Panna Maria is on a plateau near the junction of the San Antonio River and Cibolo Creek where Farm roads 81 and 2724 meet, four miles north of Karnes City and fifty-five miles southeast of San Antonio in central Karnes County. It claims distinction as the oldest permanent Polish settlement in America and as the home of the nation's oldest Polish church and school. In 1852 a young Franciscan missionary, Father Leopold Moczygemba, arrived in Texas to minister to German parishes in New Braunfels and Castroville. Soon he was writing his fellow Poles urging them to leave the harsh economic conditions and Prussian domination of Upper Silesia and join him in thriving Texas. In September 1854 the first group of immigrants, which included four of Moczygemba's brothers, traveled by train to Bremen, by ship to Galveston, and by foot and rented Mexican oxcart to San Antonio, to the waiting Father Moczygemba, who escorted them to the site he had chosen for their colony. Contemporary estimates of the number of these original settlers vary from 150 to 800. A few had died at sea, more on the landward trek, and some had dropped out as they passed through Texas communities along the way; one group chose to settle at Bandera. Three months after beginning their journey, the much-reduced party of settlers arrived at what was soon to be called Panna Maria, meaning "Virgin Mary." It was Christmastime, and Father Moczygemba and the settlers celebrated a Christmas Mass of thanksgiving in their new home of tall grass, live oaks, mesquite, and rattlesnakes. The land belonged to an Irishman, John Twohig, who sold it at an inflated price to the newcomers. With church funds Moczygemba purchased 238 acres, set aside twenty-five acres for a church, and parceled out the remainder to those who could not afford to buy farms.
The settlers built a church and consecrated it on September 29, 1856, began to replace their thatched-roof huts with stone houses, welcomed three more Polish immigrant groups, began St. Joseph's School in a barn, and established a post office. Snakes, malaria, grasshoppers, droughts, floods, and marauders plagued them. In discouragement and anger they turned against Father Moczygemba, who left Texas and spent most of the remainder of his life in the northern United States. He died in Michigan and was buried in Detroit. In 1974 Panna Marians had him reinterred under the same live oak tree where he had said Christmas Mass in 1854; there they erected a monument honoring him as the "Patriarch of American Polonia."
After the Civil War four factors tended to isolate the community and encourage it to retain its Polish language and strong Polish identification: the railroad bypassed Panna Maria; lawless Southerners terrorized the Poles for their Union sympathies; Polish Resurrectionist priests arrived from Europe to assure the continuation of Polish church traditions; and a sisterhood of Polish teaching nuns was established to serve St. Joseph's School. The community's population dwindled from a reported 120 families in 1858 to eighty families by 1909. The town declined further in the twentieth century, and by 1988 was down to about ninety-six residents, four of whom carried the surname Moczygemba. That year Panna Maria supported two grocery stores and a feed mill. Its school, in a new location near the older structure, belonged to the Karnes City school district, but nuns continued to serve as teachers. A historical museum, located in the old St. Joseph's School building, was the civic focus. As the mother colony for the Poles in America, Panna Maria has occasionally attracted visitors numbering in the thousands to its celebrations, most notably in 1966 during the millennium of Polish Christianity and nationhood, when 10,000 people convened there for a Mass and barbeque; President Lyndon B. Johnson's gift on the occasion was Polish artist Jan E. Krantz's 12,000-piece mosaic of the Virgin of Czestochowa, which was put on permanent display in the church. In 1977 Panna Maria Uranium Operations, a nuclear waste dump operated by Chevron, opened near Panna Maria. In the 1980s concerned citizens began filing arguments and evidence of health hazards. Through 2000 the community's population was still estimated at ninety-six.