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« Texans Locate Heritag… | Home | Beginning a Report on… »

Texas Wends - Small ethnic group struggling to hang on to its rich heritage

Wednesday 30 September 2015 at 03:54 am.

This article by Paul McKay first appeared in the Bryan-College Station Eagle, Saturday, July 24, 1982.

Note: The Wends bought their parcel of land called the Delaplain League for $1/acre not 50 cents.

Note: The town of Serbin was developed by Carl Lehman.

Texas Wends aren't as famous as the Pennsylvania Dutch, or as visible as the Cajuns in Louisiana.

But the Wends are one of the state's oldest and smallest ethnic groups. They came to Texas in the 1850s from a homeland in Germany, fearing that their ethnic culture - which included their own language - would vanish. Ironically, their ethnic ways have all but disappeared in America.

Sitting in the general store in Serbin, near Giddings, a stranger can't distinguish the Wends at the domino table from the Germans or the Irish or any other ethnic descendants.

But Serbin, Warda, Winchester and Loebau - Lee County villages located within a 12-mile radius of Giddings all form an American counterpart to a loosely defined region in East Germany called Lusatia, the fatherland of all of the world's Wends.

The world has anywhere from 100,000 to a half million Wends, depending on whose guess one accepts. In light of all the intermarriage and dispersal of Wendish people, no one can say how many Wends are in Texas or Lee County or Serbin, a burg made up of the store, a historical marker and a few homes.

One mile from Serbin, down a farm-to-market road that winds past heavily-wooded, oil-rich farms, is yet another Wendish community. It doesn't have a name, but it's the site of a Wendish museum, cedar-shaded picnic grounds, a parochial Wendish school and St. Paul's Lutheran Church.

St. Paul's is a beauty. It was completed in 1871 by Wendish settlers, and many of its original features - homemade pews in a balcony, floor pews made in St. Louis, gilded chandeliers and a pulpit some 20 feet above the floor - are all intact.

The Lutheran Church has always been the dominant force in Wendish culture. It was a Lutheran preacher and scholar, the Rev. Johann Kilian, who led the Wendish migration from Lusatia to Central Texas.

The Wends were descended from a group of Slavic tribes. They had developed their own language and occupied much of central Europe by the 10th century, but conquests and assimilation steadily reduced their population. By the 1800s they were a distinct minority, concentrated in a small wooded area on the River Spree.

Their migration to Texas was impelled largely by heavy-handed Prussian rule and discrimination. They were paid less for their field labor than their German countrymen, and they were dispossessed of their properties through reform laws.

Prussians also insisted that Wends speak the German language and take German names, but the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was a requirement that Lutheran Wends join the Evangelical Reform churches in one, state controlled Protestant body.

The Wends believed the mandate would dilute their pure Lutheran faith, and rather than accept it, they formed a separate Lutheran congregation and made plans to migrate. Some Wendish groups had already migrated to Australia, while others had trickled into Texas, sending back glowing reports of conditions there.

On the first week of September 1954, 588 Wends traveled to Liverpool, England, and boarded the three masted Ben Nevis, a ship bound for Texas. Kilian, like Moses leading his people to the Promised Land, warned, that hardships awaited them.

The warning was prophetic - they experienced the first of many tragedies before they reached Ireland, as 15 boarders got cholera. Their ship was quarantined for three weeks in Queenstown, where another 23 died from cholera. Another 18 died at sea after the ship finally launched, bound for Galveston, on Oct. 22, 1854.

The Wends were greeted on the Gulf Coast by yet another scourge - yellow fever. Though many fell ill, only one victim succumbed to the fever, leaving a total of 531 surviving Wendish immigrants.

In January 1855 they moved inland to Lee County, where riders had located a desirable place to settle. The Wends bought a league of land for 50 cents and acre and dug in for the remainder of winter in dug-outs and log cabins. They set aside 95 acres of land for a church and school, constructed a temporary parsonage-school-church, and established their town of Serbin a mile to the northwest.

In 1871 they dedicated the present church building, built at a cost of $5,000. The building has a stark, sandstone exterior, topped by a tower and a weathervane steeple. A metal ball bulging from the steeple's middle contains a history, written by Kilian, of the Wendish journey from Europe to Serbin.

Kilian's church was Missouri Synod Lutheran, the most conservative branch of that denomination. Kilian joined the synod in his first year in Texas, when he traveled to St. Louis for a national meeting.

At home he always laid down strict rules for church decorum, including those adopted by the membership in 1866:

- It is forbidden for men to wear hats during the worship;

- It is not permissible to smoke a pipe or chew tobacco in the church building;

- It is forbidden to carry six-shooters or any weapon in church;

- It is not permissible for anyone to leave the church during worship;

- It is not permissible to laugh as though in sport in front of the church door or window;

- It is not permissible to comb or arrange hair during worship;

- It is forbidden to enter the parsonage without permission, while the pastor is in church.

Originally, men of the church sat in the homemade pews in the balcony, while the women looked up to the Rev. Kilian - and to their husbands from the St. Louis pews below.

The view from inside hasn't changed much. The walls and ceilings are bright blue, with ornate stenciling around wooden pillars that are covered with feather painting.

The chandeliers are the original fixtures, converted from kerosene to electricity. An ornate baptismal font, made by the early settlers, stands near the altar.

A painting of the Ben Nevis, the ship that brought the original settlers, hangs on one side of the rear door. the other sides has photographs of the six pastors who have succeeded Kilian.

When electric power fails, St Paul's ushers take turns hand-pumping the hand-pump blower on the balcony's blue-gray pipe organ - a musical relic installed in 1904, on the church's 50th anniversary.

According to Evelyn Kasper, coordinator of the Wend Museum, churches in the Wendish homeland also have impressive pipe organs.

Kasper toured the East German region last spring and was surprised to learn that the communist government allows the Wends so much religious freedom. The church doors are open, she says, for any Wend who wishes to step inside.

Kasper, whose great-grandfather rode the Ben Nevis to Galveston, is a sort of a jack-of-all-trades. For 20 years she worked in a law office, having resigned to pursue a variety of civic and personal interests. Though she receives no pay as overseer of the museum, she approaches that responsibility with vigor.

"I'm sold on it," she says of the museum. ''I'm afraid it's all going to be lost."

"It," loosely interpreted, is the Wendish culture, the Wendish heritage, the Wendish identity. It's all been vanishing since Wends started dispersing throughout Lee County, Fayette County, and Williamson County, and eventually into all parts of Texas and the U.S.

It's been slipping away since the Serbin school stopped teaching the Wendish language in 1920, and since the last Wendish sermon was preached at the church anniversary - that was in '29.

The only things binding Wends together, aside from a strong Lutheran faith, are annual picnics and a non-profit group called the Texas Wendish Heritage Society.

The society was formed as the Wendish Culture Club in 1971 so that Wends could participate in the annual Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio. It has about 300 members from all parts of Texas. Last year St. Paul's leased the society two former school buildings to house the museum. (The new parochial Serbin school is Iocted beside the church. The school last year had 60 students in eight grades. Not all students are Wendish.)

The main museum building is being refurbished as money becomes available, but the smaller building is already packed with pictures, costumes and just about anything, from old wooden shoes to new and old books of Wendish origin.

Evelyn Kasper opens the museum doors every Sunday at 1p.m. and stays until closing time at 5. [The museum is open every day from 1-5 except Mondays, Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving.]

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