ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Sister’s Act

Led by a retired nun, Hungary’s Basilians rebuild

When Hungary’s Communist government dissolved the nation’s religious communities in 1950, Imre Ágota Margit was 18 years old. She had just embarked on a life as a Sister of St. Basil the Great, a Greek Catholic monastic community inspired by the monastic rule of St. Basil, and his sister, St. Macrina. Though long present in neighboring Ukraine, the community did not arrive in Hungary until 1935, when Greek Catholic Bishop Miklós Dudas of Hajdúdorog invited two Basilians to the village of Máriapócs, home to the famous weeping icon of Mary.

The central European nation had briefly flirted with communism before — for a few turbulent months in 1919. But the Soviet regime imposed by Stalin after World War II would last 40 years. During this time, Sister Imre Ágota and her peers in the monastery were forbidden to live together — the government had expelled them from the monastery — or to don their habits. Instead, they were sent to work in schools or other government-run institutions, where the authorities monitored their activities. Sister Imre Ágota taught math and physics in a secondary school. And after a long, secular career she retired. But as the Soviet Union’s power and might waned, so, too, did the Communist Party’s grip on the Hungarian people.

By October 1989, an anti-Soviet government declared a third republic and announced free elections for the following May. The newly elected government, closely allied to the West, initiated free market reforms and also restored Catholic religious communities for men and women. In 1991, 14 surviving Basilian sisters — including Imre Ágota, now mother superior — returned to their monastery in Máriapócs. Today, only 7 remain, and of these only 4 are active.

“Before 1950, the average age [of the 28 sisters in the community] was 28,” Sister Imre Ágota said. “Now add 50.”

The community, like other Hungarian Greek Catholic religious communities, has had difficulties recruiting novices. Several women have tried community life, but each one soon left. The sisters hope and pray for more novices, but if none enters, the simple passing of time will accomplish what 40 years of Communist anti-religious policy could not.

In recent years, Hungary’s declining birthrate and aging population have strained the economy, which is still recovering from the transition from a controlled to a free market system. With this in mind, the sisters have devoted themselves to caring for their peers — the elderly — who are poorly served by the state system.

Once they restored their monastery, the sisters went straight to work. In 1992, they bought a building behind the monastery and opened St. Macrina Nursing Home, a 25-room room facility for elderly women.

Some of the residents of St. Macrina, including a few of the oldest sisters, are bedridden. A few suffer from dementia. Most, though, are ambulatory and take communal meals in the monastery’s dining room and participate in the daily celebration of the Divine Liturgy.

The Basilians have also expanded their operations. In 1945, the sisters were given a house in the center of Sátoraljaújhely, a former provincial capital in northeastern Hungary. They converted the house into a girls orphanage. But in 1950, the nation’s Communist government seized the facility. When the sisters petitioned for the restitution of their former properties in 1990, they had little hope of reclaiming the building, since it had been turned into a school. Instead, the sisters received an abandoned two-story manor house, which they renovated, altering it for use as a nursing home for men and women.

“It was a mess, a ruin,” Sister Imre Ágota said. It took four years and significant help from funding agencies in Europe to restore the facility. The Basilians also added two floors.

In 1997, St. Ann Nursing Home opened with 19 rooms and 38 beds. For the past seven years it has been full, and there is a waiting list for entry.

Ilonka Bodnárné, 90, came to St. Ann four years ago after suffering a stroke. Originally from Budapest, Ms. Bodnárné spent 24 years in Canada but returned to Hungary in 1999 to visit her daughter. “I didn’t even bring any clothes with me,” she said, but she decided to stay, buying a house in Sátoraljaújhely. Since her stroke, she has made a new home for herself at St. Ann.

“I’ve had lots of travel and trouble in my life,” Ms. Bodnárné said. “But from the moment I moved in, the director and Sister Imre Ágota looked out for me. I feel surrounded by love from everyone here.”

Both homes are convivial places. On a gloomy winter day, Maria Soltész, the director of St. Ann, made the rounds for the first time since her back operation a few weeks prior. Residents shared a plate of puff pastries. A retired printer was exercising under the watchful eye of a physical therapist, who scolded Ms. Soltész for being out of bed.

Over the last few years, the sisters have improved the facility; the second-floor chapel, with stained-glass windows depicting St. Ann and St. Macrina, was consecrated in 2005.

Many of the rooms are private and each one is different. Family pictures, treasured objects and furniture from home decorate most of them. A deceased husband’s favorite hat hangs in one entry. Plants fill a windowsill in another. Some rooms attract knitters or embroiderers, while others attract those who wish only to chat. One woman takes advantage of the monthly beauty salon to get her hair done. Another sits alone by her window, busy at her sewing machine.

The cost of operating these facilities dominates Sister Imre Ágota’s plans. The state, which has accredited the homes, covers about 30 percent of the operating expenses. The Greek Catholic Eparchy of Hajdúdorog covers another 30 percent. In accordance with the law, residents contribute 80 percent of their monthly pensions — but most of those living at St. Macrina and St. Ann have limited pensions.

These sources of revenue do not meet all the homes’ operating costs, which include salaries for 45 staff members. And recent cuts have raised concerns about increasing operating costs. The Basilian Sisters, therefore, rely mainly on gifts to meet their budget.

“I’m a teacher,” Sister Imre Ágota said, “not an economist.” But, she continued, “we are optimistic because we have always received donations. Slowly, slowly money comes in and things get done.”

“I am retired,” Sister Imre Ágota laughed, describing her typical day of work and prayer, which begins at 5 a.m. and ends as late as 11 p.m. “It’s just that as mother superior, I’m now busier than I’ve ever been.”

Still, she is already thinking about another project: returning to teaching. “My heart beats for it,” she said. “The Basilian Fathers used to have a school here in Máriapócs where the sisters taught.”

Could there be yet another chapter to Sister Imre Ágota’s retirement?

Jacqueline Ruyak is a frequent contributor to ONE magazine.

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