17 January 2023
A virtual tour of ten
churches in Budapest
During our recent visit to Budapest with the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) and the Anglican Diocese in Europe, Charlotte and I were introduced to a number of projects working with Ukrainian refugees by the Revd Dr Frank Hegedűs, the Anglican chaplain in the Hungarian capital, and attended the Sunday Eucharist in Saint Margaret’s Church, Budapest.
We never got to visit Saint Stephen’s Basilica which is named in honour of Saint Stephen, the first King of Hungary. It is been the co-cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest and the third largest church building in Hungary.
However, during our visits to projects throughout the Hungarian capital, we visited a number of churches in various traditions, including Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Church of Scotland and Greek Catholic churches and a shared ecumenical chapel.
1, Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion:
The Church of the Assumption of the Buda Castle is more commonly known as the Matthias Church and is sometimes referred to as the Coronation Church of Buda. The church stands in Holy Trinity Square, in front of the Fisherman’s Bastion at the heart of Buda’s Castle District.
According to tradition, the first church on the site was founded by Saint Stephen, King of Hungary, in Romanesque style in 1015. The present church was built in the florid late Gothic style in the second half of the 14th century and was extensively restored in the late 19th century.
This was the second largest church in mediaeval Buda and the seventh largest church in mediaeval Hungary. Two Austrian emperors were crowned as Kings of Hungary in the church: Franz Joseph I and Charles IV.
During the siege of Buda in 1686, a wall of the church – used as a mosque by the Ottoman occupiers of the city – collapsed under to cannon fire. An old, hidden statue of the Virgin Mary was revealed behind the wall. As the statue appeared before the praying Muslims, the morale of the Muslim garrison collapsed and the city fell on the same day.
Since the 19th century, the church has been known as the Matthias Church, after King Matthias Corvinus (1458-1490), who built the south-west bell tower, one of the finest pieces of Gothic architecture in Hungary.
2, Calvin Church, Calvin Square:
The Reformed Church on Kálvin tér or Calvin Square is a neoclassical church near the Hungarian National Museum and has been the centre of Budapest’s Reformed community for almost two centuries.
The church was designed by Vince Hild and built in 1816-1830. The four-columned foyer at the main entrance and the two-storey side galleries were designed by József Hild. The originally plan was for two belfries, but only one belfry was built.
The Puritan interior is painted white, giving an impressive effect. The memorials inside include one to an English-born countess, Charlotte Strachan (1815-1851), wife of Count Emanuel Zichy-Ferraris (1808-1877). She was an Anglican, but because she made a significant contribution towards the cost of building the church, she was given special permission to be buried there.
The tower is topped with a star, referring to the Star of Bethlehem, and the tower is especially striking when lit up from behind at night. A statue of the reformer John Calvin (János Kálvin in Hungarian) stands facing the church, with his back to the square.
This part of the city is a centre of the Reformed Church, with a Reformed theology faculty, a Protestant university, secondary school, Bible museum and book shop.
3, The University Church:
The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, commonly known as the University Church, is on Papnövelde Street in inner city Budapest.
Since 1786, the church has belonged to the former Theology Faculty of the Eötvös Loránd University, and to the Pázmány Péter Catholic University. Prior to that, it was the main church of the Pauline Order, the only Hungarian-founded monastic order and dating from the 13th century.
The Central Priestly Educational Institute is beside to the church, and the liturgical services in the church are provided by the student priests and the academic staff of the institute.
The church stands on the site of a former mosque in Pest. When Buda was liberated from the Ottoman Empire in 1686, the Paulines moved to Pest and bought the former mosque and some neighbouring houses.
The foundation stone of the church was laid in 1725. The church was completed in 1771 and has two towers, each 56 metres high.
4, Fasor Lutheran Church:
The Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Budapest-Fasor is on a prominent street corner close to Reformáció Park and the Fasori Gimnázium school. The church was designed by Samu Petz and built in 1905. The features include the mosaic from Miksa Róth’s workshop above the main entrance, the central rose window and the organ.
The first school on the site was built in 1795, the first church there was built in 1799-1808, and the high school in 1862-1865, creating a Lutheran centre. A new church was designed in the early 20th century by the architect Samu Pecz, who submitted up to seven proposed plans. The church two years to build, and opened on 8 October 1905. The altar was painted in 1911-1913 by Gyula Benczúr, one of Hungary's foremost painters.
The church in Fasor was the first in Budapest where services were held exclusively in Hungarian. Until then, Lutheran services in Budapest had been held in Hungarian and German and in Slovak.
The windows were blown out during World War II. The interior of the church was restored in 1973-1974, with new decorative painting by Géza Kovács, the two manual organs were rebuilt in 1989, and new windows and new bells were installed in the years that followed.
5, The Sacred Heart Church:
The Sacred Heart Church on Horánszky Street in the Józsefváros district is the main Jesuit church in Hungary. It stands in a small square next to it the Jesuit community house and other Jesuit houses, and a statue of Count Nándor Zichy, the main patron of the church, stands in the square.
The Jesuits came to Budapest again in the early 1880s and acquired a plot for building a church and a community house. The community house was built in 1890, but financial problems delayed the construction of the church and it was not completed until 1909.
The church was designed by József Kauser is built in red brick in a neo-Romanesque style with Gothic elements. The façade is symmetrical with an impressive rose window and two towers on each side of the entrance, flying buttresses and gargoyles. The nave is high, but there are two low aisles, so the church follows the classical basilica floor plan, with a half-octagonal sanctuary.
The church and the community buildings were returned to the Jesuits after the Communist system fell in 1989.
6, Saint Michael’s Church:
Saint Michael’s Church in inner city Budapest is a remarkable baroque church in the middle of the busy bustle of Váci Street. The church dates back to the 1700s, and was built between 1700 and 1765 for the Dominicans. The beautiful main altar and the furniture of the sacristy were made by the Dominican friars in the 1760s.
After the Dominicans in Hungary was dissolved by Joseph II in 1784, the church was given to the Order of Saint Paul for a short period (1785-1786), and then to the Congregatio Jesu or Mary Ward sisters in 1787. During the Great Flood of Budapest in 1838, the water stood two metres high in the church, yet the wood furnishings of the church were saved.
The nuns ran a girls’ school in the building next door until 1950, when the school was nationalised by the Communist regime.
The frescoes were whitewashed during renovation in 1964-1968. Since 1997, the church has been under continuous restoration both inside and outside.
Today, the excellent acoustics and beautiful setting make Saint Michael’s Church a popular venue for classical music concerts.
The church is also used by the Greek Catholic Church, a church with Orthodox-style liturgy and in communion with the Roman Catholic Church and with a predominantly Ukrainian congregation, and Charlotte and I were invited to join them for their Christmas celebrations on 7 January.
7, Saint Columba’s (Church of Scotland):
Saint Columba’s Scottish Church is an English-speaking international church in Budapest. It belongs to both the Church of Scotland and the Reformed Church in Hungary, and is Presbyterian in its style of church government and theology. It dates back to 1841, and in the past was known as ‘the Scottish Mission.’ Its roots are in evangelical publishing and mission to the Jewish community in Budapest, with a girls’ school for Jewish and Christian girls. Later, the school served as a shelter for refugee Polish Jews.
The place was known for its religious tolerance and high standards, and because of her work there Jane Haining, Matron of the Jewish-Hungarian School for Girls, was arrested in 1944 and was later killed in Auschwitz.
During the Communist era, the work of the mission was continued by Hungarian Reformed ministers who occasionally held services for the international community. The Revd Aaron C Stevens, has been the minister of Saint Columba’s since 2006.
Members of Saint Columba’s were involved in launching the Refugee Mission of the Reformed Church in Hungary in 2005. In recent decades, the church has reached out to refugees from Romania, Iran, Syria, and, more recently, Ukraine.
In recent years, the church has engaged with the Kalunba Charity Group, which set up the Salaam Overnight Shelter in the church in 2015 to welcome families who would have otherwise slept at railway stations. Today, Saint Columba’s is hosting refugees from Ukraine. Many of them are Africans who were students in Ukraine when the war started last year. The church is open four nights a week for up to 20 overnight guests.
8, Evangelical University Church:
Charlotte and I were staying in Budapest in the centre run by the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Hungary (MEÖT) on Magyar Tudósok körútja (Hungarian Scientists Boulevard). MEÖT groups 10 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican churches in Hungary, and co-operates with 18 other churches and church-related organisations, including the Roman Catholic Church.
The MEÖT centre is close to the Petőfi bridge across the Danube, linking Buda and Pest, and next to the Magyar Szentek church.
The chapel and the centre were designed by the award-wining architects Lászlo Benczúr and Pál Csonka.
The chapel is used for ecumenical and church conferences, as well as occasional weddings. The chapel is used by the Evangelical University Church, which welcomes university students, college students, college students and young adults, regardless of religious affiliation. It is also used on Sundays by a Korean-speaking congregation.
9, The Church of the Hungarian Saints:
From our rooms in the MEÖT centre, we could see the Church of the Hungarian Saints on Magyar Tudosok körútja is one of the newest churches in Budapest, and we were woken by its bells each morning. This part of Budapest was designated as the site of the World Exhibition (Expo) in Budapest in 1996, and the church site was originally planned as part of the Vatican Pavilion. When Expo was cancelled, the Archdiocese of Budapest decided to go ahead with building the church.
Pope John Paul II was invited to consecrate the church, but this never materialised and instead he blessed a marble slab that was placed in the new church.
The church was built in the form of a fifth century Rotunda. In his design, the architect was inspired by Santo Stefano Rotondo or the Basilica of Saint Stephen in the Round, an early Rotunda in Rome dating from the 5th century AD and now Hungary’s ‘national church’ in Rome.
The church is a centrally planned church, with an inner circular shape surrounded by an external ring. The church can be accessed through a two-storey gate, leading into a courtyard complex and the church entrances. These ‘adherent’ structures, like a ‘city wall,’ hide the slowly unfolding beauty of the central space. The complex interior-exterior space structure gives a character of ever varied beauties that are slowly showing themselves over the time. The sanctuary is embellished by a unique crucifix in gold, wood and stone by the sculptor László Somogyi-Soma, the painter Mihály Balázs and the architect Katalin Somogyi-Soma.
The cornerstone was laid in May 1995, and the church was dedicated to the Hungarian Saints. The church was consecrated on 17 August 1996 by Cardinal László Paskai and received parish church status on 1 January 2001.
The church is beside the campus of the Eötvös Loránd Public University and is also home to the University Chaplaincy in Budapest. The chaplaincy community has nurtured co-operation between the historical Christian Churches and played a role in forming the Christian Ecumenical Student Movement.
The church crypt or undercroft served Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church in Budapest for some years.
10, Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church:
The Revd Dr Frank Hegedűs, the chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church in Budapest, has been the catalyst in securing funding from USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) and the Anglican Diocese in Europe for the projects working with Ukrainian refugees we have been visiting in recent weeks.
The congregation in Budapest comes from many nations and continents: from Hungary to the United Kingdom, from Africa to North America, of ‘all vintages and sizes,’ as Father Frank says.
Anglicans have been present in Hungary for generations, with an Anglican presence in Hungary that dates back to the 1890s. Many of those early Anglicans were business-people and, interestingly, English horse trainers and riders employed by Hungarian aristocrats In the Tata Castle in Komárom-Esztergom county.
Anglican worship in Hungary remained sporadic during the Communist era, with an Anglican priest coming to Budapest periodically from Vienna. Current records also show there was an Anglican service on the first Sunday after the revolution in 1956.
Saint Margaret’s was officially founded after the fall of Communism in 1992 by Canon Denis Moss. The church first met in the crypt in the Church of the Hungarian Saints. Canon Moss now lives in retirement near Lake Balaton in Hungary.
Saint Margaret’s uses a chapel in the Lutheran building on Szentkirály utca, with the Sunday Eucharist celebrate at 10:30 according to Rite II in Common Worship of the Church of England.
According to Father Frank, the Anglican presence in Budapest is ‘miniscule’ but this small congregation provides a presence in Hungary for one of the largest Churches or Communions in the world.
About one-third of the current community is British, and another third, Hungarian. There are members too from Africa and from North America.
Father Frank says the Ukrainian crisis and the arrival of Ukrainian refugees in Budapest has given Saint Margaret’s and its people ‘a new sense of purpose and mission’, with the people actively responding to the needs of refugees and engaging with the projects we have been visiting.
He recalls how Saint Margaret’s opened its doors to about 20 Nigerian medical students who had been studying in Ukraine. ‘Along with the students came a medical professor and her husband, Father Solomon Ekiyor, who had been an Archdeacon in Nigeria. Receiving Father Solomon and his family was a bittersweet experience – it was wonderful to have them with us but the circumstances that brought them here were most unfortunate.’
The crisis has also given a new ecumenical dimension to the presence of Saint Margaret’s in the Hungarian capital. Through Father Frank’s passion, grants from the Diocese in Europe and USPG have also helped the work of other churches in Hungary, including the Jesuit Refugee Service and Saint Columba’s Church, the Church of Scotland church in Budapest.