Romanian Pilgrimage

- Oct• 02•17

By Sarah Dowson ’85


The small cement room on the Transylvania hilltop where we had vespers was breezy and gray from clouds.  It was part of a ruined fortress in Deva, Romania, that a group of All Souls members and friends gathered in August to pay tribute to former Catholic turned Lutheran turned Calvinist bishop Francis David, who preached that Jesus was human, not divine.  Francis David was imprisoned for his beliefs and died of cold in this space in 1579.

Zita carrying their son, Ors, and Hunor. At right is the Szappanyos family who hosted Sarah Dowson’s stay in Medias: Julia, Szidi, their daughter, and Csaba. All are gathered in the Medias church’s community room.

Also from All Souls were Sabrina Alano ’08, Robin Bossert ’97, Kim Calder, Lois Coleman ’09, Mary Geissman ’07, Arthur Hopkirk ’85, Sharon Lieberman, Harry Miller, Marilynn Scott Murphy ’86, and Rachel Ziemba.  Seven others had traveled from the Unitarian Church of Jowai in the Khasi Hills of northeastern India; two were from Richmond, Virginia, and one was from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, Arizona — a total of 21 pilgrims.

Leading the service and singing in a resonant tenor was Rev. Zoli (a/k/a Rev. Zoltan Koppandi) of the Unitarian Church of Deva, a congregation of about 50 people.  He invited us to share our thoughts, as some did, or pay tribute in silence, as did others.  Standing in a circle, we also sang the hymn, “Spirit of Life,” which many of us have sung in New York at All Souls.

Bishop Francis David led the Unitarian Church in Transylvania after King John Sigismund (1540-1571) issued the Edict of Torda in 1568, which extended religious tolerance beyond Catholicism to Lutherans, Calvinist and Unitarians.  It was considered an act of extreme tolerance, but after the king’s death, Francis David pushed the envelope to disavow infant baptism and exclude Christ from prayers and was punished.

After the vesper service, we descended to visit Rev. Zoli’s small contemporary complex. It includes his home and garden as well as the church’s windowless sanctuary with gleaming ash wood pews.  The seats are embroidered in red, white and green – the national colors of Hungary.  Geraniums bloomed in ceramic jugs. The hymnals were small—about five by eight inches— with one line of melody notes and text, of course, in Hungarian, similar to those I saw in other churches.

John Dale and Csilla Kolcsar-Dale of the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council (UUPCC) organized and guided our journey.  From them, we learned that after World War I, Hungarian Transylvania became part of Romania.  Still, residents of Transylvania prefer to speak Hungarian and still feel themselves to be Hungarian.  (The land known today as Romania was fought over by Ottomans, Wallachians, Magyars,  Germans, Saxons and others, and many towns and churches are on the tops of hills and fortified, so that residents could escape up the hill and fight off their attackers.)

What impressed me about Unitarianism in Transylvania is that freedom of belief is cherished.  I have always taken it for granted here in the United States.  Two places we stayed had impressive Unitarian colleges, high schools and dormitories.


After Deva, we visited the newly restored Transylvanian royal city of Alba Iulia (in Hungarian, Gyulafehervar) where we toured the Roman Catholic St. Michael’s Cathedral, built in the late 1200’s originally in Romanesque style, where the Unitarian King John Sigismund and his mother, Isabella, are entombed.   In the bustling business and college city of Cluj/Napoca (in Hungarian, Kolozsvar), we toured the Catholic First Church, which houses Francis David Rock, in effect a pulpit from which he once spoke, and Catholic St. Michael’s Church where he once preached.  The Rev. Sandor Kovacks, Professor of Protestant Theology at the Unitarian Seminary and also Professor of Church History at the Theological Institute, gave us a lecture on religious and Romanian history.  He also told us that the city was becoming so prosperous with tech firms that hired its university graduates, but he does not expect to be able to live there after retirement because of the rising cost of living.

Later in our trip, other Unitarian ministers organized a rousing reception, dinner and concert for us at their Unitarian church in Szekelykeresztur (in Romanian, Cristuru Secuiesc).   This was a semi-rural town with farms, gardens, fruit trees and horse-drawn carts. We joined 50-some residents and church members to enjoy delicious goulash (tomato-based soup with beans and pork), cabbage salad, bread, dessert, and palinka, a fruit brandy.  Dancers and musicians from the local high school played wonderful Hungarian folk music and, after dancing traditional dances themselves, invited us to join them.

After 10 days, All Souls pilgrims were guests of Medias Unitarian Church, which is seeking a partner church, and we stayed with local families.  The minister is the warm, friendly and well-informed Hunor-Elemer Markos, who asked us to call him by his first name. Since 2011, Hunor has been the minister of the church in Medias as well as minister at a much smaller church in Sibiu, where he gives sermons every second Sunday.

Medias is in the center of a German and Saxon part of Transylvania, and the Unitarian Church makes an effort to keep Hungarian traditions alive, Hunor said.   In 1992, he said, there were 850 people in the church’s congregation; now there are 450.  From the 1960’s to 1989, when Communism fell, Medias was the third largest industrial city in Romania. The town was prosperous until 1995, when the leather factory which employed many went out of business.

My host family there, Julia and Csaba Szappanyos and their 20year-old daughter, Szidi, a technology student at a nearby university, all spoke some English, whereas I speak no Hungarian. They offered me local drinks and food, and I told my hosts about myself, All Souls in NYC, and what I liked about all the places we visited in Romania.  Csaba and Szidi are Catholic; Julia is Unitarian.

The next morning, Hunor took us to Sachsenbischof Buch.Handling — a Lutheran church which is also a world heritage UNESCO site.  This fortress church was built in 1283, and was later rebuilt in 1633 A.D. and 1993.  It is a German-Saxon church in Gothic style.  The church’s organ was restored in 2005, and now has 30,000 pipe, but only  80–90 people are left in the congregation.

Some of us went with Hunor to enjoy an afternoon at the Binderbubi spa.  This hotel and resort complex houses a huge pool (sheltered overhead) leading to an outdoor patio and also a lawn with plenty of reclining chairs.  On one side is a sauna, steam room, and several relaxing stone couches with heated backs.  That evening, we all met at the Binderbubi’s restaurant for dinner.   As usual, there was a wedding going on:  August is THE wedding season in Romania and at almost every midafternoon or evening meal we had entertaining orchestras nearby, hired by the inevitable wedding party.

On Sunday, we attended the Medias church. Unitarian ministers, I learned, are trained to be excellent singers and lead the singing.  The churches I visited did not always have pianos or organs to accompany the singers.  I was made aware of another difference from All Souls when I started to sit in one of the pews on my right:  that side was for men only, I was corrected.   I then sat on the more crowded left side, for women.

In this church, Sabrina, Mary, Arthur, Robin and I gave presentations about our experiences at All Souls and with Unitarianism, and Hunor translated.   At Hunor’s urging, Robin gave a slide presentation of All Souls activities as well as some views of New York City’s attractions, such as Rockaway Beach.

Hunor sends this message to All Souls: “Once upon a time due to language differences we thought people would not work together to make a better world.  But we have the strength to fight against these things that separate us.”

Hunor’s church is on Facebook and is in Hungarian, to be translated into English also at some point.  Find him at

Kim said, ”I’ve tossed out all of my preconceived notions about Transylvania, learned more about Unitarian history in two weeks than I’ve ever known before, was awed by the simple beauty of the churches, and profoundly moved by the deep connection I felt to my fellow Unitarians, both past and present.”



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