In this article, Nicholas Boros, a high school mathematics teacher from Cleveland who studied religious studies as an undergraduate and actively continues his research into the history of diasporic religious communities, details the history of the former St. Stephen’s Hungarian Catholic Church in McKeesport before describing his involvement in an effort to save this church’s cornerstone prior to its recent demolition. Many hurdles appeared along the way, and it seemed like any chance to honor the memory of this parish and its glorious past was lost. Through a series of happy coincidences that came together at the very end of a month-long journey, the cornerstone was rededicated at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Cleveland, an account of which appears at the end of the article.
HISTORY OF ST. STEPHEN CHURCH
The Hungarians of the Monongahela Valley originally worshipped with the Slovaks at St. Elizabeth’s Church, founded in 1895 by Rev. Coloman Gasparik, who eventually purchased a former church at 1520 Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh. Fr. Gasparik certainly appeared to take a strong interest in the Hungarian flock entrusted to his care and even supported Hungarian causes. He had donated to St. Elizabeth’s Church in Cleveland and subscribed to Fr. Charles Boehm’s Magyarországi Szent Erzsébet Amerikai Hírnöke, the first Hungarian Catholic periodical in America, which even printed his November 24, 1898 address to the women’s branch of the Hungarian St. Joseph’s Benefit Society on the occasion of their flag blessing ceremony. Nevertheless, some of the Hungarians became enraged with Fr. Gasparik over an alleged derogatory remark and sought the assistance of Tihamér Kohányi, editor of the Cleveland-based daily Szabadság, to build their own Hungarian church.
Kohányi, an early mover and shaker of the Hungarian-American community, was one of the organizers of a Hungarian Catholic sick benefit society, the Szűz Mária Magyarok Pátronája Római és Görög Katholikus Szövetség. On November 25-26, 1897, he organized a convention for this new association in Cleveland, which brought together representatives from sixteen different Hungarian communities throughout the United States, including ones from Pittsburgh and McKeesport. This convention was likely the occasion where the Hungarian Catholics from these two communities first approached Kohányi to assist them in their endeavor. By some accounts, Kohányi addressed a gathering of the McKeesport faithful and spearheaded their initiative by donating the first $25 toward the building. Kohányi attempted to arrange for a priest from Cleveland, likely the newly arrived Rev. Robert Paulovics, to pastor the fledgling congregation, but the Bishop of Cleveland refused to release him, at which point they resolved to seek a priest from Hungary.
Once $650 had been collected, Kohányi wrote a letter to Bishop Zsigmond Bubics of Kassa (present-day Košice, Slovakia) asking him to send a priest for McKeesport. Even prior to the arrival of a priest, the congregation had plans drawn up for the church, which were very similar to those of the original church building of St. Elizabeth’s in Cleveland. Bishop Bubics agreed to send Fr. Kálmán Kováts, who arrived in Pittsburgh on August 12, 1899 and was immediately given charge of the Hungarian community, which was to worship in the basement of McKeesport’s St. Peter’s School until they could erect their own church. He celebrated his first Mass with the congregation on St. Stephen’s Day, August 20, 1899, and in his homily he said, “Fogadjanak el azért ne cask papjokul, de igaz barátjuk és testvérökül is, hogy igy mától fogva jó szüleim szivét, testvéreim szeretetét s drága magyar hazám anyai jóságát Önökben kereshessem s találjam fel mindig” (Accept me not only as your priest but also as your true friend and brother so that from this day forward I may always seek and forever find in you the heart of my good parents, the love of my siblings, and the maternal goodness of my dear Hungarian homeland).
It is no surprise that such a warm priest would be able to accomplish so much in his nearly 28 year pastorate. With 23 families in McKeesport and 817 adults from the many villages in the valley, the fledgling congregation purchased land on April 3, 1900, and the cornerstone was dedicated on September 9, 1900 by Rev. Conal A. McDermott of St. Peter’s McKeesport in the presence of eight brass bands and nearly 800 members of Hungarian societies from throughout the region. The church was dedicated on August 25, 1901 by Rev. Edward Bush of St. Peter’s Church in Allegheny, Bishop Richard Phelan’s designated representative, with nearly 5,000 people in attendance, including Fr. Michael Biro and ten representatives of the Hungarian Catholic community of South Bend. Fr. Kováts helped to organize several Hungarian Catholic parishes throughout Western Pennsylvania. To reach his widespread flock, Fr. Kováts founded America’s second Hungarian Catholic periodical, Magyarok Csillaga, a weekly that was published from December 21, 1899 until 1905. It was succeeded by Magyar Zaszló (1906-1912) and then by Magyar Katholikus Zaszló (1912-1927), a printing career that spanned Fr. Kováts’s entire American priestly service. His other lasting legacies are an 11-acre cemetery he purchased for the parish in North Versailles in 1911 and the Daughters of the Divine Redeemer, whom he brought to the United States from Sopron, Hungary in 1912. The order played a major role in the education of hundreds of Hungarian Catholic youth by staffing Hungarian parish schools in Northeast Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, and Buffalo, New York. Fr. Kováts and the parish were recognized by Emperor Franz Joseph, who donated a large $10,000 painting of St. Stephen, which was placed above the main altar and was dedicated on June 14, 1914.
After Fr. Kovats’s death on March 27, 1927, Fr. John Rethy was appointed pastor and served until his death in July 1946. Under his pastorate, a parish school was built in 1931. Fr. Raymond Novak assumed responsibility for the parish in December 1946 until he was transferred in June 1962. During his pastorate, many ’56-ers were aided by and joined the parish. The church’s final pastor, Fr. Stephen M. Kato, served the parish for almost 40 years. Within that timeframe, several major events occurred. The parish school closed in 1967, and the parish gained a permanent deacon in the person of Henrik Brabender on June 8, 1974. Later that month, Cardinal Mindszenty visited the parish during his tour of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and instructed the faithful to request permission to establish a Hungarian language school for the children. As part of the Pittsburgh Diocese’s 1993 reorganization efforts, it was announced that St. Stephen’s would be suppressed on September 1, 1994 following the retirement of Fr. Kato. St. Stephen’s was merged with nearby St. Pius V Church, but, at Fr. Kato’s request, Bishop Wuerl granted permission for St. Stephen’s to remain open as long as the dedicated pastor was willing to serve. Fr. Kato died on April 15, 2002, and shortly after Bishop Donald Wuerl celebrated the parish’s final Mass on July 7, 2002 at 10 AM.
Following the parish’s final Mass, the building remained unused for several years until The Follieri Group purchased St. Stephen’s and nine other vacant churches from the Diocese of Pittsburgh in January 2007. Fr. Litavec of St. Pius V stated that the proceeds from the sale would be used to care for the neglected St. Stephen’s Cemetery on Westinghouse Avenue in North Versailles. Real estate broker Grubb and Ellis marketed the property as a development opportunity and listed it for $250,000. Raffaello Follieri was charged with fraud and money laundering the following year, and the resulting neglect of the building caused major damage. It was finally purchased by Jim Miller of Pro Wrestling eXpress in August 2011, by which time the church roof already had holes in it. Miller, who refurnished the former parish school as a wrestling studio, tried to arrange the church’s demolition prior to purchasing the property, but he was unsuccessful. Complaining of “squatters and druggies,” Miller, together with the City of McKeesport, attempted to secure an Allegheny County Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund grant to demolish the church in 2019. On June 3, 2020, McKeesport City Council awarded a $77,900 contract to Lutterman Excavating of Greensburg to demolish the structure.
HISTORY OF THE CORNERSTONE INITIATIVE
Through a long series of coincidences, I became involved in an effort to save the cornerstone of this church, the fifth Hungarian nationality parish to successfully construct its own church building. In the spring, I completed a project that I had begun several years ago, the digitization of America’s oldest Hungarian Catholic periodical, Magyarországi Szent Erzsébet Amerikai Hirnöke. The Hirnök was published in Cleveland by Rev. Charles Boehm, the first Hungarian Roman Catholic priest brought to the United States for the express purpose of ministering to a Hungarian flock. I had found all of the issues of this periodical from its origin in October 1894 until April 1900 in the Archives of St. Elizabeth Church, the first Hungarian Roman Catholic church that Fr. Boehm had founded in America. Since I knew that the Hirnök had been published until 1906, I returned to the archives to see if I could track down the remaining issues. Although I was unable to find those missing issues, I stumbled upon a single copy of the second oldest Hungarian Catholic periodical printed in the United States, Magyarok Csillaga, which was published in McKeesport by Rev. Kálmán Kováts. In order to investigate a controversy in the early history of Hungarian Catholicism in the United States, I was eager to get my hands on additional copies of Magyarok Csillaga. A promising lead appeared in a 1940 article in Western Pennsylvania History, which stated that copies of Magyarok Csillaga were in the possession of the Daughters of the Divine Redeemer, the religious sisters that Fr. Kováts brought to the United States in 1912.
I contacted Sr. Monica Kosztolnyik, archivist for the Daughters of the Divine Redeemer, and although she was unable to locate copies of Magyarok Csillaga, she was able to find copies of one of its two successors, a newspaper called Magyar Zászló. She agreed to allow me to digitize their issues of the paper but told me to wait until the fall due to repairs in the part of the motherhouse in which the archives are stored. As a high school teacher with more free time in the summer, I decided to contact her to see if I could pick them up in early July instead. We both agreed to observe all precautions in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, so I drove to the motherhouse in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania on July 3 with my mother Violet Boros, who had been taught by the Divine Redeemer Sisters while she attended St. Margaret’s School in Cleveland. While en route, I decided that it might be worthwhile to see the former church building that Fr. Kováts had founded in order to gain a closer connection to the individual whose newspaper I was preparing to digitize. I knew it had been abandoned since 2002 and that it was located in an area that many would deem unsafe. I began to have second thoughts, but a friend from Pittsburgh, Andrew Barnhart, volunteered to come with me, which eased my anxiety and spurred me onward. I took pictures of the cornerstone and the building, and I could not get it out of my mind.
When I returned home, I found an article in McKeesport’s online newspaper, The Tube City Almanac, which stated that the McKeesport City Council had voted on June 3 to award Lutterman Excavating of Greensburg a contract to raze the building. Realizing that time was limited, I began contacting many people and organizations in McKeesport to try to save this cornerstone as a memorial to the pioneer priest Fr. Kováts and the many Hungarian steel worker families of Pennsylvania whose sacrifices helped to build the church. Thanks to the advice of a friend, Jonathan Naser of Pittsburgh, I informed The Tube City Almanac of my initiative and was interviewed by Christopher Baumann for an article. In that article, I learned that the owner of the church property, who had never bothered to return my email, expressed interest in keeping the cornerstone on his property but was unwilling to arrange for its safe removal prior to the start of demolition. While I had intended to bring the cornerstone to St. Elizabeth’s Church in Cleveland due to the McKeesport church’s Cleveland connection, my ultimate goal was to preserve it intact and to save it from the landfill.
With no updates from the city, the demolition company, the owner, or the McKeesport Regional History and Heritage Center, I lost hope that I could save the cornerstone. On July 26, I providentially came into contact with Zsolt Molnár of Bocskai Radio. Zsolt called me to ask for an English translation of a news article for the radio’s website, and when he remarked that there were few newsworthy events in the Hungarian-American community due to the pandemic, I informed him about my initiative. He became very invested in the project, and we traveled to McKeesport on July 30 to conduct an onsite interview, during which time he took drone footage of the church, which, unbeknownst to us, would begin to be demolished the following week. While there, we met with a representative of the only local institution that had provided us with assistance, Maryann Huk of the McKeesport Preservation Society. Ms. Huk had recorded St. Stephen’s final Mass on July 7, 2002, and she agreed to let us use her footage for our news story. While there, we also visited the Daughters of the Divine Redeemer to see the grave of Fr. Kováts, who is buried in the sisters’ cemetery. We had also planned to visit the parish cemetery in North Versailles but learned that it had been closed by the Catholic Cemeteries Association of the Diocese of Pittsburgh sometime in or shortly after 2010.
Unfortunately, I first came to know of the start of the church’s demolition on August 6 through a Facebook post. In a last ditch effort, I decided to reach out to the owner of the property on Facebook Messenger, and he actually responded this time. He indicated that he shared my hope that the cornerstone and the crosses on the church’s two steeples would survive, but he continued to maintain a “let’s wait and see if it survives” attitude. When the demolition was complete, the owner tried to remove one of the steeple crosses from the rubble but was informed that he could not do so because he had not retained salvage rights. Luckily, the stone had survived, but the “00” from the 1900 on its one side had fallen off. I contacted the demolition company on August 12, and they seemed to have forgotten about my initiative and were suspicious of my intentions since a few people had contacted them to try to obtain material to sell. Thanks to the help of Dóra Zombori and Zita Mirk of the Embassy of Hungary in Washington D.C., who were able to substantiate our intentions for the cornerstone, Lutterman Excavating contacted me on August 14 and gave us permission to retrieve it. László Strober and Zsolt Molnár went to pick it up on the morning of August 17 and were assisted in lifting it onto their trailer by a Lutterman employee. When the stone arrived in Cleveland later that day, Rodney Johnson and Aaron Hemphill of Miceli Dairy helped to remove it from the trailer with a forklift. On August 18, Mr. Strober built a base for the stone using bricks from St. Stephen’s that were provided by Lutterman Excavating. The moment of truth occurred on August 19 when Aaron Hemphill successfully placed the cornerstone on its new base
CORNERSTONE DEDICATION CEREMONY
The cornerstone’s rededication ceremony on Thursday, August 20, 2020 in the garden of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church on Buckeye Road was the fruit of one month’s labor. Dr. Endre Szentkirályi, President of the United Hungarian Societies, opened the occasion with an introduction of special guests, who included Consul General Dr. Zita Bencsik and Dr. Erika Virányi-Gyermán from the Hungarian Consulate in Chicago and Joseph Knapick, a lifelong member of St. Stephen’s McKeesport who journeyed to Cleveland for the ceremony after seeing it advertised on the “Hungarian Pittsburgh” page on Facebook. After the singing of the American National Anthem, Dr. Szentkirályi introduced Fr. Richard Bona, pastor of Cleveland’s St. Elizabeth and St. Emeric Parishes, who, together with Joseph Knapick, unveiled the cornerstone by removing the Hungarian flag that had been draped over it.
Fr. Bona began with a reading from Ephesians 2:20-22, in which St. Paul refers to the Ephesians as members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ as the cornerstone. Prior to re-blessing the cornerstone, Fr. Bona explained that the stone represents Christ and the apostles as the foundation of faith upon which the faithful, like the bricks placed over it, depend as the Church. He also expressed his hope that the cornerstone, as a memorial to the faithful of the McKeesport Hungarian Catholic community, would remind those who look at it to keep their faith in Jesus Christ as the foundation of their lives, just as St. Stephen had done in founding the Kingdom of Hungary. He then read the following blessing: “Heavenly Father, Your Son was that stone which the builders had rejected yet which has become our cornerstone. Bless this cornerstone, which will now serve us as a monument. With a foundation on Jesus Christ and through the intercession of St. Stephen, may the work of Hungarian Catholicism continue in the United States, through Christ our Lord.” Following the blessing, Fr. Bona led a recitation of the Our Father.
Dr. Szentkirályi then introduced me, and I presented the history of the parish in Hungarian followed by an English account of how I became involved in the initiative to save the cornerstone. Following my presentation, Judit Györky, Vice President of the Hungarian Societies of Cleveland and member of St. Emeric Church, read a poem “Hymn of St. Stephen” by Sándor Sík, a member of the Piarist Order who is considered one of the most influential Hungarian poets of the 20th century. As the occasion’s guest of honor, Dr. Zita Bencsik, Consul General of Hungary in Chicago since 2016, addressed the crowd and spoke of the significance of the place and time of the ceremony. She mentioned that the event was taking place on St. Stephen’s Day, in the Year of National Unity (Nemzeti Összetartás Éve), in the midst of a global health crisis with attendees in masks at the oldest Hungarian Catholic church established in the United States, St. Elizabeth’s in Cleveland. She also drew attention to the deep symbolism present in the fact that attendees came from both of Cleveland’s Hungarian Roman Catholic churches, which are under the patronage of St. Elizabeth and St. Emeric, who like St. Stephen, were members of the Árpád Dynasty. Furthermore, she explained that the essence of unity for the Hungarian communities at the turn of the century was the Christian faith they had received from St. Stephen, and she noted that that same faith serves as the basis of our common Hungarian identity. She reminded the faithful that only countries, not nations, have borders, before ending by wishing Hungary a happy birthday. The half hour ceremony included approximately 50 attendees and concluded with the signing of the Hungarian National Anthem.
By Nicholas Boros
Cleveland – August 23, 2020