'Like walking into heaven' - Yorktown church restored
June 3, 2010 at 1:03 a.m.
Updated June 4, 2010 at 1:04 a.m.
YORKTOWN - Like walking into heaven is how long-time church members describe the restored Holy Cross Catholic Church.
After six months and more than $350,000 of work, the church, known for its architectural beauty and history born of fire, looks like something out of a glossy-paged historic tourism magazine.
Holy Cross Church is on a quiet corner of Yorktown between fields of grazing cattle and ranch land. Sunday morning, the parking lot is as snug as the pews.
The church building, a terra cotta brick structure built by Polish and German immigrants in 1915, echoes a design of many rural Catholic churches, but the inside is what's changed.
"It was so beautiful when I first walked in, I didn't think that church could be restored to its beauty as it is now," said Eleanor Sturn, a 92-year-old churchgoer.
Sturn has attended church there for a lifetime - 71 years to be exact - and remembers changes to the congregation over the years. This has been the biggest.
"It's like walking into heaven," she said.
The church is stately. The 42-foot ceiling arches high above the praying congregation. The Romanesque design echoes of centuries-old European churches. Tall, stained-glass windows portray devout-looking saints; at the bottom of the panes the names of hard-to-pronounce Polish families hints at the church's ethnic history.
"It almost makes you want to go to Mass every Sunday," said Don A. Wendt, owner of Ecclesiastical Studios Missouri, the group that restored the church.
The crew worked for weeks basically gutting the structure, which suffered from damage from water leaks and a ceiling that was crumbling in areas.
Now, granite columns support a metal ceiling dotted with fleur de leaf designs.
Outside the church, a plaque from the Texas Historical Commission explains the namesake of the church.
A spring fire in 1915 brought the former church building to ashes. Nearly everything was lost - except for the steeple cross.
But the Polish parishioners were resilient. Many lived in tents around the site while they constructed the building that stands today. It was completely rebuilt by the fall, costing $28,000, and many families donated the stained-glass windows at $100 a piece.
The church was renamed Holy Cross Catholic Church, and the same cross salvaged from the fire now sits atop the steeple.
Today, many of the Holy Cross families are of Polish and German descent, but over the years, the congregation has become more diverse.
Hispanic and black families have mixed with decedents of those who helped found the first church, like 94-year-old Irene Ibron, who's family name is inscribed on a stained window.
"It's the only church we like, we love to go," she said in a mild Polish accent. Ibron can rattle off the names on the windows like a fluent Pole. Her heritage and loyalty to the building are deeply rooted.
"I was baptized here and they're going to carry me away," said 94-year-old Hedwig Jendry, who feels the same.
A handful of historical churches, like Holy Cross, dot DeWitt County, said Peggy Ledbetter, treasurer of the DeWitt County Historical Commission. Restorations like the church's is something she believes can provide an economic boost to the area through tourism.
"I feel like it helps the community, and it's something that the citizens are always proud of after they get it restored," she said. "I think we have a tendency to be a throwaway society . it's really, really great to save something that was built so many years ago."
More than anything, the church pastor, the Rev. Roger Hawes, hopes the church will leave a legacy not just for his generation of parishioners, but for many to come.
"I think it's putting an accent on the church of tomorrow," he said. "I think everything that we did there really accomplishes that, plus the people who've been here all their lives seem to be pleased with it. It's a wonderful sacred worship place for the people."