Heritage Center In Texas
To Tell The Story of Immigration
PANNA MARIA, Texas —In early December, 1854, nearly 100 Polish families from the region of Upper Silesia sailed into Galveston on the Texas gulf coast, sailed further south to Indianola, and then trekked inland more than 200 miles to acreage secured for them by their kinsman, a Polish priest named Father Leopold Moczygemba. They finally arrived on December 24 at a place they named Panna Maria and celebrated Midnight Mass under the sheltering branches of a great oak tree which still stands today. Panna Maria is honored as the first and oldest permanent Polish settlement in America and is listed in the US Register of Historic Places.
PHOTO: The building shell is complete. Further funding is for interior construction, and for the manufacture, assembly, and installation of all the exhibits…plus exterior grounds beautification.
The story of the Polish immigration to Texas, full of toil, tribulation and triumph, is the focus of the Polish Heritage Center (PHC) as envisioned by its founder, Bishop Emeritus John W. Yanta, a great-grandson of the initial immigrants. “We have to preserve our inherited values, share them with new generations of our families, and with pride and thanksgiving share them with the whole world,” said Bishop Yanta.
Located in Panna Maria, which is about 55 miles southeast of San Antonio, the Polish Heritage Center will celebrate all of the original settlements, including Panna Maria, Bandera, St. Hedwig, Yorktown, Częstohowa, Kosciusko, Falls City, McCook, White Deer, Inez, Las Gallinas and St. Michael’s in San Antonio. The mission of the Polish Heritage Center is to “keep vibrant and relevant the history, values, beliefs, customs and traditions of the Polish settlers and their descendants…and to inspire, engage, and educate our visitors.”
A National Treasure. The PHC is for all of American Polonia, the eighth largest ethnic group in the United States, and our brethren in Poland. The Center is rapidly gaining national attention and support. John Czop, director of policy planning in Washington D.C. for the Polish American Congress (PAC) sent this endorsement to his fellow PAC national directors in December 2018: “Established before the Civil War, the Panna Maria Colony of Polish pioneers in Texas is a true story of triumph over adversity. We need to preserve the record of their achievements by supporting the Polish Heritage Center at Panna Maria.” The PAC, the Polish National Alliance, and the Polish Falcons of America have also highlighted the PHC in their newsletters and magazines. Detroit and New York Polish radio stations have already broadcast interviews. Also, last December, PHC board members, volunteers, and donors welcomed Robert Rusiecki, the Polish Consul General in Houston, as a guest speaker to a fundraising event where he encouraged the efforts of all. Piotr Wilczek, Poland’s Ambassador to America, has also been briefed on the project.
What is a Heritage Center? Though it incorporates elements of a museum where historical objects of lasting interest are collected and displayed, a heritage center “typically dedicates itself to informing and educating visitors about a particular group of people, their customs, beliefs, traditions, material traits, and religious and social forms,” noted principle PHC designer Steve Harding, of Steve Harding Design in Houston. “In many instances the customary or traditional process used by these groups for handing down patterns of thought, action, beliefs, and customs has been by word of mouth or by example without written instructions.” Harding said the challenge of the Polish Heritage Center will be to preserve customs and traditions for posterity, keeping alive those beliefs and values in today’s constantly changing world.
Exterior Medallions. Construction on the 16,500-square foot Center commenced on April 11, 2016 and the building’s shell is now complete. Two majestic steel porcelain enamel medallions placed to the left and right of the front entrance provide a beautiful focal point. On the left, From Poland to the United States of America features the white Polish eagle, the symbol of Poland, on a red field surrounded by a blue ring with white copy, thereby capturing both the colors of Poland (red and white) and America’s red, white and blue. On the right, From Silesia to Texas tells the story of the people who immigrated and features images of the Blessed Virgin, Panna Maria’s Immaculate Conception Church, a cross, a bell and a plow on a field of blue ringed with yellow.
Interior Work Begins. Work on the office/administration area and library is complete. The next phase of this $14 million project will focus on developing the archive, gallery, theatre, and exhibit spaces that will provide high-tech interactive and immersive experiences from early Polish history to the present. This will include self-guided tours in English, Polish and Spanish. The Archive and Collections area will house and preserve artifacts and documents, while the Genealogy Room and Oral History Collection will offer opportunities for visitors to access family records and photos. In addition, books in Polish and English on a variety of subjects will be available for reading and research, while the theatre and a conference room will accommodate lectures and workshops.
Photo was taken at a big fund-raiser on December 13 that took place inside the Center. Pictured, left to right, Al Notzon, Vice Chair of the Board of Directors; John Cebrowski, VP – Director of development; Robert Rusiecki, Consul General from the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Houston; George & Betty Kowalik, and Sam & Susie Kotara, members of the Board and the Campaign Steering Committee.
Currently, exhibit design and copy are being finalized, contributing historians continue to be interviewed, and music and language sessions with people from the various communities are being scheduled. Work also continues on collecting the artifacts, photographs, documents and stories that will be featured in the Center. The stories will be presented in a series of recorded segments that will be part of the audio experience.
Memorialize your Ancestors. As work on the interior and exhibits progresses, the Polish Heritage Center Board of Directors and its Campaign Steering Committee are focused on fundraising, with over $8.6 million of the $14 million already donated or pledged. The PHC is a 501(c)3 tax exempt non-profit foundation. Your support would be greatly appreciated. Out Tax ID# is 46-0561240. Donations to the Polish Heritage Center Foundation may be mailed to PO Box 28125, San Antonio, TX 78228.
Donors of $1,000 or more can have ancestors memorialized in the Center.
Sponsorships for larger donations are also available. All donations will be recognized.For more information on memorials and sponsorships, call John Cebrowski, director of development, at (210) 370-3953.
Visit the Center’s website at www.polishheritagecentertx.org. The Center also has Facebook and Twitter pages.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article first appeared in the Polish American Journal.
Permission from the Polish American Journal.