A Sister’s Act

Hungary’s Greek Catholic Basilian Sisters have not wasted any time getting back to work

by Jacqueline Ruyak

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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.

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Tags: Monastery Communism/Communist Hungarian Greek Catholic