Victoria Advocate Online
27 Jul 2004
Family ties strong in Polish community
July 27, 2004
PANNA MARIA - Adrian Lyssy didn't mind driving almost 53 miles to
work in San Antonio for 20 years, then 53 miles back home every day,
because he was doing it for his family.
Each morning, he would leave his home in Panna Maria by 4:30 a.m. to
make the long commute, because he and his wife wanted to give their
kids a good education in a small school district in neighboring
Karnes City and to give them the close family culture he had grown up
with in Panna Maria.
It was about 25 years ago that the Lyssy family moved from San
Antonio to the farm that had been in his father's family for 150
years, since the first settlement of the oldest Polish community in
the United States.
"We moved back on account of the kids and the peace and quiet. We
don't have to lock our house here," Lyssy said.
The farm is south of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which
sits in downtown Panna Maria where the original Polish immigrants
spent their first Christmas Eve in the new country.
Lyssy, who retired as a postal carrier for the U.S. Postal Service
about four years ago, isn't the only Panna Maria native who moved
back for his family and commuted to work.
Other families are choosing to come back to the small community so
their children can have the closeness of the small town Polish family
that they grew up knowing and that remains alive in the community
"Family is very important to us, and being back home is a very
comfortable feeling," said Lynette Perkins, a native of Panna Maria
who daily travels 70 miles one way to Victoria. She carpools with her
husband, Billy Perkins, who also works in Victoria. She works at the
surgery center while he works for First Capital Bank.
They lived in Victoria for 21 years, but decided to move to Panna
Maria because their son Derick wanted a small school environment.
He recently graduated from Karnes City High School, as both of his
parents did years before.
Perkins said she and her siblings were raised with a strong sense of
family, which spread beyond their home into the community. And she
likes being able to raise her children in a similar setting.
The church, which is built near the large oak tree where the original
Polish settlers spent their first Christmas Eve in 1854, is a huge
part of the community. It is where everyone meets and visits, Perkins
After Mass, parishioners hang around and visit with one another.
"The young mingle with the older people. The older ones know who you
are and they ask about how you are doing," she said. But this is a
tradition that has been going on for many years because Perkins can
remember being the child and talking with the older members, many of
whom are now deceased.
"We are fortunate that more young people, once they start raising a
family, want to live in the country and choose to commute to their
jobs," said Loretta Niestroy, Perkins' mother, also a Panna Maria
The town is small and just about everyone is related to their
neighbor in one way or another. Just about all can trace their family
back to one of the original families who settled there 150 years ago.
In its prime, the town was home to several hundred families over the
years, but many moved off. Now there are about 30 to 35 residents in
the community, but the church community, which includes the outlying
rural area, has about 98 families with about 200 members.
Gayle Olenick of San Antonio, who married a man of Polish descent,
has conducted genealogy research of the Polish migration over the
years. As of June 30, she had documented 84,000 family names in the
United States who have direct ties to the original 100 families who
settled the community in 1854. Her research is an example of how
strong an influence famlily is in the area. "Family loyalty is very
strong. That is the way we grew up here and it has stayed that way,"
She said the only industry in Panna Maria is farming and that doesn't
pay enough to support a growing family, so the residents have to
commute to work.
Most of the farms are still in the original families who first farmed
"We want to hang onto mom and dad's place or great grandpa's place,"
Niestroy said. She and her four brothers have a partnership for her
Elaine Moczygemba returned to Panna Maria in 1995 after a 25-year
career in the Navy to help her brother Kenneth Moczygemba of LaVernia
with their family's farm, located about 3 1/2 miles west of town.
Although she owns a house in town, across from the church, she
considers the 200-acre farm home, working there daily.
Relatives farm around them. Standing on the farm, she can identify
all the passing trucks that travel the dirt road in front of her
"That's my first cousin," she pointed out as a truck passed by her
gate. A few minutes later another truck passed, driven by her second
cousin - all have the Moczygemba family name.
Moczygemba thought she would only be in the area a couple of years
and then move on, but she is still there and is ever so active in the
community as a volunteer.
"There is so much volunteer work that needs to be done," she said as
she sat in the Panna Maria Visitor's Center that serves as a meeting
place for visitors as well as local folks.
She is the president of the Panna Maria Historical Society, is one of
three organists for the church, and teaches Polish dancing at a San
Antonio college, to name a few of her duties.
The visitor's center is the hub of activity for the locals - this is
where they know to make donations to help with funeral meals, wedding
showers, or to help with someone's medical bills.
Moczygemba said they know if money is being collected for a special
cause that there will be a jar or glass on the table at the center.
The priest will usually make the announcement at church or place the
announcement in the bulletin letting the residents know who is in
need and who is in charge of collecting the money.
A similar method is used when collecting money to buy the turkeys for
the annual homecoming turkey dinner held on the second Sunday of each
Thousands of people gather in the town that weekend, helping to cook,
serve and eat the turkey meals. Many are former residents, many have
never lived there but are friends of residents and join in to help
"It is a lot of hard work but it is amazing to watch how everyone
works together," said Perkins. She said a lot of her friends come and
Last October, only 2,918 meals were served, but it was raining. The
year before that set the record for number of plates served - 3,117.
Generations of families work side by side making sure everyone gets
plenty to eat. "My granddaughters come in from San Marcos to help
out. They enjoy it here. They love the food," said Elizabeth Kopecki,
a volunteer at the visitors center.
To make sure all flows well, work begins on Friday soaking the bread
for the dressing, then on Saturday the women are busy making the
dressing while the men cut the turkeys and put them on the pit,
On Sunday, there are six serving lines.
Live music and an auction are also part of the festivities.
Niestroy said while they serve around 3,000 meals, there are more
people than that in town that day because some come just for the
The residents are proud of their home, but they are afraid of losing
parts of the culture as older residents die.
"I'm not sure we can keep our language going," Niestroy said. "I'm
probably in the last generation to speak Polish and I'm 67. My
grandpa spoke Polish." She said her two older children spoke Polish
but have lost the language as they moved on to other places to live.
She said one of her younger grandchildren is interested in learning
Perkins said she has retained a few Polish words she learned growing
Kopecki, 79, said she and her friends speak Polish all the time
because they grew up speaking the language. She learned to speak
English in about the second grade.
"I still talk to my children in Polish and they understand," she said
in a thick Silesian dialect.
To help keep the language and culture alive, on the first Sunday of
the month parishioners sing hymns in Polish.
There is also a community Polish choir made up of members from
throughout the county.
Niestroy said the church is the mainstay of the community and the
fact that they have Polish priests assigned to the parish has helped
keep the community going.
Niestroy, who is also the church secretary, said the community adopts
the priests even though they usually only stay about three years.
They are usually in the early 30s, are "very much Polish in all their
beliefs" and are active in the community.
The church, which was built in 1878 and last renovated in 2000, is
full of Polish symbols and statues and paintings on the ceiling. The
stained-glass windows bear the names of long-time families: Mika,
Janysek, Dzuik, Pilarczyk, Dworaczyk.
One side of the altar is dedicated to Our Lady of Czestochowa, Queen
of Poland, while the other side is dedicated to St. Ann, mother of
the Virgin Mary. Three hand-carved chairs, used by Pope John Paul II
during his visit to San Antonio in 1987, are also on the altar.
At the entrance of the church is a large painting of St. Stanislaus,
bishop and martyr, which was brought from Poland in 1858.
Residents are working to bring tourism to Panna Maria and Karnes
County to bolster the county's economy as well as to tell their story
in American history.
This year is a year-long celebration of the county's
sesquicentennial. It started in February with a celebration in Helena
and will end in December with a celebration in Panna Maria. In
between, each time a town or community holds its annual event, such
as Runge's July Fourth celebration or Kenedy's Bluebonnet Days. The
county's birthday is also celebrated.
"Once this year is over we will get started pushing tourism harder,"
Niestroy said. "We have a lot to offer - hunting, wildflowers,
birding and history."
The guest registries at the visitors center and the church show that
tourists have already started discovering the community. They list
addresses from throughout the United States as well as from Poland,
China, Australia and South Africa.
Work is under way to preserve as much of the history as possible -
Snoga's Store, which houses the small post office and a site of small
social gatherings; St. Joseph School; the convent; and the Pilarczyk
Sore where the visitors center is located.
The historical society is working on grants to help with the
restorations and to promote the town.
Work has begun to make the old St. Joseph school, the oldest private
Polish school in the U.S. into a museum. Kopecki remembered attending
the school, which became a public school around 1934 and closed in
1938 or 39. Plans also call for making the upstairs of the school -
where the nuns once lived - into a research center.
Niestroy said college students and people doing family genealogy work
visit the visitors center, but it is so crowded it is hard for them
as well as the local historians to do work there.
The convent has been converted into a bed and breakfast and is used
quite often, she said.
There is also interest in preserving some of the original homes, but
that is not as easy because they belong to private families.
Residents say there is a lot of work to be done to preserve their
cultures, and in keeping with the commitment of the residents the
work will be done.
"We were taught that it takes a lot of hard work to succeed and
that's what we teach our children," Perkins said. "You have to work
hard to get what you want in life."
Becky Cooper is regional editor for the Advocate. Contact her at 361-
574-1285 or bcooper@...