Panna Maria Oaks

Historical Period: Early Statehood (1845-1861)
Historical Topic: Frontier Settlements, Religious Freedom
Species: Live Oak (Quercus virginiana)
County: Karnes
Public Access: Yes

Most Christmas Eve services are held within the protective walls of a church building, but one such service, conducted a century and a half ago in Texas, was not.

The year was 1854 and the place was a small hill in central Texas overlooking the junction of the San Antonio and Cibolo rivers. The time was midnight. Assembled under these live oak trees on a broad, almost treeless plateau, a strangely garbed group of seven or eight hundred settlers bent in prayer as a young priest conducted Mass before an altar set under the trees.

After the service a few spent the night huddled together under the oaks, while others slept amid their belongings in shallow trenches or in the profusion of tall grass. Thus with little more than a spark of hope and the Holy Spirit to comfort and sustain them, the first emigration of Polish settlers to America passed their Christmas Eve in a strange land.

Nine weeks on a sailing ship and three weeks of foot travel through a hostile land in the dead of winter had left an indelible impression on the minds and bodies of these Polish settlers. Many later moved to other areas of Texas, but some remained to build and establish homes.

During the first year, these sturdy oaks witnessed deprivation, fever, and dissension among the settlers, who by now had little food and no money, and who spoke neither English nor Spanish. Their first homes were of pickets or sticks driven in the ground and covered with mud. The roofs were of grass, and the floors were of dirt covered with grass.

In spite of their many hardships and a dwindling population, the deeply religious people made plans to build a church that first spring. Work began in the summer, and the first Polish church in America was built beside these historic live oaks, which sheltered the first Mass.

Panna Maria, conceived of man's burning love for liberty and freedom, and born of hardship and deprivation, grew in humble and reverent obedience to God. Death of the little community is not imminent, and though these ancient oaks may never see a great city develop, Panna Maria carries the distinction of being the first Polish settlement in the New World and of having contributed to the growth of a great state. 

The Panna Maria Oaks can be found on the north side of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which is located along FM 81 in Panna Maria.