St. Mary’s Catholic Church
Madonna on the Plains
The Texas Panhandle contains a wide array of interesting places, each reflecting a unique population, history, and culture. Much like the native flora and fauna, these places are often camouflaged, blending into their humble communities amid the vast arid landscape of the Great Plains region. I recently happened upon such a place in a small community called Umbarger located on Hwy 60 between Canyon and Hereford.
Representative of the many small communities scattered along the regions travel-worn highways, Umbarger is tiny and unassuming. Only the most perceptive of travelers would look twice as they blew past, and only the utmost curious might bother to stop. I wish I could say I was one such traveler, but alas, I spent decades driving past the community on my way to Canyon or Amarillo. It became so much a part of my familiar landscape that in many ways I stopped seeing it entirely. The community became more or less invisible to my adapted eyes, a mere signpost in my commute.
Over the years I had heard talk of something special there. Indeed, I had even stopped once or twice to patron the community’s famous Rafter G restaurant—a delightful establishment which serves up barbecue or catfish buffets. But, I was always too rushed or too busy to stop and investigate. And so my curiosity built over time as I heard more people talk about this special church in Umbarger. It wasn’t until I offered to give a fellow student a day tour of the North West portion of the Panhandle that I finally blazed a trail—a whole three blocks from the highway—to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Umbarger.
Established in 1910, St. Mary’s Parish serves as Umbarger’s only place of worship. The current structure was built in 1929, and like the community it serves, the church’s exterior is simple and unassuming. However, upon entering the interior, visitors are accosted by an unexpected and stunning display of colorful murals, carvings, statues, and stained glass.
You might wonder what’s so special about a beautifully decorated church. After all, there are certainly no shortages of beautiful churches, cathedrals, mosques etc. across the globe.What makes St. Mary’s especially unique is that the church’s beautiful adornments were created by Italian Prisoners of War during World War II. The prisoners were captured and held at a POW camp close to Umbarger where they were fed only enough to survive. The intricate patterns ornamenting the walls were hand painted along with the beautiful murals and statues in exchange for extra food.
In many ways St. Mary’s perfectly reflects the unique convergences of history and culture possible in the Texas plains. For me, this sentiment is best reflected in one of the murals. The painting’s focus is a classic depiction of the Madonna. However, beyond her figure, one sees a background of sprawling plains beneath blue sky. In this painting the artist brings together three separate cultures: his Italian culture is represented in the execution of the oil painting itself, the Madonna figure represents a prevailing commonality in the form of the catholic faith, while the simple people of Umbarger are reflected in a tiny farm house seen in the distant landscape. A photograph of the mural has not been included as the parish retains the right to copy the image.
This painting, along with the other masterpieces present in St. Mary’s, effectively changed the way I have hitherto looked at the Umbarger community, and the Texas Panhandle in general. There are so many beautiful sights to see and stories to hear for those willing to look!
To avoid any real spoilers and to encourage those who have never visited St. Mary’s, I will refrain from detailing the church’s most special highlights and stories. I leave that in the capable hands of the parish volunteers who happily conduct public tours for donations! As mentioned before, Umbarger is also home to the Rafter G—a restaurant and bar that serves up catfish on Thursdays and barbecue on Friday’s and Saturdays. An afternoon visit to the church followed by dinner would make an ideal weekend outing. Tourist or local, I encourage anyone in the area to visit this Panhandle gem!