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Across from the rectory is an old schoolhouse, now used to store local artifacts, including an altar made in the 1950’s by the father of the current bishop, Szilárd Keresztes. Despite laws against religious expression during the Communist era, the parish’s liturgies were so popular worshipers spilled outside the church and this additional altar was needed. Father Mező hopes to transform the building into a senior center, but lacks the necessary funds.

After lunch, we visited the parish church, which is more than 200 years old. Protection of the Virgin Mary is a popular feast among Christians of the Byzantine tradition – Catholic and Orthodox – and refers to the Virgin Mary’s protection of the capital city of Byzantium, Constantinople. About 50 years ago, Bishop Keresztes, then a newly ordained priest, celebrated his first Divine Liturgy in the old church, the last before it was enlarged. Among the church’s beauties is its iconostasis that dates to 1788. As we left, Father Mező said, “Whenever visitors come to the church, I ask them to offer a prayer for themselves and others.” So we did.

It was naptime when we arrived at the village’s public nursery school, where we were greeted by its director, Júlia Kabály, with Hungarian sparkling wine and apricot-jelly doughnuts. “Wishing wine and wheat and all the best to your house this year and next,” Mrs. Kabály said, repeating a traditional toast. She has worked at the school for 40 years, joining as soon as she finished high school. “Even under communism, I always spoke my mind,” said the bubbly director.

The school has about 170 students, ages 3 through 6. Here they will prepare for the village primary school, which has about 470 children in eight grades.

Once a week, Father Mező leads a religion class for the children. The classes are not compulsory; the other village churches have their own catechism classes. But his offers another opportunity to ensure that the village’s traditions are passed down to its young.

“I’m happy when he visits,” Mrs. Kabály said. “The children look forward to the lessons. He always brings them something – books, pictures or candy.” The highpoint of the school year is the Christmas pageant, when the students go caroling to each church.

When these students grow up many of them will study, work and live elsewhere. Those who go on to high school attend one of the schools in Debrecen, Hungary’s second-largest city just 20 miles south of Nyírascád. Currently, there are 71 Nyírascád children studying in Debrecen. Many graduates settle there. “There are enough Nyírascád natives in Debrecen to [start] a whole other village,” Mayor Katona said.

Ferenc and Ilona Konyári are village elders – both are in their 80’s – who have seen their children leave the village. Their son lives in Debrecen and their daughter married a man from another village.

Though Mr. Konyári is now frail, Mrs. Konyári grows vegetables, raises chickens and walks to church each Sunday. “They know all the prayers in the prayer book by heart,” Father Mező said.

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Tags: Communism/Communist Hungary Central Europe Hungarian Greek Catholic