ORANGE, California (LifeSiteNews) — Today in Southern California, the unsung faith of seven Hungarian priests who fled the Communist occupation of Eastern Europe after the Second World War has borne fruit more than tenfold in the Norbertine community of St. Michael’s Abbey, which numbers over a hundred members.
The story of those seven men and their escape from totalitarian oppression is one of heroic courage, worthy of the annals of Hungarian Catholics and the Norbertine Order.
This week, after an Apostolic visit to Hungary, Pope Francis praised this same faith of Hungarian Catholics, which he said “has been tested by fire.” “But while attempts were made to cut down the tree of faith, the roots remained intact,” the Pontiff said. As the founding abbot of St. Michael’s himself would say, “succisa virescit, cut down it will rise again.”
Founded by seven men who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain while being hunted by the Soviet Communists, the vibrant and flourishing Norbertine Abbey of St. Michael’s, which celebrated May 4 as the anniversary of the dedication of their newly built Romanesque Abbey Church, bears testimony to the faith and courage of the Hungarian priests who risked everything they had to preserve a nearly 1,000-year-old tradition of monastic priestly life.
According to St. Michael’s chronicle of the history of its mother abbey in Csorna, Hungary — itself founded in 1180, barely 60 years after St. Norbert founded the Order in Premontre, France, in 1121 — “the Soviet occupation of Hungary after World War II brought the confiscation of the abbey’s lands, then its schools, and finally the suppression of the abbey itself [also named after St. Michael]. The 62 members of the community were dispersed, and only those already at work in parishes were permitted to function as priests. The Communists were intent that the Church lose its influence on the hearts of the young, and so they ruthlessly stamped out those orders whose ministry was teaching [among which were the Hungarian Norbertines].”
However, the Communists were unsuccessful in wholly stamping out the 900-year-old Norbertine community of St. Michael’s in Csorna. “On July 11th, [1950,] the Norbertines of Csorna got wind that the police would come the next day to arrest all the religious — it was the planned end of the abbey. Thus, that very night, with the blessing of their abbot, Eugene Simonffy, seven canons of Csorna fled, across the fields, to take the road to Austria. Cutting barbed wire, they ventured into mine fields in order to avoid the border guards, and finally swam across a river 60 feet wide, to reach a truck that was waiting for them on the other bank in order to take them to Vienna, free and safe.”
During that border crossing, which took them through some of the roughest mountain terrain of the area, the courage and faith of the seven priests were manifested in heroic ways. In crossing the mine fields, one priest led, risking a mistaken step, while the others followed at a distance carefully behind. On one occasion, when unsure if Russian soldiers were hidden on the other side of a meadow, one of the priests decided to take the risk of running ahead into the open; he instructed his companions that if he were gunned down, they would know not to follow.
When they crossed the river on the last stretch of the journey, the fugitive priests barely missed a patrol of border guards, only afterward discovering that the guards were sleeping in the very spot where they had made their crossing — tired from having just returned from 10 days of harvest. The peril of the journey was highlighted by the fact that just a few weeks later, a community of Cistercian monks attempted the same escape route and were all caught by the Communists and thrown in prison.
Even before the escape across the Austrian border, the Hungarian priests showed their courage in the face of the Communist persecution that laid heavily on their country. The police decided once to search the abbey grounds unannounced, causing panic and terror among the residents. Fr. Ladislaus Parker, then novice master of the abbey, unshaken by the intrusion and held at gunpoint by the commanding officer, offered the man a drink of whiskey. The officer gladly accepted, and after a conversation over a glass in Fr. Parker’s office, the officer rounded up his men and departed, leaving the community free of further harassment. It was Fr. Parker who would later come up with the plan to escape and who led the company of seven on that late July night in 1950.
During the Communist occupation of Hungary, the remaining priests of Csorna worked clandestinely as they were able. They were forbidden to wear their religious habit or live in community, “bravely carry[ing] Christ’s cross in their old age,” in the words of one of their confreres. During those years, to add insult to injury, although a priest was allowed to care for the abbey parish, the Communist Party made the abbey itself its headquarters, until it was restored to the Order after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Having arrive safely in Vienna, the seven young priests that escaped — all between the ages of 25 and 38 — made the journey across the ocean to New York in 1952, arriving in the United States $3,000 in debt due to the cost of the journey. Welcomed by their confreres at the Norbertine abbey of DePere, Wisconsin, they were eventually invited in 1957 by Cardinal James McIntyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles, to settle in southern California, where they began the work they had long desired: “to rebuild their community of Saint Michael of Csorna in exile.”
Establishing community life ultimately in Orange, California, the Norbertine Fathers opened a junior seminary, later to become a college preparatory school, and a novitiate in 1961. With new vocations, the community became an independent priory in 1974 and was recognized as an abbey by the Order and the Holy See just 10 years later in 1984. Fr. Ladislas Parker was blessed as the first abbot on September 19, 1984, and the abbey church was dedicated the following day, the anniversary of the dedication of the ancient abbey church in Csorna.
Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, Prince Primate of Hungary before the Nazi and Communist occupations of the country — whose name was feared especially by the Communists for his dauntless defense of the Church and her rights — paid the Hungarian Fathers of St. Michael’s in Orange a special honor when, himself in exile, he visited them in 1974.
The Abbey of St. Michael’s has continued to grow, founding a convent of cloistered Norbertine nuns in the Diocese of Fresno, California, a convent of active Norbertine sisters in Los Angeles, California, and now has branched out to Springfield, Illinois, with a new priory entrusted with the spiritual and intellectual formation of clergy, religious, and laity through the Evermode Institute. The abbey’s apostolates include much of what the Hungarian Fathers themselves undertook in Csorna, such as teaching, parishes, and a summer camp, all flowing from the contemplative monastic life of chanting the psalms throughout the day.
After outgrowing the original abbey buildings and discovering the land they were on was not fully stable, the community of St. Michael’s moved a few miles up the road, having built a traditional stone Romanesque new abbey, whose church was dedicated May 4, 2021. The community now numbers over one hundred members and is known for its beautiful singing of the Mass and Divine Office in Gregorian Chant and its daily Eucharistic Holy Hour, which draws many of the faithful.
Abbot Parker’s abbatial motto, succisa virescit — cut down it will bloom again — succinctly tells the story of the faith of the Hungarian Fathers who founded St. Michael’s Abbey in California, who transplanted the ancient monastic and priestly life of the Norbertine Order from behind the Iron Curtain to the west coast of the United States.
As one of those heroic priests once wrote, “In God’s good and loving providence even an apparent disaster such as the closing of our mother abbey in Csorna brought with it the ultimate blessing of coming to a burgeoning Southern California and serving the Catholics in this far-flung diocese. So the proverb rings true; when God closes a door, He opens a window.”
“To meditate on the long history of Saint Michael’s is to marvel at the provident care of God. Three times dispersed or suppressed, twice subjected to foreign invasion, often laboring under the odious restrictions of the civil power, even their buildings several times destroyed by fire, the canons have always somehow returned to their community.”
“What would the noble benefactor of the 12th century have thought were he to have seen all that would come about, and most wonderfully, that 800 years later, and half a world away, the tree he planted would still be bearing fruit? Whatever the changes and challenges of the future, whatever the hearts and minds of men devise, the Norbertines of Saint Michael’s Abbey, old and new, can count on God’s faithfulness, as they have in times past. As a Norbertine writer of the early part of this century put it, ‘Saint Michael’s has lasted many years, like a tree in the middle of a desert which continues to bear fruit without being able to tell who planted it, cared for it, grafted it, preserved and defended it. It is a miracle — one could say — that this community still thrives today. … ’ The miracle continues.”
The names of those seven Hungarian priests are held in honor at St. Michael’s Abbey: Abbot Ladislas Parker (d.2010), Fr. Siard Haigli (d.1986), Fr. Benedict Horvath (d.1998), Fr. Clement Rudnay (d.2006), Fr. Paul Gelenscer (d.2007), Fr. Hubert Szanto (d.2010), and Fr. Gerlac Horvath (d.2018).