Rising above the South Texas prairie in a small but historically important community of Panna Maria in Karnes County, the Polish Heritage Center looks like the type of stately structure you might find in a much larger community.
One of the most anticipated events in Karnes County this year is the long awaited grand opening of the Polish Heritage Center, a $14 million-plus facility which highlights the contributions of Polish immigrants to the United States, Texas and Karnes County. It is located just off FM 81 and is expected to draw visitors from far and wide.
The official dates for the facility’s grand opening are Oct. 23-24. The opening fulfills a long-time dream of many who have pledged to commemorate Panna Maria as the first permanent Polish American settlement in the United States, with its origins dating to 1854.
The center is located right next to the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which also celebrates the Polish contributions to South Texas and Karnes County, and includes statutes of Mary, mother of Jesus, and Pope John Paul II, the first Polish Roman Catholic pope, on site.
With 16,000 square feet of space to showcase the important role Polish settlers played in the area as well as Texas and the United States, the center has both permanent and temporary exhibit space, a theater archive, genealogy and oral history collection area, library and reading room, event space and a gift shop and concession area.
About 3,000 square feet of the center is dedicated to permanent exhibits which offer interactive experiences for visitors in five different areas. They highlight early Poland (from 996 to 1854), Polish immigration to Texas, TexasSilesian parishes, Poland’s 20th century history and the Polish Renaissance which began in 1966.
“We will feature a sneak peak open house on Sunday, Oct 11, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then our public grand opening is the weekend of Oct. 23 and 24 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” said Maureen Brown, marketing director for the Polish Heritage Center.
An electronic device will give visitors an interactive experience that will allow the person to listen in Polish, English or Spanish for certain exhibits.
The center will feature a theater, which will show a 30-minute movie highlighting Father Leopold Moczygemba, who led immigrants to the area in the 19th century.
“There will be 130 movies available throughout the center,” said exhibit designer Steve Harding.
The rotunda of the center features the great commission of Jesus to share the gospel message throughout the world.
The first exhibit across from the theater is a message from Pope John Paul II after he spent time in Poland in 1979.
There is a genealogy room offering computer stations for visitors to access family research and photos.
Educational programs and visitor tours and workshops will also be available.
Polish people have had a connection to Texas for more than 200 years.
The first documented presence of Polish people in Texas took place in 1818 when they accompanied a French expedition near present day Liberty, Texas, said Jim Mazurkiewicz, a Texas A&M professor and authority of Polish-Texas history.
An unsuccessful Polish uprising against the Russian Empire in 1831 led to Polish refugees fleeing to the United States, and 43 of them went to New York, where they were recruited to serve in Sam Houston’s Texas army.
At least seven of those Polish soldiers were killed during the Battle of Goliad. Two brothers who later perished during the Goliad massacre sent letters to their family in Poland, providing an important historical record.
Other Poles served in Sam Houston’s army at the Battle of San Jacinto. A Polish musician played when the Texans charged the Mexican army. A Polish lieutenant colonel, Andrzej Felix Wardzinski, is credited with capturing Santa Anna after the Battle of San Jacinto.
“His name is inscribed along with Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin in the Texas Hall of Heroes in Dallas,” which was done during the Centennial Expo in 1936,” Mazurkiewicz said.
“Texas owes a great deal of gratitude to Wardzinski. We’re very proud to have someone of his stature honored almost 90 years ago.
Father Moczygemba, who led the settlement of Panna Maria, arrived in Galveston in 1852 and led Poles to begin the Panna Maria community in 1854.
“That is the first and oldest Polish settlement in the United States,” Mazurkiewicz said.
Although the Polish population of Chicago and New York is significantly larger than the Texas Polish population, because that’s where they were able to find jobs decades ago, Mazurkiewicz said Poles had a longer connection to Texas.
He said it is important for Polish Texans to unite to preserve and promote their heritage and the legacy they have built here.
“If Texas Polonia is to survive, we must work together as one, including new and old acting together. We must also involve our youth. There are a lot of exciting things about Polish heritage in Texas, and we are finding out more every day.”
More information about the Polish Heritage Center is available at www.pannamariatexas.com/polish-heritage.