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St. Joseph Catholic Church Book
Photos (from left to right): St Joseph Church member Jim Mazurkiewicz plays the accordion in a Polish band; poses with flags representing Poland, Texas A&M and the State of Texas, with Polish and American associates in Warsaw; and receives the Polish Medal of Merit from Polish President Andrzej Duda


Jim Mazurkiewicz: The Pride of Poland


Those who know Jim Mazurkiewicz best know well the man’s passion for his Polish ancestry. A member of St. Joseph Catholic Church since 1986 and a longtime employee of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Jim describes himself first and foremost as a “fifth-generation Polish-American.” An online search pairing Jim’s name with “Poland” reveals a plethora of web pages detailing his ties to the motherland, although he himself was born and raised in Texas.

And if you dig deep enough on the Internet, you can find Jim’s answer to the pressing matter of “Why I play Polish folk music.”

“Because of my grandparents.” he told the Polish American Council of Texas for an article about the subject first published in August of 2013. Jim currently serves and has served as that group’s President for a number of years.

“They were simple people making a living off the land as did their parents and every generation that came before them,” Jim says. “My grandparents (Stefan and Franciszka Mazurkiewicz) were the first generation to be born in the United States…Chappell Hill, Texas to be exact. Neither of them finished elementary school or spoke English but were two of the most influential people in my life. When their parents—my great grandparents—and my great-great grandparents–came to Texas in the 1880’s, they came with little or nothing except the customs and traditions of their homeland to begin a new life in a new land.

“One of those treasures was the music they brought from memory because none of them could read music, but (all) were gifted and talented musicians. We play this music today to honor those that came before us because they took a chance in coming to another country so that we could have a better life free of oppression and persecution. My grandparents, especially my grandmother Franciszka, taught me to be proud of my heritage and not to be embarrassed to be Polish.”

Those words aptly describe the feelings of pride Jim shares with a number of long-time St. Joseph Church members of Polish, Czech, Italian, French, German, Mexican, Vietnamese, and Cuban descent. However, since Jim Mazurkiewicz has taken his ethnic heritage and woven it so deeply into both his personal and professional lives, his story is deserving of closer examination.

When Jim sat for his first interview for this story, he was asked to talk a little about his childhood and where he grew up. Nearly 30 minutes later, in response to that one single question, Jim had covered the gamut of the 67 years of his life story. Included were details about his parents; his early education in Catholic schools; his pursuit of three degrees from Texas A&M University; his career as a county extension agent; his return to College Station at the age of 40; as well as how, where, and why Polish people came to settle in Central Texas.

Let’s review Jim’s own personal story first.

“Both of my parents, Pete and Pauline Mazurkiewicz, were born and raised in the Chappell Hill area of Washington County, Texas,” Jim says. “As teenagers, they both moved to Houston, but I think they may have met when they made weekend trips back to Chappell Hill. They were both regulars at the Brazos Riverside Hall where Polish music was a popular staple for the young crowd which gathered there.”

Jim doubts either of his parents would have considered marrying someone outside of the Catholic faith who also was not a Pole. Back then, cultural ties were especially strong. When the time came for Pete and Paula to tie the knot, they did so where both families had longstanding ties: at St. Stanislaus Church back home in Chappell Hill. Jim’s great-great-grandfather served on the first council for the Chappell Hill parish and had played a role in fundraising to build the first small wooden church, which was dedicated in 1894. Since both of Jim’s parents had been living and working in Houston before getting married, that’s where they settled as newlyweds. In 1955, just a year after getting married, their first son, Jim, was born in the Heights area north of downtown Houston.

Growing up in the Heights, many of Jim’s friends shared his Polish roots. The Heights was home to a vibrant Polish enclave, but by the time Jim was old enough to start school, his father didn’t want his son educated in the “big city.” The Mazurkiewicz’s moved back to Chappell Hill, although Jim’s dad remained with his Houston employer. Jim entered first grade at St. Stanislaus School.

“I was actually too young to start school when we moved to Chappell Hill,” Jim says today, “but the priest made an exception because the school needed tuition money. He told my mom, ‘If he doesn’t make it the first time, we’ll just send him back through.’”

Jim and his nine fellow first-grade students at St. Stanislaus all spoke a mixture of Polish and English. “We didn't know any different because that's how we were hearing it at home,” Jim says.

During Jim’s second-grade year, father Pete moved the family back to Houston. “The commute from Chappell Hill was killing him,” Jim remembers. The  Mazurkiewicz’s moved to the northwest side, closer to where Jim’s father worked. Jim attended another parochial school, “where most of the kids also spoke Polish.”

Jim attended yet another school to start third grade when his father again moved the family, this time for good, to Waller County. It was there that Jim completed his primary and secondary education in public schools.

As a high school senior, Jim applied for and was accepted to Texas A&M University. In the process, he learned something interesting about himself.

“When I took my SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) to gain college admittance,” Jim says, “I did very poorly in English, barely a minimum score. But my math was almost 90 percent. I was very good at math and the sciences, and that's what got me into A&M, plus I was in the top ten percent of my class at Waller High School. But when I started classes at Texas A&M, I had to take remedial English because I came from an ‘uneducated’ background, a bilingual background.”

In fact, Jim says his father never learned to read or write in English. It was this “handicap” that led to his decision to join his family’s livestock production pursuits in Waller County. That experience also impacted Jim’s life at A&M.

“I got involved in the meat-judging teams at school,” Jim says, “and that turned my life completely around. When I got started, there were 29 people on the team, and I was the worst one of the bunch. By the time I was a senior, I earned top honors at four different national competitions. That built my confidence and self-esteem.’

After Jim graduated, he took a job in Chicago as a meat grader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As it turned out, many of his co-workers also came from Polish backgrounds. “My conversational Polish was so good that a lot of the folks there thought I was a recent immigrant instead of a fifth-generation Texan,” a recollection Jim laughs about today. Soon, he realized he wanted to teach, and less than a year after landing in Chicago, Jim returned to College Station to begin work on the post-graduate degrees he would need to become a professor of meat science.

Those plans were sidetracked when Jim was offered a job as an assistant agent for the Texas A&M County Extension program. The extension network is a key component of A&M’s land-grant heritage and mission, and dates back more than a hundred years, “delivering innovative science-based solutions and education at the intersection of health, agriculture, and environment in communities across the state,” according to today’s Texas A&M AgriLife Extension website. For the next 20 years after his return to Texas from Chicago, Jim provided agricultural outreach in Guadalupe, Knox, Ector, and Brazos Counties, earning numerous accolades and honors along the way. He and his wife, Kathy, and their three children moved back to the Bryan/College Station area when he was named Brazos County Extension Agent in February of 1986. The family became members of St. Joseph Church.

“Kathy's not Polish, but she is Catholic, and when we got married we had the traditional three-day Polish celebration in Chappell Hill. I was the first one in my family not to marry a Polish girl–Kathy is of mixed Irish, Welsh, and English descent–and my grandmothers were a little upset that I had married outside ‘the clan.’”

Now, let’s let Jim turn his attention to one of his favorite subjects: the immigration of ethnic Poles to Central Texas, and in specific, the Brazos Valley.

“If you go back and read Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin,” Jim says of how language changes with time, “Americans today don't speak like our founding fathers did. Depending on whether one grew up in the Northeast, South, or Midwest, many of us today speak in different dialects. The same thing holds true in Poland. There are five different dialects.

“What's interesting about the St. Joseph Catholic Church parish here in Bryan, most of the Polish people that are here were from the Galacia, which was ruled in the 19th century as part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empires. At the time of the immigration, when the Poles came to the Brazos Valley between 1867 and 1880, Poland was divided by three large empires.

“The immigration papers for those people said they were either Austrian, Russian, or Prussian. People today in this community that don't understand Polish and European history will swear up and down that they are German, or Austrian, or even Russian, when actually there ancestors were ethnic Poles at a time when their native lands were occupied by one of the three large empires which existed at that time in Central Europe.”

Today, Jim Mazurkiewicz is the leadership program director for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, a Regents Fellow, and a Texas A&M University professor in the Department of Agriculture Leadership, Education & Communications (he successfully pursued both his Master’s and PhD degrees while working as a county extension agent). In his current Extension Service duties, he is responsible for The Texas Agricultural Lifetime Leadership (TALL) program, the San Antonio Livestock Exposition – Leadership Extension (SALE-LE) program, the TALL Emerging Leaders Program–which includes a robust study abroad program, and Extension international outreach.

Small wonder Jim has visited Poland more than 30 times since his first trip there in 2002. In addition, he’s helped exchange more than 900 people between Poland and Texas–and he estimates that more than a hundred of those individuals have been guests in his and Kathy’s home. (A tornado destroyed that home in 2019, and fundraising efforts to help the Mazurkiewicz’s rebuild included countless donations from associates, friends, and acquaintances living in Poland.)

So yes, Jim’s become a pretty big deal in the homeland of his ancestors. Thanks to his efforts, which began with his first visit to Poland in 2002, he’s significantly helped to bolster Poland’s agricultural economy. In 2016, Jim was awarded the the Medal of the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit from the Republic of Poland by then Polish President Andrzej Duda during an Agro-Gala ceremony held in the gardens of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw. The medal–one of five Jim has received from Polish authorities–represents the highest honor which can be given to a non-citizen of the country. According to a story on the AgriLife Today website, “…(t)he award recognizes his leadership for building international agricultural cooperation between Poland and the U.S., and promote the Polish economy and partnership development domestically.”

Continuing, the AgriLife Today story says, “Mazurkiewicz has organized several key visits to Texas and Texas A&M University involving U.S. and Poland politicians, entrepreneurs, farmers, and scientists to learn more about agricultural production and its economy in the Lone Star State.”

And, frequently, those visits include an invitation from Jim for his guests to attend Mass at St. Joseph Church.

In October of 2021, Jim received an honorary doctorate from Poland’s Szkoła Główna Gospodarstwa Wiejskiego, the nation’s premiere school for farming and agriculture, for his continuing efforts to bolster collaboration between his ancestral home and the U.S..

As for his volunteer efforts at St. Joseph Catholic Church, if a Polka band has played at the parish in the past 30 years or more, Jim Mazurkiewicz either arranged for their appearance…or joined in with the band.

“As my great grandparents would say, ‘They did not leave Poland, they left the oppression of Prussia and still were Polish at heart, but also proud to be Americans.” I cannot remember an event or celebration that did not have Polish music. This was part of our culture and to this day it survives in the music I play with my friends and cousins of Polish descent.

“In the last (few) years, I formed a group, ‘Polska Kapela (Polish Band),’ and we play our Polish folk music inherited from our ancestors for anniversaries, Polish Catholic Church festivals, and other events in Bryan, across the Brazos Valley, and throughout Texas.

“I am proud of my Polish heritage and have been blessed to be touched by so many friends and relatives. Some of the most important gifts in life cannot be bought or sold but are given to one another through love and inspiration.”