Community, the WWII Homefront, and POW Art: The St. Mary's Project in Umbarger, Texas
St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Umbarger, Texas, has become a local historic mecca and landmark in the state. In 1945, Italian prisoners of war, who were housed at the WWII prisoner camp in nearby Hereford, decorated the interior of the church with paintings and carvings—what I am calling “the St. Mary’s Project” or SMP—making the church one of the rarest and most extensive examples of POW art in the United States. Not only did the artists leave their aesthetic mark on the region, and not only did the community of Umbarger leave an impression of kindness on the artists-POWs, but these two groups also built enduring connections. These prisoners and their families continued to return to the Umbarger church periodically over the last seven decades, where they were hosted as friends and even family by the Umbarger residents. While a few published sources have touched upon the Umbarger St. Mary’s Project, my thesis explores the project in various new contexts. It offers the first concentrated art historical analysis of the church decorations, claiming they are deeply connected to historical Italian art as well as modernist art and in dialogue with international and contemporary trends of mural art. Likewise, my work here examines the cross-cultural connections that emerged in the SMP, between an immigrant German-American community and Italian POWs. I aim to understand how an art project in rural America acted as a catalyst for the development of an unusual trans-national community during and after WWII.