PANNA MARIA, TEX. -- In the simplest of places are countless wonders, even in an old farm village on a country road that rolls through the oat pastures of south-central Texas. This is cowboy country, land of mesquite trees and longhorn ranches, and only 55 miles to the northwest lies San Antonio, thriving capital of Hispanic America.
Yet here, somehow, is Panna Maria, the oldest Polish Catholic parish in the United States. Not Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland or Pittsburgh, but Panna Maria, in the middle of nowhere in Texas.
Kowaliks live here, and Paweliks and Mikas and Snogas and Dragons and Dziuks. Their ancestors arrived as 100 families on Christmas Eve in 1854 after a nine-week voyage and a longer walk from Galveston. They were lured to the new world by a missionary priest from their Upper Silesian homeland, Leopold Moczygemba, whose work in Texas and later in the Midwest earned him a place in ethnic history as the patriarch of American Polonia.
The oak tree under which they all prayed that first night still stands 133 years later, shading the Church of the Immaculate Conception and Moczygemba's new gravestone.
Since word went out that Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pontiff, plans to stop in Texas during his American tour in September, Panna Marians have hoped and prayed that their Holy Father would step under that old oak tree and celebrate Mass for descendants of the early Polish pioneers. It has become this globe-trotting pope's custom to hold one special session with Polish people in every country he visits, and there seemed to be some grace to the idea that this time he would honor the almost-forgotten birthplace of Polish America.
But as the pope's schedule took shape, Panna Maria lost out. He would spend only one day in Texas, and there would be no time for him to visit this village. His Polish Mass, it was decided, would be held later in the trip, in Detroit. How sad and ironic, thought Father Bernard Goebel, the 82-year-old pastor of Panna Maria.
When he arrived here 17 years ago, Goebel, a native of Chojnice, Poland, decided to make a pilgrimage to the grave of Moczygemba, the first and most famous of Panna Maria's pastors. He journeyed to Detroit, the city where Moczygemba, in his later years, had founded the country's first Polish seminary and the largest Polish ethnic organization, the Polish Roman Catholic Union. Not a single clergyman or layman there could lead Goebel to the grave, which he finally found in a corner of Mount Elliott Cemetery.
The gravestone was a foot high and revealed nothing about the priest's life. Upset by how the big city had virtually ignored such an important figure, Goebel took steps to have Moczygemba's remains moved back to the little village in Texas where he had founded the oldest Polish colony in the country. Moczygemba was reburied under the great oak tree, 20 yards from the church, with a monument that stands a few feet higher than the average man.
To Father Goebel, there is no purer place than Panna Maria, which means Virgin Mary in Polish. He looks out the back windows of his parish house and sees nothing but trees and creeks and rolling meadows. Across the highway from the old white church is Snoga's grocery store, and next door is the old Mika house. Scattered about the oat fields are perhaps 90 other Panna Maria farm families.
"I like it here in Texas. You know why?" said Goebel in his soft, rich Polish accent. "Because all that is here is nature. There is no pretense of modern culture. The Germans claimed to be on top of modern culture. I learned from them how evil that can be."
Goebel spent more than six years in German concentration camps. He was hauled off by the Gestapo on Oct. 19, 1939, along with most of the priests in the Chojnice Diocese. Many of them were taken out to a forest 10 miles from town and killed with a bullet in the neck. Goebel was on the list of priests to be eliminated. He was spared because, by chance, he had delivered a sermon in German a few months earlier and someone told the Gestapo about it, implying that he was not an enemy of the German state.
He had not wanted to deliver that sermon, but a friend had forced him to do it, without explaining why. "I know how the finger of God guides you," said Goebel, sitting in his parish office, a map of Poland on one wall, three pictures of Pope John Paul II on the others. "God did not want me to die. In the camps every day was a race between life and death. People who lived by fear -- they didn't make it."
In Panna Maria today, the question of survival is less immediate and horrifying, but troubling nonetheless. The nearby uranium mines have just about shut down, there are no other local industries, and the family farms are being bought out or going bankrupt. Goebel has found that in recent years he has buried Panna Marians, and married them, but has conducted precious few baptisms.
"Our parish is disappearing. The young leave for the cities to find jobs," Goebel said. "There
is no reason for them to stay,
no reason for them to come
back . . . . "
Goebel was hoping that a visit by Pope John Paul II would produce a miracle, that some millionaire, perhaps, would read about the little Polish village in the middle of nowhere and decide it was a good place to start an industry. But the schedule does not include Panna Maria. Instead, Goebel has been invited to San Antonio on the night of Sept. 13 to meet for a half-hour with the Polish pope.
He has been practicing a simple message that transcends his great disappointment. "I will say to him, 'Greetings from Panna Maria, the oldest Polish parish in the United States, the final resting place of the patriarch of American Polonia, Father Moczygemba.' And I will say, 'The people of Panna Maria keep the strong faith of their fathers, and of their homeland. We welcome you with the deepest affection, our Holy Father.' "