The lasts of a dying breed: Hungarian Calvinists in Romania – PART I
Magyarhang has gone to explore the furthest located Hungarian Calvinist communities in Europe, in Romania, more exactly in Galați, Braila, Ploiești, Constanța. Here the number of Hungarians is in a steep decline, and only two Hungarians can be found at most funerals – the priest and the deceased.
Before giving a picture of what life is like for Hungarian Calvinist communities in Romania, it should be taken into consideration that religion and politics have become almost inseparable in this case. The difference in religion means a difference in political views, giving a reason for concern – for example, two out of four Reformed churches in Wallachia are located vis-à-vis the Securitate’s* successor, the SRI’s hall. This way, an eye is always kept on the Hungarian church-goers in Bucharest and Ploiești.
Hungarian churches in Bucharest
The first heavy flow of Hungarians arrived in Bucharest at the time of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, though Hungarians could be found in the Romanian capital already at that time.
The first Hungarian Reformed church in Bucharest was built in 1815, right next to the royal palace. This wooden church became overcrowded soon, so a more spacious building was erected in its place. Its inauguration was attended even by the current Romanian monarch, Alexandru Ioan Cuza and his wife.
The Romanian residents of Bucharest regarded the star on the spire as a pagan symbol, so it had to be replaced with a cross. To further calm the Romanian Orthodox majority, an altarpiece was placed behind the communion table.
After about 150 years later the church was demolished: the Communist leaders decided that a huge congress centre was to be built in its place (an Orthodox church and a German school were destroyed too). The irony of the situation is that the current Calvineum church was built because of another Communist – János Kádár, the Hungarian leader. During his visit to Bucharest, he demanded that the wronged Reformed community has to be compensated, so in 1972 the building of the new church commenced, though an Orthodox architect designed it.
The Romanian Communist president Nicolae Ceaușescu had his own conditions too: the church must be built behind the vicarage, cannot have a spire. In short, it cannot be seen from the street.
Béla Zsold, the Calvineum’s pastor reveals that the church has no Hungarian cantor, an Orthodox girl helps them out. Today barely 40 people attend the church on weekends, twenty years ago 200 people did.
Only two children were received into the church as confirmees this year, and none of them speaks Hungarian.
Even the cemetery is a sad sight to behold, language-wise. Slowly the Hungarian names shift to Romanian: the grandparents’ names are in Hungarian, the parents’ names are missing accents, the children’s bear no resemblance to that of the grandparents’. There is a simple explanation for this, young Hungarians in Bucharest usually enter mixed marriages, and as the majority of the city’s population is Romanian, the children’s religion becomes Orthodox and their mother-tongue Romanian.
The Szőlőkert church
This church is located in the worker district of Bucharest; this is also where the demolished Calvineum’s ruins were transported.
The church-goers here were the workers who relocated to the capital when the grand constructions began under Ceaușescu or were educated, who, after finishing their university studies, were placed to Bucharest.
The same process happened here as in the Calvineum, barely 40 people attend church on Sundays, though they have 400 registered church members. The church-goers are mostly the elderly, as the children are born into mixed marriages and are baptised into the Orthodox church.
Weddings, baptisms, funerals are usually held in two languages, as many Romanian speakers attend them.
Just as in Bucharest, Hungarians arrived here during the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. The first Hungarian Reformed church was held on the 16th of March 1861, on Palm Sunday, 17 children were baptised and confirmed at the same time.
According to the registers, 250-300 people attended church initially, which was reduced during the two wars, then grew again thanks to the petroleum industry that boomed in the Communism. Today, 42 members are registered, but only half of them attend church on Sundays.
Not only there was a strong Hungarian community in the Romanian port city, but they even had their own Hungarian-language newspaper – the Missiói Lapok (Missionary Papers) were first published in 1868 by Márton Czelder, Reformed parish. The city’s first Reformed church was built by him as well.
The situation is even worse here than in Bucharest or Ploiești: the parish, Endre Nagy, sets out with his car to collect the Reformed Hungarians around the city so they can attend church, then takes them back home.
There was a time when they had their separate churches, then they had to travel to Galați with a van. Today, a car is more than satisfactory.
Although parish Endre is a happy person, almost every third sentence he utters puts a smile on your face, but your heart is breaking at the same time, for example, he was responsible for Constanța too, where, after he just finished his studies in 1984, the number of Reformed church members was around 300, 150 of which were buried by Endre. Here, 90 members are left, and church is only held on the first Sunday of the month.
There were times when the church members of Galați numbered 4 thousand, but after the regime change, the Hungarian families retired back to Transylvania and only those living in mixed marriages remained. Children, in such families, rarely learn Hungarian, but as long as the grandmother lives, they understand the language.
“There are several funerals where there are only two Hungarians: the deceased and I” – says parish Endre.
There are altogether 32 Hungarian Reformed church members in Galați and in a neighbouring city, Brăila.
*the infamous Securitate was the secret police agency of the Socialist Republic of Romania, dissolved in 1989.