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Panna Maria, a Texas treasure
By Hank Toothman
Not all treasures consist of gold, silver, or precious jewels. On the dusty back roads of Karnes County stands one of the unknown Texas treasures, simply known as Panna Maria, the oldest Polish settlement in the United States.
Located about one-half mile off of S.H. 123 on F.M. 81, Panna Maria stands as a testimony to those Polish pioneers who, 150 years ago, at the urging of Father Leopold Moczygemba, sold all they had, left Poland, and traveled by ship, landing in Galveston and Indianola to start a new life in America. These brave immigrants then made their way by rented carts and on foot, enduring fear of roving bands of Indians and gangs of outlaws, robbers, and rustlers, to the junction of Cibolo Creek and the San Antonio River.
Arriving on Dec. 24, 1854, the settlement of Panna Maria was founded, and the settlers celebrated by holding Mass under the large live oak tree that still stands to this day next to the church.
It merits mentioning that the area surrounding Panna Maria is steeped in its own lawful and lawless history. During the Texas Revolution, armies from both Mexico and Texas roamed the countryside on their travels between San Antonio and Goliad. Located nearby was the ghost town of Helena, known at the time as the “toughest town on earth,” which died because of one killing too many, Dalyville, which had its own version of the OK Corral, and the infamous Cart Wars.
Not much survives from the original settlement, but what did survive includes:
•The second church (and the old oak tree), built in 1878 to replace the original church, which was destroyed by lightning, and still in use today.
•St. Joseph’s School, the first Polish school in America, built in 1868, which today serves as a museum.
•Pilarczyk’s Store, built in 1875, serves as the Historical Society’s Visitors Center and staffed by volunteers to make your visit more enjoyable and entertaining with oral history and tours of the church and museum. Visit www.pannamariatexas.com for more information.
•Snoga’s Store, built in 1855 as a barn and later used as a place of worship and for schooling while the church and the school were being built. Today it houses the post office and is available for small parties.
•A few of the homesteads in various states of repair.
A stroll through the old section of the local cemetery reveals weather-worn headstones that mark the final resting place of these pioneers, the grave of a Confederate veteran from the Panna Maria Greys of the Civil War era, and the final resting place of the lone train robber of the 1893 Brackenridge (now Falls City) Train Robbery.
Hank Toothman is a resident of Karnes County.
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