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100 Miles or Less: The "Painted" Churches You May Have Missed

The oldest Catholic church in Fayette County sits high on Hostyn Hill, while another holds a treasure trove of recovered Old World masterpieces.

By Katharine Shilcutt December 15, 2015

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The original Hostyn Hill in the Czech Republic.

Image: Shutterstock

Destination: Ellinger
Distance: 85 miles
Driving time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

The original Hostyn Hill is less of a hill, by Texas standards, and more of a mountain. Its peak sits half a mile high over the rolling landscape of Moravia, one of the Eastern European regions that—along with Bohemia and Silesia—are the original, historic regions of the modern-day Czech Republic.

Hostyn Hill in Moravia has been an important pilgrimage site for Catholics over the years, who come to offer prayers to the Virgin Mary at the medieval chapel on its lush hilltop. It's here, the legend goes, that Czechs battling Tartars in the 13th century prayed to Mary for water to quench their thirst; in return, Mary sent a powerful torrent of water that beat back the Tartars and allowed for a Czech victory that day. The spring that flows from Hostyn Hill today is often called the "Moravian Lourdes," and is visited with much the same fervor that the French pilgrimage spot inspires.

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St. Mary is the oldest Catholic church in Fayette County.

The Hostyn Hill in Texas doesn't provide the same offer of healing waters as its namesake, nor does it provide quite the same stunning views of an Old World countryside, though it is a pilgrimage worth making on its own merits. There, you'll find another chapel named for the mother of Christ: St. Mary Catholic Church, the oldest Catholic church in Fayette County, where the most beautiful views are tucked away inside.

The so-called "painted churches" of Schulenburg, 19th-century structures built by Czech and German settlers that look austere from the outside but boast brilliant-hued frescos and gold-framed icons inside, are far more famous in this region of Central Texas, but there are additional churches within Fayette County worth closer examination.

At St. Mary, which was first built atop Hostyn Hill (then called, simply, Live Oak Hill) in 1861 and rebuilt in 1906 after an Easter Sunday fire destroyed the original structure, the main attraction is the gilt-laden altar with insets that hold colorful statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and several saints.

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The gilded altar at St. Mary is set against a simple blue ceiling.

In comparison to the intricate frescoes at, say, Nativity of Mary, Blessed Virgin Catholic Church (also on its own high hill), the golden altar at St. Mary on Hostyn Hill glitters all the more brightly against a simple, azure ceiling the color of a summer sky.

Outside, in the immaculately manicured grounds that surround the wooden church, you'll find a Czech cemetery, various statuary and altars, and uninterrupted, 360-degree views of the beginnings of Hill Country.

Coming and going from Hostyn Hill is a treat in and of itself, an idyllic drive down a winding country road that's sheltered by leafy oaks and colorful crepe myrtles in warmer months. And back down the hill in Fayetteville, you'll find paintings of an entirely different nature than the frescoes that decorate most of the region's painted churches.

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Altarpieces by famous Moravian artist Ignaz Johann Berger once hung in the original St. John the Baptist when it was first built in 1870.

Over a decade ago, a priest cleaning out a small storage room inside St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in downtown Fayetteville made a discovery worthy of Antiques Roadshow: a painting by Moravian artist Ignaz Johann Berger, famous for the Catholic altarpieces he created in the late 18th century. More of Berger's gilded paintings were eventually found in other storage units throughout the area and sent off for restoration. Today, the Old World masterpieces hang throughout the beautiful mid-century modern church, itself a restoration of the original St. John the Baptist that was first built in 1870. Handouts near the entrance to the church detail the history behind the paintings, which were gifted to the church from the Czech homeland over 100 years ago and hung in the original structure before it was rebuilt in the 1950s, for a self-guided tour.

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Fresh, hot, sweet kolaches are the main draw at Hruska's.

On the second Sunday of every month, St. Mary and St. John the Baptist collaborate on a barbecue to benefit the Knights of Columbus, with smoked chicken and sausage for sale fresh off the pits behind St. John from 8:30 to 10 a.m. Smart travelers know to call ahead and reserve their barbecue by the pound, but if you're headed to Ellinger and Fayetteville on one of the three other weekends a month when the Knights of Columbus barbecue isn't taking place, there's always Hruska's.

Like those Moravian paintings, Hruska's (pronounced "h-ROOSH-kuhz") itself underwent a major restoration a few years ago. The facelift took the family-owned bakery from a cramped convenience store fronting Highway 71 serving homemade Czech pastries to a destination in its own right, one that demands a pit stop for even the most determined Houston-to-Austin road trippers.

Today, the 103-year-old bakery turns out several hundred trays of sweet kolaches and sausage-stuffed klobasneky per day. Munch on a few for lunch but don't forget to take a half-dozen home with you before you head back to Houston; there's nothing worse than letting it slip to friends or family that you stopped at Hruska's and didn't bring any kolaches back for them.

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