Panhandle Spirit: WWII POW's connection to St. Mary's Church in Umbarger Part One

About 10 miles outside of Canyon, lies the little town of Umbarger and a unique connection that dates back more than 6 decades to some Italian prisoners of war that were captured in North Africa.

At Saint Mary's church, you can see these POW-Artists, the work they did and a very special project going on now.

It's a simple looking building from the outside, but go inside and prepared to be amazed.

But first, let's go back to World War II. At that time, McLean and Hereford were the two locations in the Panhandle with P-O-W camps. At the Hereford site, were housed a bunch of Italian prisoners captured in North Africa. And they were becomes famous for their artwork.

"What do men behind barbed wire do? They painted and they were doing paintings for the people of Hereford."

Jerri Gerber leads tours of the church and was there when the prisoners were recruited to come in and use their artistic talents to turn the plain bland walls into a series of masterpieces.

At that time, the only place to get those types of art supplies was---Sears and Roebuck. Paint was ordered, actually a couple times, until they got the right type, then the POW's got to work as artists.

They created home made templates and began to convert the church... even getting permission to use some local girls as models for a pair of angels along with some of the landscapes.

"They asked the nuns if the 2 girls could pose, and they said they would have to get the girls parent's permission. And they got it. And the murals here in the sanctuary if you look closely at the horizon, there's a little splash of color and one of those is my house. And so we have some of the community still here today," said Jerri.

For Father Daniel Dreher who came to Saint Mary's last September, it's been a real treat finding out about the history of the church.

"When you look it has no value, nothing you can put a monetary amount to it, but they brought a piece of themselves into the church., which is something we all do, and we see that as a priest, that they leave a piece of themselves. Kind of like a true panhandle spirit."

Jerri added, "They were happy, they enjoyed it and we were interested in them. They were foreigners, enemies, but they were just men."

And their picture hangs in the from annex to this day... a tribute to these prisoners who traded their talents for food with ever lasting effects.

Over the decades along with a fire in the 60's, the paintings have become faded and dull. And so more than a year ago, conservation and a complete restoration was started which is due to wrap up at the end of this month. We'll look at those efforts and how they're saving this amazing artwork with a church for a canvas, next time.