New York City's Hungarian Churches
The first significant group of Hungarians to make their homes in New York City were several hundred political exiles arriving after the unsuccessful 1848-49 War of Liberation led by the great patriot Lajos Kossuth against the ruling Hapsburg dynasty. Emigration on a large scale from Hungary to overseas began after 1870. Between 1870 and 1920 about two million immigrants from Hungary came to the United States. Although they were from all social classes, impoverished agricultural laborers constituted the overwhelming majority. Like other immigrant groups at the time, Hungarians settling in New York gravitated to the Lower East Side, an area adjoining the East River close to the southern tip of Manhattan Island.
Writing about the multitude of nationalities populating the Lower East Side in his Around the World in New York (1924), Konrad Bercovici commented: “The houses of the Hungarian district in New York are more or less of the modern tenement type. [...] It is within that the homes are different from the houses of the people of other nationalities, [...] It is in the kitchens of these houses, spick and span, [...] one can notice the differences of national character. Love of good food, spicy and tasty, is one of the characteristics of the Hungarians."
Also an important feature in the lives of most Hungarians was religion. According to the 1900 census, the population of the Kingdom of Hungary - i.e. the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy - was 50% Roman Catholic, 15% Calvinist, 11% Greek Catholic, 5% Jewish, and 7% Lutheran with several other denominations accounting for the rest.
Not surprisingly therefore, after having obtained lodgings and employment, the new arrivals turned their attention to forming congregations, raising money to erect or buy a suitable house of worship, and securing the services of a clergyman. The 1890s and the following decade were the most active in the founding of churches and parochial schools. Several Hungarian Jewish synagogues were also formed in the neighborhood. Incidentally, the Hungarian Jews of New York established one of the earliest Hungarian libraries, about 1900.
In most instances churches and synagogues also served as centers of immigrant cultural and social activities. This function was important from the start and remained as such over the years to this very day. Houses of worship also assumed a political role after World War II; they became rallying centers against Communist and Soviet brutalities in Hungary.
The formation of Hungarian congregations was fraught with difficulties. The Catholic Church, committed to assimilation, was less receptive to the concept of ethnic parishes than were the American Protestant churches. American Catholic hierarchy was ethnic minded only to the extent which its parishioners actively demanded such an orientation. In face of the "melting pot" concept, not all congregations, whether Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, were able to preserve their Hungarian characteristics for long.
However, New York is a metropolis that is forever changing and by the mid-1950s Yorkville's days as an ethnic enclave were numbered. Block after block of staid brownstones and cheap tenements were razed to make room for luxury high-rises, driving away all those who couldn't afford the escalating rents. With the departure of the ethnic population, business catering largely to them followed suit. Consequently today there are only a few visible reminders of Yorkville's rich ethnic heritage. The most noticeable of these are the churches; in the case of the Hungarians there are six of them.
The architect chosen to draw up the plans for the new edifice was Emil J. Szendy. Construction began on St. Stephen's day, August 20, in 1927. The laying and blessing of the cornerstone took place on November 13. Officiating at the ceremony was Msgr. Michael J. Lavelle, representing Patrick Cardinal Hayes. It was followed by festivities at the Hotel Commodore; among the guests of honor were U.S. Senator Robert F. Wagner, Sr. and the city's flamboyant mayor, the dapper Jimmy Walker.
Official consecration of the church on December 2, 1928, was presided over by Cardinal Hayes himself with a lavish banquet at the Hotel Astor afterwards. A flyer announcing the event also contained a stern rebuke: Nem igazi magyar katholikus az, aki erről az ünnepségekről ok nélkül távolmarad! (He who is absent from these ceremonies without reason is not a true Hungarian Catholic!) The response was most gratifying; some 10,000 of the faithful were present on the appointed day. The dignitaries attending included the Consul General of Hungary, several other representatives of the Hungarian government, while the high Mass of dedication was celebrated by Msgr. Janos Csiszarik, emissary of the Cardinal Primate of Hungary.
As completed, Szendy's creation was built of light brick and sandstone with an archway at the center for the entrance to the church. To either side of the main entrance were entrances for the pupils of the school. The church, occupying the main story, seated 1,000 while the auditorium in the basement could accommodate 600. The school, situated on the upper floors, featured 12 classrooms and two kindergarten rooms.
After World War II the church became an important center for a wide variety of actions directed at the Soviet Union occupying Hungary and their Communist minions; a role that was reinforced in the aftermath of the 1956 uprising.
Hungarians of all faith extended a hearty reception to Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty upon his visit to New York in September of 1973. The exiled Primate of Hungary, arrested and imprisoned by the Communists in 1948, was released by freedom fighters in 1956 and then spent the next 15 years as a refugee in the U.S. embassy. Formally welcomed to the city by Terence Cardinal Cooke, who described him as a “symbol of courage, of integrity and of hope," Mindszenty addressed large crowds of Americans as well.
The church occupies a plot approximately 35 x 70 feet, and is constructed of brick with trimmings of limestone. Its bell tower, rising to a height of 80 feet above street level, once soared over low-rise neighbors. When erected, the church's pastor was the Rev. Zoltan Kuthy, one of the leading figures in the history of Hungarian-American Protestantism.
On December 21, 1930, the church was rededicated. On this occasion, three bronze tablets originally intended for the Kossuth monument gracing Riverside Drive were presented to the church by Janos Horvay, the sculptor. The memory of Kossuth was again honored in the church on September 22, 1958, upon the issue of 4 and 8 cents U.S. stamps depicting the great Hungarian as one of the “Champions of Liberty."
Besides the Rev. Kuthy, notable pastors of the church have included Laszlo Gerenday and Imre Kovacs. Drawing upon his experiences as a veteran of the French Foreign Legion, the Rev. Gerenday was the author of several popular novels under the pseudonym, Legionaire. His son, known professionally as Laci Anthony de Gerenday, was a renowned sculptor with a long list of outstanding works throughout the United States and abroad as well as the recipient of numerous honors; all duly listed in Who Was Who in American Art. The Rev. Kovacs, one of the most implacable foes of the Communists and their Soviet masters oppressing Hungary, was at the forefront of many demonstrations protesting their complete disregard of basic human rights.
In recognition of its historical and architectural merits, the church has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Dept. of the Interior in 2000.
Msgr. Gyula Marina, pastor of the church, was among the many clergymen who spoke out against Soviet oppression of Hungary after the 1956 revolution and participated in picketing Russia's UN headquarters at 67th Street and Park Avenue.
In September of 1919 the church hosted the New York City Conference of Baptist Ministers. One of the prominent speakers was the forceful and controversial Rev. Dr. George Chalmers Richmond. The New York Times, March 22, 1920, reported that Dr. Nickolas Dulitz, pastor of the church, was urging the formation of “Servant Girl Clubs", where domestics could spend their leisure hours in wholesome surroundings.It was intended to model these after the Hungarian Girls' Club which Dr. Dulitz had established on the third floor of his church building. On November 25, 1956, the Rev. Dr. Imre Gabos, a newly arrived refugee, rendered an impassioned speech denouncing the Soviet Union and lamented the tragedy of Hungary's betrayal.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary Roman Catholic Church at 211 East 83rd Street is largely Hungarian in name only. Named after the princess who was canonized in 1235, it was formed as a Slovak parish in 1891 with the congregation worshiping in the church at 345 East 4th Street. In 1917 St. Elizabeth moved uptown to its present location by taking over the former Second Immanuel Lutheran Church built in 1893 and altered by Francis J. Berlenbach, the architect who designed several imposing Roman Catholic churches in the city. Today St. Elizabeth is chiefly renowned for its neo-Gothic exterior, the beautiful mosaics inside, and sign language Mass for deaf people.
The Hungarian Reformed Church on the north side of 82nd Street between Second and Third Avenues was erected relatively recently, i.e. in 1959. Referring to its architecture, the book From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan's Houses of Worship states that “although the massing and detailing of the façade are fairly anemic, the golden bricks of the Hungarian Reformed Church, [...] can truly glow of a late-summer afternoon." The current pastor is the Rev. Arpad Drotos and the church hold services in Hungarian every Sunday morning and Bible classes on Thursday evenings.