History of St. Mary's Church Building - Plantersville, Texas
Many have asked questions about the church and have requested a written description and explanation of the church building and its interior. The information following is what I have gathered and surmised during my brief time as pastor of St. Mary/St. Joseph.
The present church structure of 1917 replaces the original church building of 1894 which was destroyed by lightening hitting the bell tower. The 1894 structure faced a trail which is now County Road 205, the road running along side of the church. This trail may have been part of the old Montgomery Trace winding through Montgomery, Dobin, and to Washington-on-the-Brazos. When the 1894 church burned in July of 1917, construction on a new church was begun immediately. The church would face toward a road which was now a more principal thoroughfare than the old trail had been: FM 1774. This explains why, when entering the church grounds, a cemetery is on the highway, with the church building in the back.
More than likely, the style of the original structure was similar to the present church: country Gothic, a style popular at the time. Interesting to note, though, is the steeple. It seems stumpy, squatty. An explanation may be that the congregation had learned its lesson. They would no longer tempt nature with a tall steeple. Short was better and less likely to be a target for the frequent lightening storms.
The leaded glass in the entry and side doors are not original to the church. They were created and installed as part of the centennial celebration of 1994. The original doors were wooden paneled doors without windows. There is evidence that at one time interior swinging doors separated the foyer from the main body of the church. The ceiling of the foyer is thought to have been installed at a later date. The foyer would have soared high overhead. There is stenciling on the ceiling in the storage space that forms the floor above the foyer. Such a soaring space would have also revealed completely the leaded window in the foyer which is now cut in half by the ceiling. This may have been done to provided storage space and easier access to the bell in the tower.
Newly revealed stenciling and color with the original beaded board can be seen to the immediate right as one passes from the foyer to the main body of the church, next to the confessional. On the opposite side can be seen the same beaded board, but the stenciling painted over. This seems to be evidence that as the stenciling was in need of repair, it was simply painted over or covered. Areas of the church seem to have been painted at different times as needed. In time, it is planned that the remainder of the paneling along both sides of the church will be removed to disclose, hopefully, more stenciling and color. What we do see gives us at least the original color and stencil design.
The church has been painted a variety of colors, according to the taste of the time. One prominent color was a creamy yellow. Another was a rose beige. When the church was repainted in 1994, a yellow was chosen which may be a bit more yellow than creamy, but gives the church a bright, happy feeling. The stenciled blue bands with detailing throughout the church are based on the original coloring seen in the stenciling in the storage area above the foyer.
The pews are original to the 1917 church. The last two pews on each side of the aisle are different from the others. They were in the choir loft and were brought downstairs in two years ago to provide additional seating. They may be from the 1894 church, saved from the burning building.
The painting of the Lamb with incensing angels forming the frieze above the sanctuary is original to the 1917 church. It is painted on canvas appliquéd to the arch. The format of the victorious Lamb, adored/incensed by angels is found in many of the painted churches in Texas. It is also frequently found on the arch above the sanctuary.
The altar is in the Gothic style and was most probably crafted and shipped from the same company in San Antonio that made the vesting cabinet in the priest's sacristy. This same altar can be seen in many of the painted churches in Central Texas. My hunch is that a church would write the company and describe the sanctuary area [so many feet wide, so many high] and the company would spec an altar for the space. The Last Supper panel was originally colored to represent a painting. All three altars originally had a German inscription on the base. Research is underway to decipher the inscriptions and have them reinstated. The statues of the Sacred Heart and the Adoring Angels are original to the 1917 church. The angels would not have been on the altar but on ledges cantilevering to each side. The canopy over the Sacred Heart is salvaged from an old gothic altar. It was repaired and installed by Bill Malek in 2000. The original was for some reason discarded years before. The altar was lovingly repainted and re-gilded for the centennial celebration in 1994 by Frank Hill.
Originally the ceiling above the sanctuary was painted blue with a multitude of stars. The Sun Burst design at the height of the ceiling is original to the 1917 church. Around 1955, the stars were painted over and the angels installed. They are painted on canvas and appliqued to the ceiling. Looking closely, one can see the square canvas area painted with the image of the Dove, the Holy Spirit.
The side altars are original to the 1917 church, though the canopies are exact copies painstakingly reproduced by Bill Malek and installed in 2001. Still to be reduplicated are the altar backings seen in the 1935 photographs.
The statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph are thought to be original to the 1894 church, saved as the building was burning. The other two items mentioned in archival material as being saved from the original church are the box of Holy Oils and the Holy Eucharist. The original box once containing the Holy Oils can be seen at the left of the Main Altar. It was found in the rectory garage.
A renowned restoration specialist of Houston recently restored the statue of the Blessed Mother. He affirmed the age of the statue and pointed out the uniqueness of an image of Mary without a veil. Not only is her hair revealed but cascades down the length of her back. Such a display would have been shocking to Mary's contemporaries and culture.
The statue of St. Joseph was recently rediscovered in the church hall and had floated around for years from storage area to storage area. That the statue of St. Joseph, which had been in the church for years, was not original was pointed out one afternoon during a tour of the church. While looking at 1935 photographs of the interior of the church, someone pointed out that the St. Joseph in the church was not the St. Joseph in the picture. Sure enough. The St. Joseph in the picture was recognized as the St. Joseph statue in my office in the hall. What probably happened was that the extended hand of Jesus had broken off and couldn't be satisfactorily repaired. So the statue was retired and a new one bought. After extensive restoration sponsored by St. Mary's Altar Society, the original St. Joseph reigns again. The substitute St. Joseph statue was donated to St. Joseph/Stoneham and now has a prominent place in St. Joseph's hall.
The other statues of St. Anne with the child Mary and St. Anthony of Padua are original to the 1917 church and are in their original places as seen in the 1935 photograph.
The ambo [pulpit] is not original to the 1917 church but is said to closely resemble the original which was on wheels and rolled out for the reading of the Gospel and sermon. The ambo was originally on the St. Joseph side of the church and pushed toward the side door. It does not appear in the 1935 photograph. The present ambo was found in Atkins Architectural Antiques in Houston and is dated c.1860's. It comes from a church in the Chicago area. Frank Gabriel, a lifetime member of the church, donated it.
The octagonal wooden altar replaces a marble rectangular altar installed shortly after the reforms of Vatican Council II were implemented in the early '60's. The wooden altar, made from the base of an ambo much like the present ambo, is more in keeping with the wooden appointments throughout the church. It was installed in 2001, donated in memory of Robert Crowley by Mary Crowley and her Family.
The leaded glass windows are original to the 1917 church and were donated by the early founding families. Originally one side of the church windows were dedicated in English. The other side had the dedications in German. This would indicate that in 1917 the congregation was becoming assimilated into American culture, while still trying to hold on to its German heritage. Originally founded by a handful of Catholic Ukrainians of German descent from Russia in 1894, St. Mary's now boasts 450 families from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Altar cloths, seen in the 1935 photo, are often on display. They are used only during the 50 days of the Easter Season. Other items attached to the history of the church are actively being sought. Recently, the folding rests upon which the coffin rested during the funeral Mass was returned by Herb Swonke, who preserved them when they were no longer wanted for use. Also, the family of Katie Mock returned a funeral candelabrum which would have flanked the coffin during the funeral Mass. The candelabra were sold at a church bazaar years before, again probably because they were no longer being used. Early photographs of the church have also been donated by Bill Hock, with a generous supply of antidotes and historical lore.
The Stations of the Cross are not original to the 1917 church. The originals were pictures framed in wood in the Gothic design. They seem to be rather large in the 1935 photo. It is said they were sold at a bazaar auction in the 50's-60's. The present stations were purchased to replace the older stations. It is hoped that an original may surface some day.
It is interesting to note that the visible stenciling reflects only about an eighth of the original stenciling. The photograph of 1935 shows the extent of stenciling around each window, in each bay of the main body of the church, in the sanctuary area, and the very unique motif around the side altars. A peek behind the statue of St. Anthony reveals some of the stenciling and its color that once graced the area around the altar. It is hoped and planned that the original stenciling will be gradually restored and the church will shine with an even greater brilliance.
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