298

 

THE BUILDING OF A CHURCH BY AN IMMIGRANT COMMUNITY: THE CASE OF ST. ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY
By:Rev. Rick Orley

       In the lower level of the Cleveland Museum of Art hangs a painting depicting the gray limestone towers of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Church on Buckeye Road. Painted by Max Albin Bachofen, it shows the twin towers rising above rooftops, telephone wires and backyard fences. The title is "Sunshine in New Hungary".

              If the towers could speak, they would tell us not only of sunshine but also of great sacrifice. They would remind us that new will grow old for this turn of the century colony of Hungarians for whom this parish would be predominant even as the towers dominated the city-scape of the neighborhood. They would speak of Hungary as a loving memory and of the United States as a new found love.

       The Parish was founded on December 11, 1892 by Rev. Charles Boehm, the first Hungarian Roman Catholic priest in the United States, only ten days after his arrival in Cleveland. Within months, this first Roman Catholic Magyar Church in North America had built a small brick church on Buckeye Road and East. 90th Street.

       But it was the present massive stone structure, completed in 1922, that was the Hungarian colony's way of saying "Yes" to America, "Yes" we will remain here and build this city, "Yes" we want our children and grandchildren to know our faith, our customs and traditions and to proudly practice them. It is true that a church is not just a building nor is faith built of limestone. But this church gave expression and articulation to immigrant fears and dreams, struggles and hopes, memories and visions.

       The story begins on the 4th of May, 1907, when the "substitute pastor" of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Congregation, Rev. Julius Szepessy petitioned Bishop Horstmann through the Chancery to "build a suitable church for the enlarged member of the St. Elizabeth Congregation." At that time, he was able to secure a loan for $150,000 at an interest rate of four percent.

       Rev. Szepessy described the circumstances that prompted his request.

 

The success of spiritual work done by Rev. Father Charles Boehm stands higher than we are able to praise. All he has accomplished while exemplarily laboring in the last 14 years amongst his fellow countrymen, can partly be judged from the fact that he has cleared all the church debts ... Now, my Dear and Right Rev. Bishop, allow me to state emphatically that the present Church-building is hardly half enough to locate all the practical Catholics belonging to our Congregation. There are hundreds of Hungarians who-without any exaggeration-have to turn home, even on common Sundays, because there is no room for all. The seating capacity of our present church is between 700-800. We need a church which would seat at least 1500 persons, because the number of contributing families is close to 700.

 


 

299

 

       The petition was taken under consideration by the diocese and subsequently refused for the moment, described as, "the proposed debt is too large and unnecessary."

       Discussions and negotiations followed between people, pastor and bishop. A letter to the bishop dated June 22nd, 1909, and signed by six councilmen of St. Elizabeth Church gives us an example of their sincerity and their realism.

 

... we all want to belong to the St. Elizabeth Congregation and it is our comman goal to serve our God and Church by serving our Congregation.

We take the liberty of submitting this petition by mail as we are all workingmen and could not very well afford to miss a day in our work. We are, however, ready to appear before Your Rt. Reverendship on any day and at any hour, to be set by you ...

 

       Through all this the Hungarian colony grew. And the parish grew. It seems that the spiritual demands of the people became overpowering for Rev. Szepessy on what one would imagine was a cold and dreary January 13, 1910.

 

... For three years I have been the priest, advocate, I had to attend to all the different matters as come up in a Congregation, - I have been the treasurer and the servant of the Congregation and as such was, so to say, a slave of all these accumulated duties. The immense volume of work has ruined me, and having been compelled to spend most of my time within four walls in writing, the conducting of the accounts and with the great cares of responsibility, not only my eyesight was greatly impaired but I feel almost broken in soul and body ...

 

       He continued in describing his efforts to bring out additional priests from Hungary. Forty-four priests applied to the Magyar Minister for Religious and Educational Matters, Count Albert Apponyi, to come to serve the Hungarians in the United States. None came. The pastor continues:

 

Rt. Reverend Bishop; There are 800 children in our school, under the guidance of eleven Sisters. I have distributed 3166 membership-booklets among married and single persons not only for the purpose of supervising whether they abide by the laws of our Church but also for giving assurance to everybody that the 25 or 50 cents, paid in monthly are well taken care for ... I dare say that the St. Elizabeth Congregation embraces about tenthousand (sic) souls. These good people bring their pennies, earned by hard work, to the parish-house or hand them to the collectors monthly ... I ought to spend a great deal of time in our school and be the teacher, instructor of such children as do not speak yet English and who remain without almost any religious instruction if I cannot give it. And the sad fact remains that I scarcely can do it. Most of the time I am forced

 


 

300

 

by the immense work to be done for the parish to be a clerk instead of a priest. I must be on my heels, from the morning until midnight, every day, I get only 5-6 hours of rest for the night and even the nights must be given, only too often, to the visiting of the sick because of the want of tact of many people who do not think until the evening of notifying the priest ... I also most respectively beg for the granting of a leave of absence of two days so I could partly recover from the effects of the continuous strenuous work. I feel that by doing so, your Rt. Reverendship will save my life ...

 

       This particular January letter continues for four pages describing to the Bishop Rev. Szepessy's physical health, his frustrations, problems with Hungary, present parish status and that final and humble request for a two day vacation.

       A letter of response came from the Bishop's secretary dated January 17, 1910 and it agrees with the pastor that some of the clerical-office work could be placed in the hands of a layperson. The two-day vacation was granted, "willingly," and the bishop requested a copy of the weekly parish publication.

       The councilmen of St. Elizabeth Church continued the argument as they were unwilling to accept "No" for an answer from the bishop. On February 23, 1912, they wrote a five-page letter to their bishop describing in detail their request for a, "new, grand church," and their accompanying reasons. It is in a sense a 1912 painting of the Hungarian colony and their situation and lifestyles. One might remember that the four men who signed this letter were immigrants. All correspondence with the bishop was in the English language, not their mother tongue. That alone was no small feat. They begin by," ... presenting our humble request" ...

 

... Our people is poor but honest, zealous in their faith, ready to make sacrifices for it, and always striving to comply with the divine and human laws ... Our ethical progress is best shown by the statistics of our Congregation, our material progress is shown by the cash money deposited in the banks. Our numerical strength is amazing indeed. We have 835 children in our school. We are forced to congest them in eleven school rooms in order to take care of them ... Our is not much more than a chapel. It is not high enough if is unhealthy, it cannot accommodate all our people even with several Masses, and it anything but fireproof. We have to dread the possibilities and dangers of a fire each Sunday. We had to install sprinklers in the vestry for at least partial protection in case of an accident. It is to be feared that the slightest alarm could cause the loss of life of hundreds of people as not a single foot of space remains unoccupied by worshipers ... The balancing of our books for the year 1911 showed cash money of $40,646.59, and property worth at least $120,000 ... The further steady material progress of our Church is assured by the sixhundred (sic)

 

 


 

301

 

permanently settled, good, faithful, reliable families who possess property in our City and will spend the remainder of their lives here, with their large families. They can be relied upon as they have repeatedly shown that they consider their Church and School their dearest treasures and will never, under any circumstances abandon them ... Having already over forty thousand dollars to our disposal we would need another fortythousand (sic) dollars and if your Rt. Reverendship would graciously grant that we should get a loan of $40,000 - at a reasonable rate of interest the affairs of our Congregation would be in the best of shape for many years to come ... We can absolutely guarantee that this loan would be paid in five years ... We beg to remain, kissing you consecrated hand, your most humble servants in Christ, ...

 

       The archives of the Diocese of Cleveland and other records are fairly sketchy. The next significant document is dated March 27th, 1917 - a letter from Rev. Szepessy to the Bishop of Cleveland. Ten years after the initial request, the petition remains for a, "permanent new Church edifice." The parish was about to celebrate their silver anniversary, twenty-five years of parish life. There seems to be more optimism, more spirit, more hope in this letter and, a better financial basis on which to build a church. The old brick church was condemned by the city of Cleveland on May 15, 1916 and that fact alone would begin to influence the diocese. Fr. Szepessy presents his case eloquently, as always:

 

... The Lord helped us and we possess at present $55,000 - which amount will considerably increase by the time we start building the new Church. We most respectfully implore you, therefore, Rt. Rev. Bishop, to grant now, gracious permission to this good, honest people, imbued with true enthusiasm, and doing their duty at all times with filial obedience, for the erection of a new Church ... Our old Church was built 25 years ago ... The roof is in decay. It imperils the safety of the parishioners. It is inhabited by birds only. Our good, poor people is subject to the jeers of their fellow workers of other nationalities in the shops, and in their resentment over the insults, and overcome by a feeling of hopelessness, they entertain ... suspicions as to the safety of the assets of their parish ... Rt. Rev. Bishop! I dare say that the beginning of erecting a new Church is more of a necessity than bread to the starving ones ... The new Church is planned to seat 1000 to 1100 people. It is to cost between 100 and 120 thousand dollars ... In conclusion, I once more beg Your Rt. Reverendship, to lend your ear to the prayers, and longings of this poor struggling people. Without your grace, we would not even be able to provide for a more careful and comfortable education for our children, while our good people might begin to feel that they were left orphans ...

 

       The next few years again leave us with few records. It is not surprising. The country called up the "Doughboys," sang, "Over There," and faced its

 


 

302

 

first world war. The Hungarian colony on Buckeye Road was no stranger to socialism, bolshevism or communism. (But that's another story.) It was also obvious that the immigrant population was growing at a rapid rate. That meant that the Catholic population was also increasing. Witness Rev. Szepessy's claim to hearing "700 even 800 confessor calls" every Saturday. The "new Church decision" was delayed since St. Elizabeth Church seems to have been ready to give birth to a daughter parish, the present St. Margaret of Hungary Church on East 116th Street, south of Buckeye Road. It was a decision between limestone walls and the spiritual care of people. A split, a division at this time was nearly disastrous and as Hungarians are wont to do, many discussions and loud protestations could be heard.

       But through it all and above the sounds of war, the arguments of politics, the whispers of confessions, the murmurs of new birth, or the disagreements of elders, the most memorable sound from roughly 1917 to 1922 on Buckeye Road was, to quote a dear friend, "The ring of hammers and the song of saws," Almost unceasingly! One needs only a windshield survey to assess that fantastic and classical 1920's shopping strip of the neighborhood to recognize the names and dates that stand as witnesses to the "Golden Age of Buckeye Road."

       The conflicts were resolved in a compromise. The Bishop of Cleveland finally said, "Yes!" to the Hungarian colony. It was not until 1928 that the new church and school building of St. Margaret of Hungary was built. But it was on April 4, 1919 that a formal and final request was made of the bishop to build the present St. Elizabeth Roman Catholic Magyar Church and the petition was duly signed by the pastor and four councilmen, allowing expenditure of $100,000 for a "new church and new residence."

       The building of the new Church finally began. In a memorandum of contracts dated 1920, it is interesting to note the costs of furnishing the church. The steel doors and coal chute cost $390. The flooring was priced at just over six thousand dollars. The six huge chandeliers (about five feet by five feet in size, supported by cherubs and holding more than 80 light bulbs) were changed from bronze to bronze painted composition material at the price of $1,998.

       One would have hoped that the building process would have gone smoothly. Unfortunately, the formal petition of April 4th, 1919 was just a formality. A letter of April 24th, 1919 indicates that the major portion of the structure was already built. The problems begin here. The Laws Construction Company is in difficulty and the court of appeals is Bishop John P. Farrely.

 

... We understand that a committee of said Church (St. Elizabeth) has called on you with reference to making a loan and were refused by you. No doubt you do not understand the situation on this particular building or otherwise we hardly believe you would have refused.

       ... We have this building about ready for roof and slaters are working on same. The first tower is nearly finished and will be in good shape to have both towers and all the roof on inside of one month.

 


 

303

 

... We have about $57,000 still due us on our contract and we think about $15,000 will finish our work, therefore you can see that we have about $40,000 of our own money standing out on this Church and it will be impossible for us to continue work on said building unless payments are promptly made.

We regret very much if we are compelled to close down as it would cost us a great deal and extra labor as well as extra cost and expense to said Church, inasmuch as we would have to clear all of the streets, tear down sheds, and offices and take down derricks and engines. Furthermore, it will leave this building in a very dangerous condition in case of storms, etc.

 

       Four days later, Rev. Szepessy responded assuring the bishop in a three-page letter letter that the people could stand by their debts and he asked for permission for a new loan.

       Again, the records are less than complete. In a letter from the bishop on September 3, 1919, permission is granted to St. Elizabeth Church to secure a loan to cover their debts and insure the building of the church. Only from a document of March 29th, 1920, do we understand the collateral and the sacrifice involved. Members of St. Elizabeth Congregation, immigrants who owned houses and businesses, negotiated second mortgages and personally loaned $64,000 in 1919 to their church, "for the continuation of the construction of our new Church edifice." If Cleveland were Hollywood, it would not be the "Bells of St. Mary's" but "The Miracle of St. Elizabeth's."

       The Church was finally completed. It stands proudly today as a witness of love from the Hungarian colony; two towers of faith watching over the neighborhood; and a symbol of hope for all who will believe.

 

 

Pen and Ink drawing by Rev. Richard Konisiewicz based on an oil painting by Max Albin Bachofen in the Cleveland Museum of Art - Figure1. Sunshine In New Hungary II

 

 


TABLE OF CONTENTS | HOME | NEXT SUPPLEMENTARY