrian Foegelle
Local Street Signs - Mark Janysek and George Kowalik
Souvenir Committee - Bertha Korzekwa and Loretta Niestroy
Also helping were: Rebecca Janysek, Gabe Korzekwa, Anthony Kruciak, Dolores Moczygemba, and Vincent Swierc, Jr. Kudos to everyone on the committees!
The official climax of the Panna Maria Sesquicentennial Celebration occurred on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2004, with a special Polish Shepherd’s Mass at Immaculate Conception Church. This Mass of Wigilia marked the exact arrival of those first Polish immigrants 150 years ago.