Beyond the Czech-ered Cloth

When it’s picnic season, tens of thousands of people have their hunger and souls satisfied at many Texas churches in communities with Czech lineage. Originally, parishioners would cook at home and bring food to the church to share, family-style. But the events have dramatically outgrown their quaint origins to become popular all-day outdoor events, successful fund-raisers and family and community reunions, all in one. Attendees look forward to a day full of delicious, authentically Czech foods, children’s games and ice cream, as well as live auctions, country stores, polka music and dancing. Some picnic coordinators have even found it necessary to create a “drive-through” lane so that hungry supporters who’ve traveled from nearby towns can easily pick up a plate (or two) of the popular food to take home!

The events are both religious and ethnic celebrations, and several have taken place annually since the late 19th century. “A church picnic is a community gathering, a homecoming for people, most of whom attend because of their Czech heritage,” says Carolyn Heinsohn, one of the founders of the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in La Grange. “There are other groups that may have picnics—but not like the Czechs.”

And even though the number of parishioners at many small, rural churches has been in decline, attendance at picnics continues to grow, as does community efforts to produce them. At the Vsetin Czech Moravian Brethren Church in Vsetin in Lavaca County, the average attendance at a Sunday service is 35, but at their fall picnic church members serve around 500 people. And the largest picnic in the state—in Praha in Fayette County—serves more than 5,000 people in a matter of hours, despite the fact that Praha’s population is so small that it’s listed as “unknown” on a local sign. 

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The picnics also serve as a strong force for maintaining the legacy of traditional Czech food. To feed this many people homemade food, a kind of apprenticeship program has arisen in most parishes. Older church members enlist the help of younger community members (many of whom are their children and grandchildren), who will eventually become the experts at preparing the items on the church’s menu and pass on their skills to younger members. Traditional foods, such as smoked sausage, “picnic” stew, homemade noodles and soup, sauerkraut, “Czech” potatoes, kolaches, strudel and more, become a part of the next generation’s heritage. Marla Sevcik, who’s in charge of much of the food preparation for the Vsetin church’s fall picnic, says, “It’s a lot of work, but a lot of good eating comes out of it.”

On the second weekend in July, the Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church in the community of Moravia in Lavaca County hosts its annual picnic to raise funds for the upkeep of the church, its halls and cemetery. Gene Marie Bohuslav has lived in the community her entire life and has helped cook fried chicken at the picnic for more than 50 years. Gene Marie’s father and cousin added the item to the menu in the mid-1950s, and even though the menu is exactly the same today, volunteers now fry as many as 6,000 pieces of chicken for the picnic. “Everybody gets together; you make new friends, then get reacquainted with them every year,” says Bohuslav. “There’s always harmony because everybody pitches in. And they have lots of fun, too.”

For St. Matthew Catholic Church’s Czech Day in Jourdanton near San Antonio, Susan Netardus (Jourdanton’s mayor) has been overseeing the making of sauerkraut for the event since 2010. Her nieces help her throughout the six-week process—cleaning the sauerkraut daily with fresh salted water, then cooking the sauerkraut the morning of the festivities. “Personally, and especially for people of Czech heritage,” says Netardus, “the picnics keep an old-fashioned way of life alive with the food, fellowship and music passed down from immigrants from the old country. I started by helping and learning from my Aunt Rita, and when she passed away, I took over. Now my nieces will be prepared to take over when I get too old. Got to keep the traditions going!” 

 

For Texas Czechs church picnic dates, visit polkabeat.com or call 281-836-5362.