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.”
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.
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
17, 2012 Column
"Letters from Central Texas"
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