Nov 18 2014

Old-timers in the St. Hedwig community remembered Elic as a singularly violent individual. He always carried a gun in his belt and a bullwhip tied to his saddle, but he preferred to use a knife. Elic’s specialty was a direct approach, a disarming grin, a quick slash to the face or neck, and a lot of blood. Some compared him to an approaching cyclone; the mesmerized spectator became a victim before he felt the need to flee.

A visit to old Bexar County east of San Antonio, Texas reveals numerous historic churches. They were the places where the first European settlers congregated to worship, socialize and often govern themselves.

Historians write about the immigrants and their communities being shaped by their new experiences as they were assimilated into the evolving American community. Churches, however, are treated as institutions largely unchanged by these experiences, the foundation of morality and values upon which the country was built. 

To accept this understanding is to ignore the obstacles that churches overcame to maintain relevance to their followers on the frontier. For the Roman Catholic Church its transplantation from the autocratic traditions of Europe into the democratic traditions of the new world presented challenges. The adaptation of this ancient institution to the realities of an emerging democracy on the frontier of Texas is a story largely untold.

And so in 1881, as Count Ladislas Tyszkiewicz adjusted his Roman collar he looked forward to another day in Texas tending to what he believed to be his flock of Silesian peasants. Count Ladislas, a descendant of the prominent Tyszkiewicz family, was proud of his heritage and declared his elevated status to all who would listen. The San Antonio newspapers wrote of his royal status and celebrated Father Tyszkiewicz as a person of true quality and education; a nobleman.

The Tyszkiewicz family's roots are in Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine. During the 18th and 19th century they played a prominent role in European politics and culture. Their wealth was often associated with the Amber Road that transported Baltic Amber to the interior of Europe. Their palace in Palanga, Lithuania is an "Amber Museum". 

The Count had first traveled to the US with a valet and entourage in 1874. In May of 1877, Count Tyszkiewicz wrote from Paris to Dominic Pellicer, the new bishop of San Antonio requesting a position in his South Texas dioceses. Shortly after 1877, he arrived in Texas. Upon his arrival in San Antonio he was assigned to the village of St. Hedwig in east Bexar County. The Count was the epitome of the autocratic traditions that the Silesians of St. Hedwig fled the Prussian empire to avoid.

The sons of nobility, who were not first in line to inherit, were usually expected to find a place in the military or join the clergy. Count Ladislas had become Father Ladislas and found his way to the Texas frontier.