Day Trips: Panna Maria, Texas

Step back in time at the oldest Polish settlement in America


photos by Gerald E. McLeod

Panna Maria, Texas, a rural community near the center of Karnes County, has the distinction of being the oldest permanent Polish settlement in the U.S. The descendants continue to celebrate their ancestry 170 years later.

Father Leopold Moczygemba (1824-1891) had been in Texas for two years when he invited 150 of his fellow Poles to the brushland 53 miles south of San Antonio. The immigrants celebrated the first Mass at their new home on Christmas Eve 1854 under a sprawling oak tree that still stands.


The center of their community has always been the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, three-quarters of a mile off of Texas Highway 123 on FM 81. The first permanent Polish Catholic church in the U.S. opened in 1856. The first Polish-American school soon followed.

Lightning destroyed that building in 1875, and the current building replaced it two years later.


In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson gave the church a painting of the Black Madonna, or Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Protector of Poland. After the first Pope from Poland, John Paul II, visited San Antonio in 1987, the church was given the handmade papal chairs.

In 2000, workers discovered that tiles from 1937 covered a beautiful ceiling in the sanctuary, adding the Panna Maria church to the list of Texas’ famous Painted Churches. A restoration included additional ceiling art by a Polish priest and the cleaning of the magnificent stained-glass windows.

Panna Maria is 108 miles south of Austin. The church welcomes visitors daily during most daylight hours. The Polish Heritage Center across from the church tells the history of Poland and Polish immigrants from 10am to 4pm, Wednesday through Saturday. The local visitors center in the historic Pilarczyk’s Store opens Thursdays from 10am to 4pm and on third and fourth weekends with a museum, gift shop, and tours of the church.


1,704th in a series. Everywhere is a day trip from somewhere: Follow “Day Trips & Beyond,” a travel blog, at austinchronicle.com/daily/travel.

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