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Panna Maria after Eagle Ford Shale: 'The town that woke up'

By By Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
May 26, 2012 at 12:26 a.m.

A truck lumbers down the highway past the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Panna Maria, the oldest Polish settlement in the United States, on May 16. The starkly white church is no longer the highest point in the small farming community since oil drilling in the Eagle Ford Shale began bringing in rigs that dwarf the structure.

PANNA MARIA - Rosalie Moczygemba guided her riding lawnmower across the emerald green church lawn.

The sharp smell of freshly cut grass filled the air, and a small, satisfied smile crept across the 86-year-old's face as her mower whirred over the last section of the yard, just as she has done for the past 28 years.

Her son, Bobby Moczygemba, watched as his mother expertly sailed across the lawn, leaving freshly cut grass in her wake.

Just over her shoulder, a stone's throw from the church, a rig juts into the sky on a neighboring hill, the metal structure towering over the gleaming silver steeple.

For generations, the Immaculate Conception Church has been the highest point in Karnes County. Now the silver steeple is dwarfed by an oil rig that soars into the sky, towering over the church where the people of Panna Maria have worshipped for generations.

Panna Maria was settled by immigrants who farmed and ran cattle to support themselves. In 1854, they held their first Christmas mass under an oak tree that still stands next to the church and commenced building their lives there. It was a brisk agricultural community in the early days, and while the rest of the state got caught up in the possibilities of oil, the people of Panna Maria never saw a direct benefit from the oil booms that periodically roared through the county. Recognized as the oldest Polish community in the United States, Panna Maria soldiered on, even as the booms raged around them.

The community has dwindled since those first hopeful days more than a century ago. Fewer than 100 people are left in Panna Maria today, and it looked as if the community would die, until the Eagle Ford Shale play brought more noise, traffic and wealth to their doors than had ever been seen before.

Moczygemba has lived in this community for most of her life. Despite the long history of oil in Karnes County, she never expected to see anything like this.

"It was so quiet here before, and now there's all this rumbling," she said, glancing at the oil rig. "We're just a little Polish community. Nothing like this has ever happened before."

Now, this sleepy hamlet has been jolted awake as trucks thunder along the road that passes through town, and oil rigs rumble steadily during the day and blot out the night sky with the rig lights at night.

"It's the town that woke up," Bobby Moczygemba said. "It sleeps no more because of this Eagle Ford Shale business."

Across South Texas, communities with the Eagle Ford Shale running beneath them are living the same story. The Victoria Advocate's final installment of "The Play," our series about the Eagle Ford Shale, looks at this cycle of boom and bust and asks: Will this time be any different?

Please click here to read our special report, The Play, part 7, the final installment.

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