István Sziarto (Stephen Sziarto) was born in 1910 as the son of Hungarian immigrants in West Virginia in a small coal mining community. He spent most of his childhood in a rural settlement called Pocahontas which was originally inhabited by Native Americans, hence the name. Even though he never attended a Hungarian school nor did he ever step into the motherland of his ancestors, he spoke the language fluently. His dual Hungarian-American heritage accompanied him throughout all his adventures. He led a fascinating life and proved himself in various different fields. He worked as a Calvinist priest, an FBI agent and a forestry entrepreneur. But how did the young talent, born in a tiny mining village, become one of the most prominent figures in the Hungarian-American community?
The Sziarto family lived in a typical coal mining community and often struggled to make ends meet. Therefore, according to Telex, Sziarto’s parents wanted a better future for their son. They wanted to spare him from the shortened lifespan of a coal miner who has to do strenuous physical work on a daily basis. They sent him to pursue sociology studies at the Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. István graduated in 1931 and, in 1934, he also completed a theology seminar at Lancaster Theology Seminary and was inaugurated as a priest by the Pennsylvania Church. After his studies, he returned to West Virginia and served as a priest in a number of local towns. During this period, he married his wife, Margaret Nagy who was also a descendant of Hungarian immigrants and spoke fluent Hungarian. They raised a son and a daughter together. In 1939, he became the priest of a Hungarian community in Columbus, Ohio. He was the first priest who was born in the new land. He had a keen sense for recruiting people to the church and did a lot for the community as well. During his ministry, he had the churchyard doubled and equipped with streetlights, the church steeple covered with bronze and the outhouse changed to a modern English-style latrine. István also modernised the donation system of the local church as well as improved its communications so that believers were informed about the recent updates.
At the end of 1941, after Pearl Harbor, he volunteered to join the army but his application was rejected. The official excuse was that his work of managing a bilingual community was too precious to leave his position. But the actual reason was that the government wanted to prevent the number of soldiers belonging to one specific church outweigh the number of members of another one within the troops.
According to the information of vasvary.sk-szeged.hu, Sziarto got in contact with the Federal Bureau of Investigation when they reached out to him with a number of translation projects, from Hungarian to English and vice versa. Due to his outstanding work, they eventually offered him a permanent position which resulted in a two-decade work contract. In 1947, he was advised to travel to Washington D.C. and apply to be an intelligence agent. Since he was fascinated by this sort of work, he accepted the offer and after completing various competence tests he was finally welcomed at the FBI in 1951. The prestigious position required him to relocate to the capital with his family. His wife successfully landed a job at the National Security Agency, first as an agent at the national security division and later as a cryptographer as part of a promotion. She worked there until her retirement in 1973.
During the ‘56 Hungarian immigration wave, Sziarto interviewed hundreds of Hungarian arrivals as one of the few Hungarian-speaking FBI agents. Throughout the 20 years of being part of the FBI, István kept Washington D.C. his base. His main job responsibilities included translating documents and working as an interpreter. In an interview, he proudly claimed that he never had to rely on a dictionary as he was fully competent in translating from one language to another without using assistance. Throughout his career, he even worked on a number of confidential reports prepared for the CIA, on three different occasions. He considered the biggest highlight of his professional life the day when he had the opportunity to shake hands with J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI who served 48 years at the investigation office. He also kept in touch with his religion and held prayer evenings for the Calvinist members of the investigation office. He continued to attend FBI events and gave speeches even after his retirement.
Following the end of his two-decade service at the FBI, Sziarto did not cease to seek professional endeavours. He thrived on challenges and aimed to lead an active and purposeful life. He continued to serve his community as a priest and also purchased 500-acre forestland with his wife in Slanesville, West Virginia. Sziarto hired experts and following their advice and the forestry guideline of the Ministry of Agricultural he transformed the unkempt wilderness into an area where he cultivated different types of pine trees. What initially started out as a hobby quickly grew into a fruitful enterprise. The Sziarto Tree Farm was considered one of the most impressive forestlands of the South Coast. Apart from selling pines, the married couple also held hunting events at the forest farm. The business proved to be so profitable that Sziarto and his wife made several headlines in the local magazines for their generous donations to educational institutes, for instance, the Lancaster Theologica Seminary to which they offered 10,000 USD. With the help of this amount, the seminary established an exchange student program that allowed students from Debrecen, a rural town in East Hungary, to spend a semester abroad.
Sziarto despised boredom and always tried to occupy himself with something purposeful or creative. He had a quite unusual hobby collecting odd and humorous word definitions which he started after a scout meeting. Sziarto immediately noted down every new definition he heard and, in ‘93, gathered his findings in a published book titled Deft and Daft Dictionary. That was his one and only publication, as he put it, he did not plan to make a career as an author in his old age. He also loved poems, collecting and translating the artwork of several well-known Hungarian poets such as Sándor Petőfi.
Sziarto died at age 88, in 1998, at his home due to kidney failure. His memory will be cherished forever as he was a prominent figure in the Hungarian-American community who did extraordinary things for his people.
Zsofia, A. H. (2022, February 6). AZ Amerikai-Magyar lelkész, Aki Az Fbi ügynökeként is Tartott istentiszteleteket a fehér Házzal Szemben. telex. Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://telex.hu/eszkombajn/2022/02/06/amerikai-magyar-lelkesz-fbi-ugynok
Ambrus, L. (2021, February). Lelkész, FBI-ügynök, vállalkozó – Stephen Sziarto három élete. Retrieved March 29, 2022, from http://vasvary.sk-szeged.hu/newsletter/21dec/ambrus_laszlo_sziarto.html