Quilt show weaves tapestry of faith in historic painted church

June 14, 2016

PLANTERSVILLE — When Father Ed Kucera's mother called him during his studies at seminary with the sad news that his childhood pet dog Pokey had died, he had just one request: save the quilt that kept Pokey warm in her doghouse.

Decades later, Father Kucera would enter that same quilt — appropriately called "Pokey's Quilt" — into the second annual St. Mary's Quilt Show at St. Mary Catholic Church in Plantersville, some 65 miles northwest of Houston where Father Kucera is pastor.

On a spring weekend in April, 190 hand-stitched quilts draped over the pews of St. Mary, forming a colorful exhibit of needle and thread that stitched together stories of fabric and faith. An estimated 1,600 people entered the historic Painted church's doors to see the quilts on display, according to Lorraine Nilson, one of the show's several lead volunteers.

Inspired by altar societies and their efforts to support the Church, Nilson set out to gather a diverse group of women to get behind the quilt show. Soon a flourishing community formed, and with Father Kucera's approval, dozens of women from different faiths and backgrounds met to iron out the details.

Unlike many other quilt shows, Nilson said St. Mary's is not a juried contest and both amateur to expert quilters were invited to enter. A visitor told Nilson that the event was one of the most unique shows she's attended because it was an inspiring example of beautiful quilts that are "do-able," in that someone with little to no quilting experience can craft something beautiful. Pointing at a pristine quilt, Nilson described possible flaws a judge might find in the fabric and stitching, "but this quilt is pretty perfect," she said laughing.

In a hallway bathed in Texas sunshine just outside the church sanctuary, two quilters worked on a community quilt. Linda Davis, a newer quilter, maneuvered her needle through the fabric while another quilter with more than 30 years of experience looked on.
"I have some quilts that need repair," Davis said. She wanted to learn how to repair them, how to stitch and hide the knots, the process of covering the tied knots that keep a quilt together.

"It's an art and it's relaxing," she said. "Just being able to get together with friends and talk about everything in life over stitches."

Nilson said they visit quilt guilds across Southeast Texas, from Baytown to Huntsville and Beaumont to Katy, asking quilters to share their talents with the Plantersville show. Though there was free admission, any proceeds from donations are given to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Built in 1894 on the edge of the Texas Hill Country's lush green rolling plains, St. Mary Catholic Church served Polish, Russian and German immigrant Catholics in the 1870s and 1880s in Central Texas, according to the Texas Historical Association.

In 1917, a fire razed the original church, Father Kucera said. At the quilt show, Pokey's Quilt sat beneath the church's original ambry, one of just four items rescued from the blaze. Two statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, as well as the Blessed Sacrament, also survived the flames.

Today, parishioners, visitors and quilters enjoy a recently restored sanctuary. In 2014, the church concluded a major restoration effort to bring back the traditional hand painted art that once graced the sanctuary. While repairing a few panels, an artist uncovered more and more original paintings beneath layers of more paint. The parish retained that artist, who continues to be the sole restoration artist.

Because of those efforts, St. Mary remains popular with tourists. Buses regularly visit the picturesque church grounds which feature a rainbow of flower gardens, a historic cemetery and updated facilities all surrounded by miles of verdant prairie.

Throughout the Hill Country, several other towns have their own Painted church, but Father Kucera said St. Mary is the closest to Houston. A tall faded ceiling panel in the choir loft showed the parish's original unrestored condition.

The light teal painted arches above on the ceiling hover like a blue sky over the wood pews, with the Sacred Heart of Jesus standing watch over the tabernacle on the painted faux-marble back altar. The People's Choice award-winning quilt covered the center altar, and a printed Stations of the Cross quilt hung from the ambo. Even the columns held a pair of quilts.

Many of the show's volunteers are members of the Stitchin' Sisters, a group of ladies from St. Mary Catholic Church and nearby St. Joseph Catholic Church, also a historic restored parish.

Margee Manning, a member of the quilting group and also a lead volunteer, said she appreciates the camaraderie of the ladies. The group has deep connections to the community and with each other since many are related. They exchange recipes, share tales from recent travels and some community news, a bit like the old country days of quilting bees, she said.

The ladies make three quilts, two for the parish bazaars and the other for the local fire department auction. Manning said though the group's numbers might be dwindling, she enjoys "the experience of being together" and "producing something that's very beautiful."

At the show, Anil Reddy and Sayani Biswas, a Hindu family from Spring, toted their 15-month-old toddler around the parish grounds to view the quilts. "We really enjoyed the quilts inside the church," she said. "And the church was so beautiful."

Even though she had no art background, aside some occasional painting, Biswas took an interest in quilting and started attending local quilting events in Houston, like the International Quilt Festival, which is the largest quilt show in the world. She hopes to make a quilt for her daughter in the future.

Inside the church, the hand-painted ceiling and walls seemed to shimmer from light that pierced the church's stained glass, reflecting the prism of colors from the triangles, stars and spectrum of other shapes stitched into the quilts draped on the pews below. 

Just like a pysanka, the vibrant hand-painted Eastern European Easter egg, Father Kucera said. German Catholics, who originated from Ukrainian Russia, were a portion of the parish's original community.

The quilters "use their talent in a very special way, almost creating, like re-creating God's handiwork by their stitches and doing their quilts," Father Kucera said. "There's a real creative spirit in that. And we're displaying them in the church: it's like we're displaying God handiwork too, working through man."

"Every quilt has a bit of a story."

Volunteer Patty Card agreed. She guided hundreds of visitors making their way up and down the church's aisles past the quilts. Like many others, she had never made a quilt, but she appreciates them: "The stories (of the quilts) are what are fun," she said.

Many people who visit St. Mary tell Father Kucera that they return because the church's architecture is familiar and comforting to them. The parish is like the church they grew up in when they were younger. "Father, I used to be a Catholic," they would tell him. "But this is such a beautiful church and I feel good here."

Father Kucera leaves the church's doors open into the evening, an evangelization effort to share the parish with the world. 

"It's a warm place," Father Kucera said. "The wood, the colors, the paintings all invite visitors and parishioners into a spirit of prayer. It's breathtaking."

Outside the church, a sign sits in front of Father Kucera's 1924 rectory: "Another day in paradise."

The next St. Mary's Quilt Show is set for April 28 and 29, 2017. For more, visit stmarysquiltshow.com.