Panna Maria, Karnes County, Texas, Est. Dec. 24, 1854
"The oldest permanent Polish settlement in the USA"
Panna Maria is on a plateau near the junction of the San Antonio River and Cibolo Creek where Farm roads 81 and 2724 meet, four miles north of Karnes City and fifty-five miles southeast of San Antonio in central Karnes County. It claims distinction as the oldest permanent Polish settlement in America and as the home of the nation's oldest Polish church and school.
Panna Maria was founded by Father Leopold Moczygemba and about 100 Silesian families from Pluznica, and surrounding villages of Silesia, Poland.
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. Father 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, (probably 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.
In 1854, the first group of immigrants arrived - including Father Leo's four brothers. The trip from Poland via Germany took a sea voyage between nine and twelve weeks. They reached the Port of Galveston. They hired carts to carry their belongings and walked to the junction of the San Antonio River and the Cibolo Creek where they celebrated their first Mass on December 24, 1854 under an oak tree.
In 1855 they built their first church next to the oak tree and dedicated it to the Virgin Mother. The first church was destroyed by lightning in 1875. The present church was completed in 1877 and was enlarged in 1937. During a recent renovation, it was discovered that the church has a painted ceiling. The ceiling has been restored and is very beautiful.
The Polish immigrants wanted to ensure that their children were properly educated. They held school in various buildings in Panna Maria as early as 1855. In 1868 they built St. Joseph School - the first Polish private school in the United States. The children were taught English and Polish.
The community's population dwindled from a reported 120 families in 1858 to eighty families by 1909. The town declined further in the twentieth century, and by 1988 was down to about ninety-six residents, four of whom carried the surname Moczygemba. That year Panna Maria supported two grocery stores and a feed mill. Its school, in a new location near the older structure, belonged to the Karnes City school district, but nuns continued to serve as teachers. A historical museum, located in the old St. Joseph's School building, was the civic focus.
As the mother colony for the Poles in America, Panna Maria has occasionally attracted visitors numbering in the thousands to its celebrations, most notably in 1966 during the millennium of Polish Christianity and nationhood, when 10,000 people convened there for a Mass and barbeque; President Lyndon B. Johnson's gift on the occasion was Polish artist Jan E. Krantz's 12,000-piece mosaic of the Virgin of Czestochowa, which was put on permanent display in the church.
In 1977 Panna Maria Uranium Operations, a nuclear waste dump operated by Chevron, opened near Panna Maria. In the 1980s concerned citizens began filing arguments and evidence of health hazards.
Through 2000 the community's population was still estimated at ninety-six.
The Panna Maria Historical Society was founded in 1966 to ensure historical preservation and education. Volunteers at the Visitors Center welcome everyone and will give tours of the church and the St. Joseph School Museum upon request.
- Panna Maria, Texas, Website
- Panna Maria on Texas State Handbook Online; Louann Atkins Temple, "Panna Maria, TX," accessed June 02, 2016
- T. Lindsay Baker, The First Polish Americans: Silesian Settlements in Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1979).
- Dallas Morning News, September 30, 1988. Edward J. Dworaczyk, The Millennium History of Panna Maria, Texas (1966).
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