The five charter buses had roared away a few minutes before, at 3 p.m. sharp, taking just about everybody in this tiny south Texas cow town off to San Antonio for a special meeting of the Pope and Polish-American Catholics.
In their haste, the departed had parked their pickups and cars Sunday in haphazard rows around Immaculate Conception, a Catholic church of white stucco that is the town's tallest structure, principal roadside attraction, and reason for being. The abandoned vehicles, empty streets and absolute quiet made Panna Maria seem a ghost town, and a stout breeze that kicked up from the river punctuated the effect.
The desertion, however, was not complete. A few townsfolk who were unable to make the 50-mile trip could be found a few doors down from the church at Henry's Place, where they would hole up for the rest of the afternoon sipping cans of Lone Star beer, watching the Dallas Cowboys battle the St. Louis Cardinals on television, and waiting for a miracle.
To be precise, they waited for the thumping of an approaching helicopter, a sign that all the prayers they said and all the votive candles they lit were to be rewarded: Pope John Paul II was dropping in for a visit.
"We've been plotting and praying about this ever since we heard he was coming to San Antonio," said Cindy Papieprzica, 30, who works at a bank in the nearby town of Nixon. "According to all the itineraries we've seen, he has about three hours of free time this afternoon and I don't see how he can avoid coming to this place. So we have been--I can't use the term betting--so, we have faith that he will come. Or at least fly over in his helicopter."
A little history might explain the conviction that possessed the Henry's crowd: As any one of a number of plaques and markers in this block-long town will tell you, Panna Maria--Polish for Virgin Mary--is the oldest Polish colony in the United States, and Immaculate Conception the oldest Polish-American parish.
The settlement and the church were born under an oak tree on Christmas Eve, 1854. Father Leopold Moczygemba had brought 100 Polish families in search of religious freedom from Krakow and Upper Silesia to Galveston, and then in wooden carts they came here. It was a difficult passage, and not all survived. Those who made it gathered under the oak and, as one historical marker says, "offered their first midnight Mass of thanksgiving and petition for peace and courage."
The church and the town both survived, gaining a purchase in the Texas brushland that is uncommon in this nomadic and ever-homogenizing nation. Direct descendants of Moczygemba's original pilgrims still live here, passing down stories of the journey from the old country and early troubles with the Indians, stories of how the original church was built with rocks hauled up from the river and how land was sold to the first settlers for 35 cents an acre. Everyone speaks Polish and life still revolves around the church. Even the original oak remains, although in a concession to age one of its enormous limbs has been propped up with a stone and timber pillar.
Still Alive at 91
"I was born here, I was baptized here and had all my sons here," said Mary Mika, 91, who lives directly across the street from the church. "I was married here and my husband died here. He built this house. This is the original floor. And I'm still living."
Known as Grandma Mika, this little old woman is a town fixture, sitting on her porch stoop with her brown dog as she watches what little traffic there is pass by and sells newspapers. She jingled coins in her hands as she spoke from a wheelchair. She seemed just a little impatient for the trip to begin. Across the street, under the very oak where the town and church began, people were beginning to gather for the bus ride into San Antonio.
Three hundred tickets out of a total of 1,000 had been given to the parish for the 8:30 p.m. meeting that was to be a loosely structured half an hour with the Pope. The abundance was something of a consolation. As the Pope's schedule was assembled, Panna Maria had lobbied hard to be placed on the itinerary. Townspeople wrote in Polish to the Pope himself, pleading with him to come, and for a time it looked as if he might.
"The Holy Father was supposed to come see Panna Maria, the oldest Polish parish in the United States," said Father Bernard Goebel, 82, Immaculate Conception's pastor for 19 years now. "There were going to be two days in San Antonio. But then they cut it to one day, and there was no time for Panna Maria."
260 Decide to Go
Instead, the entire parish was invited to come to the Pope. Two hundred and sixty people decided to make the trip, but 40 were forced to decline. Some were too old, some were too sick, and some gave their tickets to others they thought more worthy.
"We would like to go," Rosie Moczygemba Dugi said, green rosary beads at her side as she watched the Pope say Mass on television. "But I am not healthy. So we canceled."
Instead, she and her husband Alex would stay at home, awaiting reports from the others. If they were upset, they hid it well, contentedly telling stories about the early days of Panna Maria and what it was like to be Polish and living in Texas.
Outside, under the oak tree, the traveling party had assembled by 2 p.m., an hour early. Many wore Polish costumes. Some carried rosary beads and crucifixes to be blessed for those who could not make it. A few hardy old ones, like Grandma Mika, were pushed out in wheelchairs, ready to go. And several more kept scanning the blue Texas sky until the minute they climbed aboard their bus.
"A lot of people still think he is coming," explained 77-year-old Ben Lyssy, snappily costumed in a red vest and black bow tie.
San Antonio Bound
It was a festive hour of waiting, with the air of a town picnic. Finally, after the normal amount of confusion--and a bit of grumbling at the announcement that no beer would be allowed on board--the passengers were loaded and, with a police escort, the party rolled out, San Antonio-bound.
And at once, a town that moments before had seemed so remarkably alive, slackened and went dead. The dozen or so people at Henry's who had stood on the porch to wave goodby now drifted back inside.
"Now the Pope is going to come," Cindy Papieprzica said bravely. "You'll be sorry you're not here," she called out to the last bus in the convoy. She had married into her Polish name, and thus was not invited. Besides, she said, there were others she would have given her ticket to--if she had had one.
Also on Henry's porch was Wilbert Yosko, a 46-year-old rancher. He was of solid Panna Maria stock. His grandmother, he said, "was queen for the day sometime back in the 1890s," referring a reporter to a town history book that Henry Gawlik, operator of Henry's, sells for $5 to raise funds for the church. "You could look it up."
Yosko said he was staying behind to keep an eye on things.
'Pope Will Come Back'
"I'm not disappointed I got to stay back," he said, looking for all the world like a disappointed man. "Somebody has to keep watch on the houses with everyone gone. Besides, I'd rather the older people got to go. I'm still young. This Pope will come back one of these days, and I'll bet the next time he comes to Panna Maria, and I'll be here."
Papieprzica walked inside the church, knelt down and bowed her head in prayer. It was not necessary to ask what for. Alex and Rosie Dugi had stayed indoors during the preparations to leave, but now Alex could be seen sticking his head out the screen door, looking up somewhere. Yosko climbed into his pickup and, with two rifles racked inside the rear window, began his patrol.
An hour passed, then two, then three. Three times people came out to this reporter, writing on a picnic table under the town's historic oak, and asked, confidentially, if he wasn't really an undercover advance man for the Pope. He wished that he was.
It was now 7 p.m. The buses would have arrived in San Antonio and everyone from Panna Maria would be in their places. The breeze had turned into a wind and in Henry's, the ranks of the hopeful had dwindled by half. Outside, Grandma Mika's brown dog had the streets to himself.