top:part of altat at St. Sthephen's church, youngest performers of Hungarian School with their teachers,center:BIshop Böcskei and Fr. Vas, singer -performers, bottom: teachers with Ass. Princ. Judit Kerekes (second from left)
St. Stephen (Szt. István) Church, Passaic
The 110th jubilee year observance of St. Stephen’s started in May of 2013, with the visit of Bishop Cserháti Ferenc, and will be concluded by Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, NJ and Orbán Viktor, the Prime Minister of Hungary, in September of this year.
As part of the observance, a special Mass was celebrated on June 1st in St. Stephen Church. Chief Celebrant was Bishop Böcskei László of Nagyvárad (now called Oradea Mare). He had been invited by the Pastor, Fr. László Vas, who comes from the Nagyvárad diocese. (The Bishop joked about coming to see whether Fr. Vas had enough to do; if he did not, he would recall him to serve back home!)
The special Mass was concelebrated by Bishop Böcskei, Fr. Vas and Fr. Vakon, the Bishop’s Secretary. The Bishop spoke about the strength provided by faith, as exemplified by the ancestors who built this church. Since his diocese, as well as the Passaic congregation, has numerous German-speaking faithful, the Bishop addressed some words to them in German, and also gave a brief English homily. The leaflet introducing the Bishop and giving the Mass text was in English, Hungarian and German.
What were conditions like 110 years ago, when the foundation was laid for this church? The textile and paper industries had developed in the Passaic, Paterson and Garfield area of New Jersey in the 1800’s, and attracted many immigrants. In Passaic, a Hungarian neighborhood developed, with stores, services and societies of every kind. Reformed, Roman Catholic and Byzantine (Greek) Catholics wanted to have their own church.
During the first years of the 20th century, the Catholics undertook a major fund-raising campaign, so that by 1903 they were able to start building St. Stephen Church, which was finished in 1904. A series of dedicated and energetic pastors made the congregation one of the most flourishing Hungarian parishes in America.
In 1914, the Daughters of Divine Charity began teaching not only religion, but the Hungarian language, folk songs and dance to the children. They would come from New York on weekends, and in addition to instruction, would stage plays and other presentations by the students. The Sisters of Social Service later took over the work of visiting the parishioners and teaching the children. In 1934, the Daughters of Divine Charity returned to Passaic. A new school building was completed in 1937, and in 1946, the English-language day school opened. Hungarian courses continued on Saturdays.
The wave of Displaced Persons in the early 1950’s was followed by the mass immigration of Hungarians following 1956. A Saturday School was maintained by both the Reformed and the Catholic Church, and carried on the work of instructing the younger generation in their Hungarian language and traditions. For a while, the school functioned at the Reformed Church, but instruction was moved to St. Stephen in 1983.
Today, between 40 and 50 students attend the Saturday School at the parish. Judit Kerekes, Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at the College of Staten Island, who attended the festivities on June 1st in a deep red díszmagyar and párta, is Assistant Principal.
Students of various levels presented a program of Hungarian song and dance following the delicious dinner served by the ladies of the parish in the school hall. Bishop Böcskei expressed his appreciation of the work done by the teachers and students, and urged the parents to continue their efforts of passing on their heritage to the young.
Today, St. Stephen Church in Passaic, NJ is the only Hungarian church left on the East Coast.
New Brunswick: St. Ladislaus (Szt. László)
Starting in the 1870’s, the first Hungarian immigrants settled in the New Brunswick area of New Jersey. In 1903, a Hungarian delegation went to the Bishop of Trenton for permission to build a Hungarian Catholic Church. The founding document was signed 110 years ago, in October 1904. Ground was broken and the cornerstone for St. László Church was laid the following year, in the presence of some 5-6,000 people, including a contingent of the Knights of Columbus and some Hungarian Hussars on horseback.
By 1914, the congregation was strong enough to build a school, where instruction was given in both Hungarian and English, and was serviced by the Daughters of Divine Charity (Isteni Szeretet Lányai) whom the pastor had invited. The school was destroyed by fire around the time of World War I, but was soon rebuilt.
New immigrants swelled the Hungarian community of New Brunswick following the Revolution of 1956. In 1973, Cardinal Mindszenty came to rededicate the renovated St. László Church, and his statue – the first anywhere – was erected on the corner next to the church where he had spoken that memorable day.
Since then, the composition of New Brunswick’s population has changed. On January 14th, 2014, St. László was merged with other parishes, and is no longer a separate legal entity. Although Fr. Imre Juhász – who had served in Mexico – still offers a Hungarian Mass on Sundays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and publishes a weekly church bulletin in Hungarian, he is only a “Vicar” of the parish conglomerate now known as “Holy Family”. The formerly Hungarian ethnic church of St. László now serves a mostly Hispanic congregation.
Nevertheless, St. László is still the cornerstone of the annual Hungarian Day observed on the first Saturday of June. This year, the Mayor of the City of New Brunswick and other dignitaries, including Consul-General Dán Károly of New York, opened the festivities from the steps of the church on Somerset Street. As usual, the street was closed off to traffic, and vendors set up all along the road, selling lángos, Hungarian books, mementoes, kolbász. Different dance groups performed on the street during the day, in authentic, colorful costumes, watched and applauded by thousands of visitors, many non-Hungarian, who come every year for the fabulous Hungarian food served at various locations, including the Scout Home on Plum Street.
But the church that 110 years ago had been the center of a vibrant Hungarian community is sadly becoming a part of history, a museum piece.
Erika Papp Faber is Editor of Magyar News Online.