The Wendish Research Project

This story by Ed Erwin of Spring, a free-lance photographer and writer, first appeared in the Houston Chronicle Texas magazine on May 12, 2002.

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It’s hard to imagine a bride choosing a black wedding dress, but this was one of the customs practiced young women married in the Wendish Lutheran church in the mid-1800s.

Fortunately, the custom of wearing black to remind the new bride of the grief and hardships of married life ahead has given way to traditional white, says Barbara Hielscher, museum director of the Texas Wendish Heritage Museum in Serbin, five miles southwest of Giddings between Houston and Austin.

The museum complex in the historical town, population 90, tells the history of the Wendish culture through displays of artifacts, documents and relics from Europe and Texas.

The Texas Wendish Heritage Society operates the museum.

According to the history presented at the museum, the words hardship, oppression and endurance are often used to describe the life of Wends, or Sorbs, as they were known in Europe. Their roots date to the 10th century as descendants of Slavic tribes that occupied much of Central Europe.

During the Middle Ages the Wends survived raids and massacres by Germanic Eastland horsemen. By the 19th century the Wends had been decimated by conquest and pressured to assimilate into the Germanic culture.

Often discriminated against, they we restricted to segregated areas of cities and denied land ownership. In 1840 they occupied only a small section of land called Lusatia, south of Berlin along the River Spree.

As a group, the Wends have never had an independent nation.

Beginning in the early 1800s the Prussians insisted that the Wends drop their native language, speak only German and begin Germanizing their names. Although many of the Wends were skilled artisans, they were denied admission to professional guilds and, if allowed to work at all, they received less pay than their German counterparts.

During this period, agrarian-reform laws of the Prussians deprived the Wends of their property, which effectively left them at the mercy of their feudal Prussian lords.

The Calvinist ruler of Prussia then attempted to create the state-regulated Protestant Evangelical Reform Church by combining Lutherans and Calvinists into a single church – thus requiring the Wends to abandon their Lutheran faith.

Their protest led to the formation of a devout and conservative group of Lutherans who built their own church and drew up a constitution setting forth a plan to migrate as a group to a new land for the practice of their conservative evangelical Lutheran religion. The congregation called upon the Rev. Jan Kilian to lead them and organize the immigration to the New World.

A portion of the museum in Serbin is dedicated to Kilian, whose leadership was crucial to the colony’s survival. Today he is regarded as the founding patriarch of Texas-Wendish Lutheranism. Highly educated, Kilian not only wrote Wendish prayer books, sermons, poetry and hymns, he also could converse in Wendish, German, English and Latin. Memorabilia from the Kilian family home and his first church are exhibited at the museum.

On Sept. 11, 1854, Kilian and a group of 558 Wends left their homes and loved ones and began a journey bound for Central Texas and the formation of a new Wendish colony.

Shortly after embarking from Liverpool, England, on the sailing ship Ben Nevis in the fall of 1854, several of the Wends contracted cholera. Seventy-three members of the congregation died of the disease, leaving several orphans, widowers and widows with small children. After a three-week layover in Ireland, to fumigate the ship and remove the sick, they set sail again for their new home. They arrived in Galveston on Dec. 15, 1854, just as yellow fever was raging through the island port community. Although many of the Wends contracted the disease, only one died before they could flee the island.

A replica of the Ben Nevis, along with luggage and other period artifacts brought on their voyage to Texas are on display at the museum.

In March 1855 the immigrants, having traveled 80 miles inland by foot and oxcart, reached their new homeland along the banks of Rabbs Creek near Giddings. The winter had been harsh, food was scarce, they had arrived too late in the spring planting season for a decent crop, and the area endured a severe drought for the next two years.

Despite the hardships, the Wends divided 4,254 acres of colony lands, setting aside 95 acres for a church, and began

clearing the virgin land and constructing one-room log cabins and crude dugouts. For the next several years the Wends adapted to new ways of farming and ranching in Texas, which was warmer and drier than their former home in Germany. Corn was the staple of their early diet and was raised as a cash crop.

Within five years the Wends had constructed the first Wendish Lutheran church. It was formally dedicated on Christmas Day 1859. Kilian delivered a sermon extolling the virtues of democracy and the value of separation of church and state. The sermon was delivered in Wendish, German and English.

Next to the museum is St. Paul Lutheran Church, built by the Wends in 1871. Known as one of the Painted Churches of South Central Texas, it has a wood­plank ceiling painted sky blue and hand­stenciled with decorative borders. The two-story church has an unusual wrap­around balcony and a balcony-level pulpit.

Outdoor exhibits at the museum complex include two long buildings and farming equipment. An 1856 log room originally built by the Kurio family as part of a dog-trot house is furnished as a bedroom.

The old St. Paul School building houses relics from Europe and Texas. Exhibits are arranged to represent a period schoolroom, kitchen, bedroom and living area.

Along with artifacts from Kilian and the Ben Nevis, the main building has displays of folk dress in Lusatia, traditional Texas wedding dresses and beautiful Wendish Easter eggs.

HOW TO GET THERE: The Texas Wendish Heritage Museum in Serbin is about 100 miles northwest of Houston. Take U.S. 290 to Giddings. Serbin is about five miles southwest on FM 2239.

The museum is open 1-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. Admission costs $1 for nonmembers; children younger than 14 get in free. For information and to request a tour brochure, write Texas Wendish Heritage Museum, 1011 CR 212, Giddings, TX 78942; e-mail wendish@bluebon.net; call 979-366-2441; or fax 979-366-2805.

Groups wishing to tour the museum can arrange for a Wendish luncheon that includes sausage, sauerkraut, homemade Wendish noodles, beets, dill pickles, homemade bread and butter, tea and coffee, and a fruit dessert. Lunches require advance reservation, and prices vary with group size.

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