Last week, I toured the “Painted Churches” of south Texas for a solid week. A pilgrimage route called “El Camino de Lavaca” has been established that includes most of the Catholic churches (painted or not) in four counties located in the Austin/Houston/San Antonio triangle.

The extended time led to some reflections about churches, and bodies.

Designated as National Historic Places, the “Painted Churches” are an artistic and cultural phenomenon of the Czech and German influx to Texas in the 1800s. Far from their own luscious European cathedrals, and no doubt shocked at the stark landscape of Texas, Slav and German immigrants tried to build a little piece of home. Each church is like a portrait of a loved one far away that someone caresses and kisses every night before drifting off. They were built from the immigrants’ resolve to make a home out of the inhospitable Texas plain.

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, High Hill, TX — Photo: Sheryl Collmer

In contrast to the visual minimalism of many American country churches, these tiny architectural treasures sing with the orchestrated beauty of the high Gothic era of medieval Europe. Think Notre Dame or Chartres, but in a small package.

St. John the Baptist Church, Ammansville, TX — Photo: Sheryl Collmer

The “painted churches” have been the subject of some study, including a 2001 public television documentary subtitled “Echoes of the Homeland”. They are located in undiscovered towns that even native Texans often don’t know, like Praha and High Hill and Dubina. One church town, Shiner, is famous, but for its German-style Bock, not so much for its lovely Saints Cyril and Methodius Church.

Saints Cyril and Methodius Church, Shiner, TX—Photo: John T. Sharp

These churches, the specifically-designated “painted churches” as well as the other Catholic churches on the pilgrimage route “El Camino de Lavaca,” envelop all who enter. The richness of painting, statuary, stenciling and carving, and the scent-memory of incense, glut your senses.

The problem of distraction during Mass is virtually erased, as there is, everywhere, something to dwell upon. The stained-glass windows follow a “program” of the lives of the saints, or mysteries of the Rosary or scenes from the life of Christ. The Stations of the Cross are engagingly realistic, as are the statues.

All these churches are constructed in the “old fashioned” longitudinal form, with every perspective, from anywhere in the Church, directed toward the high altar, the locus of every activity of the Mass. This is the basic plan of the European cathedrals and basilicas.

Longitudinal Plan, Basilica Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Vezeley, France

Similarly, the vaulted ceilings spring upward, giving occupants a sense of the enormity of the universe and of our heavenly destiny.

St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption, Praha, TX—Photo: Sheryl Collmer

These churches are supported by congregations numbering in the hundreds of people, not thousands. The structures were built in the 1800s, when there was no doubt that the communities valued their faith above all else. Immigrant families with very little extra income generously gave all they could to build these little treasures. The names of those original families are inscribed on the windows and walls, and in small chapels adjacent to the sanctuary.

Maintenance costs aren’t cheap, though, and families currently living in the little burgs are generous, too. One local reporter told me that, at an annual church bazaar raising money for the upkeep of the church, a cake baked by the resident priest sold for $35,000. That’s in a town of less than 3,000 people.

I could not help wondering why huge Texas cities like Houston and Dallas, many of whose parishes are exponentially more affluent than the tiny communities on El Camino de Lavaca, have so many unremarkable, ugly, and, one might even say, oppressive church structures.

Based on the architecture alone, could you tell which of the buildings below is a church, and which is a prison?

South Woods State Prison, New Jersey

An unnamed church, A big city in Texas

The similarity to prison architecture doesn’t end when you walk in the doors, either.  One of the interiors pictured below is a maximum-security prison and one a modern big-city church.

Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, North Carolina

Another unnamed church, A big city in Texas

What these facilities have in common is the underlying theme of utility, of processing people efficiently. They lack educational or catechetical content, images that tell stories, teach virtue, inspire awe and enkindle love. Is it any wonder that young people prefer to avoid them?

Many of our big-city churches contain beautiful modern art, rich in color and abstract in concept. And it totally works in a museum of modern art! But as far as captivating children, informing the intellect, lifting the soul… I wonder.

Nativity, Jean Lacy, St. Luke United Methodist, Dallas

“Dark Nativity”

Both of the stained glass scenes above represent the Nativity, and both are lovely, in their own way. But which one would most captivate your imagination? Although one does wonder, in the more modern image, why the infant Jesus has a chicken beak and is about to be sucked into an HVAC funnel, it does not edify one’s religious sensibilities. The more realistic scene also makes one wonder: what does the flowering rod signify and why does Joseph hold a key and what are the Latin words above? These questions, however, are theologically significant and worth asking.

This is not a screed against abstract art, which I genuinely enjoy. Rather, I ask myself, what place does abstraction have in a church, especially considering the Incarnation, in which the Second Person of the Trinity left us in no doubt of the dignity and beauty of matter? Does abstraction from recognizable form serve the purpose for which we go to church; that is, worship and love of Christ? And perhaps most poignantly, does it serve the purpose of evangelizing the next generation?

The churches on El Camino de Lavaca are perhaps the most magnificent ecclesial architecture in the entire state of Texas. Interestingly, the communities in which they reside are clean, friendly, and still vibrant. In contrast to many farm towns left abandoned by younger generations, these towns have sustained communities that still treasure the small-town lifestyle. One local man told us about the sacrifice he made to keep his family in Shiner (population 2,137) while he commuted to Nashville for work. I can’t help wondering how much these splendid churches and the faith of those who built them contribute to the continuing vitality of the communities. In other words, if their ancestors had built churches that resembled correctional facilities, would these little towns be as desolate and abandoned as so many ghost towns in rural America?

The answer, I think, is “yes” because, as we say at TOBET, the body matters. The senses matter. Modern churches with a cold, institutional feel, hemmed in by hard surfaces that make acoustics painful, with art that is impenetrable… can we really expect human beings to feel warm, included and loved in such buildings?

Furthermore, what precisely are we teaching about Christ and His Church when we ignore the body and its senses, when we try to preach with our words something that is not consistent with the bodily experience the church provides? The body has a language, and art and architecture have languages as well. Prison architecture says: “You are being watched at every moment, and you will be punished if you don’t conform.” Is that really what we want to communicate in our churches?

Consider, in contrast, the language we speak when we, as one body, face the Father and encounter the sacrifice of love as a community. Consider the children in the pews, entranced by the art around them, wondering what Joan of Arc did, why Daniel was in a lion’s den, what Jesus was doing when he stayed behind to talk to the elders in theTemple.

It’s worth pondering. And bringing up in our parish councils. Because the body matters.


Sheryl Collmer writes for TOBET in Irving, Texas.