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  • Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

    A Snakebitten Legacy
    Father Leopold Moczygemba

    by Clay Coppedge
    Being a pioneer is not always everything it is cracked up to be, not that it ever was. Sometimes there is a psychic price to be paid for posterity, a surcharge that history sometimes applies to those who dare to venture where others dare not.

    Father Leopold Moczygemba, who founded the country’s first Polish community, first Polish Catholic School and who also consecrated the first Polish Catholic Church, was one person who had to pay a price in his own time for an honored place in history. It took more than 120 years for Texans to get around to officially thanking Moczygemba for all he did; we realize now that snakes and drought will always be with us.

    The consecration of the church occurred in September of 1856 under a spreading live oak tree near the confluence of the San Antonio River and Cibolo Creek. The community that Moczygemba founded there was called Panna Maria, Polish for Virgin Mary. Most of those who attended were newcomers who had recently emigrated from Silesia seeking a better life. At that point they weren’t sure they had found it.
    TX - Penna Maria Oaks
    The Panna Maria Oaks
    TE photo, 5-01

    Many had come at the urging of Father Moczygemba, one of five priests chosen by Bishop Jean Marie Odin of Galveston to work in Odin’s sprawling Diocese, which covered the entire state of Texas. Moczygemba arrived in Galveston in 1852 and traveled first to New Braunfels as a resident pastor but was in Castroville when immigrants from Silesia began arriving by the hundreds in 1854.

    Upper Silesia, where Moczygemba grew up, had been under Prussian rule since 1742 but the region’s peasants maintained their Polish language, traditions and faith. Moczygemba wrote letters back to Silesia urging people to come to this new world of freedom and abundance. Other Silesian letter writers talked of free land, fertile fields and even golden mountains, which we suspect was lifted from earlier descriptions of California. One letter writer described Texas as “a land without winter.”

    The situation in Poland, complete with floods, a bad economy and epidemics of typhoid and cholera, made for attentive readers. Hundreds of Poles set sail for Galveston in 1854 and landed there on Dec. 1 of that year. Moczygemba wasn’t there to greet them as they had expected so they walked 200 miles to San Antonio. Moczygemba hurried to greet them there and take them to their new home. Just as his fellow Silesians’ quick arrival took him by surprise, the settlers were taken back by what they found at Panna Maria, which wasn’t much. Moczygemba had unwittingly chosen a place that rattlesnakes had already claimed as nesting site, sort of a viper metropolis among the brush and mesquite. The settlers arrived on Christmas Eve so Moczygemba conducted a Christmas mass and Thanksgiving, which turned into a plea for perseverance and guidance in this harsh new world.

    One Silesian wrote of the early struggles: “What we suffered here when we started! We didn't have any houses, nothing but fields. And for shelter, only brush and trees. There was tall grass everywhere, so that if anyone took a few steps, he was lost from sight. Every step of the way you'd meet rattlesnakes. And the crying and complaining of the women and children only made the suffering worse. How golden seemed our Silesia as we looked back in those days.”

    Moczygemba hosted a reconciliation banquet at his home where the settlers were allowed to air their complaints. He listened patiently and assured his fellow countrymen that they had turned the corner toward creating their own civilization and that the worst was behind them. Just as everybody settled down to dinner, a rattlesnake fell from the rafters onto the table, which pretty much put an end to dinner plans and put reconciliation on hold.

    Moczygemba organized the building of a church at the site in 1856. A room inside the first barn was set aside as a school, which conducted the first Polish classes in the country. (A separate schoolhouse was eventually built in 1860.) The winter of 1856-57 was cold and wet, which delayed planting, but it didn’t matter because an extreme drought hit that spring; it didn’t rain in Panna Maria for 14 months. Wells dried up, the earth cracked, livestock perished and no one could grow food or afford to buy it.

    The settlers directed their frustration toward Moczygemba, whose life was threatened though there was disagreement as to whether he should be hanged or drowned. Moczygemba retreated first to Castroville and then north, serving Polish communities in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri and New York for the rest of his life. He is best known as the cofounder of Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan, the only successful major Polish seminary in the country. He died in Michigan in February of 1891. More than 80 years later, his remains were reinterred at Panna Maria under the oak tree beneath which he had offered Mass for the first arriving Polish immigrants in 1854. A monument was erected at the site honoring him as the “Patriarch of Polonia.”

    Fortunately, rattlesnakes were nowhere in sight.


    © Clay Coppedge
    September 17, 2012 Column
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