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LONGTIME MEMBER PROFILE: Saints Peter and Paul Mission

0617
 2014


A recent monthly Mass at Saints Peter and Paul Mission in Kovar begins with the Rev. Pius T. Mathew and altar server Christopher Blaschke entering the church. The small church, near Smithville, was founded in 1906.  (Jay Godwin photo)

by Ed Crowell 

Once a month, Alfred Hellinger drives his truck up to the back door of a little white church nestled amid tall oaks 15 miles south of Smithville. He hurriedly readies the inside for a visiting Catholic priest and a scattered congregation whose Czech forebears first farmed this community they named Kovar in the late 1800s. 
 
Thirty minutes later he tugs the ropes to three tower bells that ring out for the start of Mass at Saints Peter and Paul Mission. Some 45 people take seats in two rows of pine pews under a ceiling painted sky blue. 
 
It’s time for blessings, prayers and remembrances of those who are buried behind the church and at another, older Catholic cemetery nearby. 
 
“Continuity” is the word Edwin and Donna Zimmerhanzel use to describe why it’s important to keep the church open. It was founded in 1906 and is used for just one Mass a month. 
 
Edwin’s mother and father were married here in 1935. Zimmerhanzel grave markers are prominent in the well-maintained cemetery. 
 
Kovar, an unincorporated patchwork of ranches and small farmhouses off Texas 95, has fewer than 100 residents. The church is a solid touchstone for generations descended from immigrants in search of better lives and land they could own. Several of the Zimmerhanzels’ grown grandchildren and great-grandchildren have come for the noon Mass. At the close of the service, great-grandson Zachary Kirby of Smithville is called to the altar by the Rev. Pius Thekkevayalil Mathew to recognize his 15th birthday. 
 
Father Pius is the pastor of St. Paul Parish in Smithville, which oversees the Kovar mission church. He is from India, where such traditions in old buildings are not so revered, he said. 
 
“I’m so happy that the people here want to keep this church. It’s an emotional attachment for them. Americans are more history minded than we Indians,” he said. Not every pastor in the parish has been so supportive of the Kovar church, which was built in 1921 at 301 Stolle Lane after the original building in another location was lost to what is believed to have been a fire. 
 
In 1988, the church was closed by the Austin-based Catholic diocese, which cited the difficulties of sending a priest to say Mass for so few people. A plan was announced in 1992 to move the church building 50 miles north to Lexington. 
 
That news spurred into action families who long ago moved elsewhere — to Bastrop, Fayette and Caldwell counties and beyond. They treasured the church as a generational heirloom. Edwin Zimmerhanzel, who lives in nearby Muldoon, and Houston resident Jim Psencik led the protest along with the late Kovar resident Mary Ann Nutt. 
 
With a petition signed by 600 people, they vowed to support the church by raising money for insurance and arranging upkeep. The diocese relented and eventually re-opened Saints Peter and Paul. Today, the shimmering white altar trimmed in gold leaf and flanked by statues of the two apostles is lit by Hellinger for monthly Mass. The church doesn’t have air conditioning, but it has had electric service from Bluebonnet since 1940. 
 
The church is also opened for special events: baptisms, weddings or funerals. Families drive miles for these events, followed, perhaps, by a stroll into the cemetery. There’s no hall for coffee or visiting, but it’s more than enough that they are able to bring younger generations to see their history reflected in this little church that stood its ground. 
 
Throughout 2014, we spotlighted some of Bluebonnet’s earliest commercial accounts, which continue to get their power from the co-op. 

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