Congregational Workings


Transylvania Pilgrimage, Summer 2011

(Archived Blog preserved from -- follow the link to the original blog for reverse chronology and more flexibility with the photos -- there you can see them as a "slide show." Here you may click any photo to see it enlarged)

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Seven of us from First Parish in Arlington, Massachusetts, will be on our way to visit our sister Unitarian church in Gagy, Transylvania on June 28, 2011. Right now we are busy with preparations, and full of excitement. We have been planning this trip since September, and dreaming about it for far longer than that.


Posted by John Burt at 3:21 PM 


Wednesday, June 29, 2011


At the Fabius Hotel in beautiful downtown Budapest after a no-sleep flight or two. Immediately went down the street to a local cafe for some sustenance. Marta is with our guide Csilla. First group dinner is tonight. More pics to come tomorrow.


Posted by at 4:05 PM


Thursday, June 30, 2011

Buda and Pest


Full day of sightseeing today, starting with a bus tour of both Buda (the smaller, hillier side of the Danube) and Pest (the larger, bustling side). We started at Castle Hill and the statue of St. Stephen, who united and brought Christianity to Hungary. The view is tremendous, and is dominated by the huge Parliament building across the river in Pest. After the tour--which included many other sites including Hero Square and lots of history--we visited the Bela Bartok Unitarian Church (the 2nd Unitarian Church of Budapest) and met with the minister, Sandor Leta. Then it was time for a delicious lunch to replenish our batteries.



The afternoon's highlight was a visit to Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest in the world after New York City's Temple Emanu-El. The very moving weeping willow statue is a tribute to the Jews of Budapest who were killed in the Holocaust (the street itself was the border of the Budapest Ghetto).

Finally, a visit to the Central Market and some shopping polished off the afternoon. A hard day to top, but Marta and Mary were planning just how to do that tomorrow on the subway back to the hotel!


Posted by at 4:12 PM

Meanwhile in Bucharest


John, Jo Anne, and Denisa flew on to Bucharest after that no-sleep flight to Frankfurt. We could see the snowy peaks of the Alps off in the distance to our right, and we followed the Danube past Budapest to Bucharest. Unfortunately, Hungary and Transylvania were under clouds, but when we came out of the clouds over Wallachia it was interesting to see how different the agriculture looks from the air. Romanian fields are divided up into small portions only two or three yards wide, but three to four hundred yards long. Our friends here tell us that this is because the farmers wish to make room for all of the crops they wish to grow, and their actual plots are quite small.


It was obvious that there has been a great deal of change in Bucharest since we were last here. For one thing, we saw a huge water park just a couple of minutes north of the airport as we were landing, and a many shiny new big box stores on the road in from the airport. We saw the beautiful, leafy, laky Herestrau Park, and the Arch of Triumph at Victory Square before passing in on the still elegant, 19th century Paris Soseaua Kisileff. We are staying near University Square, site of the 1989 revolution. We had dinner at La Mama, which mean's "Mother's Place," which promises what your mother would make (if she were an expert at Romanian traditional cuisine), and where the food was very delicious and very inexpensive. We saw the Athenaeum, where a concert featuring the Barber Adagio was in progress, and the Athenee hotel, a nest of spies in the early months of World War II. Night at the "Relax Comfort Suites" hotel on the Avenue Nicolae Balcescu.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Opera, Dungeons, and Churches



First stop today: the First Unitarian Church of Budapest and its minister, the engaging József Kászoni-Kövendi. The elaborate and very high pulpit is truly unique, and the sanctuary is two floors above street level. The church building was built at the same time as the Parliament building.

Other stops that we all visited were the Museum of Terror (located in the former secret police headquarters) and the Budapest Opera House. Talk about a contrast! Luckily we did the beautiful, ornate Opera House last and were even treated to a 5-minute concert. The Terror Museum was cool, but truly terrible, complete with cells in the dungeons and execution rooms with gallows. Chilling.



Other places we visited today individually or in smaller groups included the Museum of Applied Arts, Museum of Hungarian Photography, the Franz Liszt House and Museum, Margaret Island, several folk art markets, the Geller Baths, and a Danube River cruise. The last few pictures below are from the evening cruise, for which the weather couldn't have been better---sunny and cool.

Tomorrow we are in for a 7.5-hour train ride to Koloszvar (Cluj), Transylvania, and I'm not sure about availability of internet connectivity there---but I'll try to post something as soon as I can.

Posted by at 4:15 PM

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Around Bucharest


A few of the sights of Bucharest. This is a wooden church from Muramures, taken down piece by piece in the 1930's and moved to the Village Museum at Herestrau Park in Bucharest. The Village Museum is a living history museum created by a sociology professor at the University of Bucharest to exhibit the very diverse material culture of the different regions of Romania. The wooden churches of Muramures are celebrated throughout Romania.



This is the centerpiece of the Freedom of the Press square, although the building seems to date from an era when the freedom of the press was not a key value.



This ruined bridge in Dambovita County shows something of the state in which Ceausescu left the infrastructure:


Herestrau Park, in the northern part of the city, is built around a series of natural lakes and undisturbed original forest. It's the equal of any large park in any city. You hardly remember that you are in a city when you are there.

Posted by John Burt at 4:17 PM



We are all now together as a traveling group! We converged in Koloszvar/Cluj this evening and enjoyed our first group dinner. Lots of catching up from our trips to Bucharest and Budapest and much conversation ensued. We are staying next door to the First Unitarian Church of Koloszvar on the top floor guest quarters at the official Unitarian seminary and high school. Very comfortable accommodations (and meeting room) as you can see from this photo of Marta and Zoltan already engaged in deep theological discussion.


Posted by at 3:32 PM

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Kolozsvar and Meszko


We began the day with a walking tour of Unitarian sites in Kolozsvar, starting at the Unitarian high school, where we are staying. This is the fourth Unitarian high school in this city, the others all being confiscated during different eras of intolerance. This school also was seized during the communist era and didn't reopen as a Unitarian high school until the 1990s.


We next visited the First Church of Kolozsvar. Unitarians were forbidden from having churches in most of the 18th century, and worshipped in houses. This church was hurriedly built in 1796 after the ban ended. They were so afraid that the ban would be reimposed that they built too quickly, and the church started to lean. In true Unitarian fashion, it leans a little to the left.

We saw also the rock, upon which it is said Francis David stood after winning the theological debate at Torda and converting the whole town to Unitarianism.

Then we visited St. Michael's church, which was David's actual church, now a cathedral, thanks to Stephen Bathory, who reimposed Catholicism on Transylvania after the death of John Sigismund. In front of the church is the sociology of Transylvania in miniature: a heroic statue of the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus, with everything indicating that he was a king of Hungary removed, facing recently excavated Roman ruins, to show who was here first. Just in case anybody still has any doubts, there's statue of Romulus and Remus around the corner.

Then we saw the dedication and first communion service (like a group Bar Mitzvah with 16 children each reciting answers to 136 theological questions), with all of the families looking on and preparing a celebratory lunch.

Marta experienced what it might be like to preach in such a beautiful place. Balint, like Balazs, studied at Starr King Theological School in California.

We had a Hungarian lunch in Kolozsvar, and split up to go either on a field trip or a visit to the ethnological museum of Transylvania. The field trip was to Meszko, the subject of the book The Alabaster Village. The church was small but wonderfully charming, with a ceiling painted with designs and drawings on wooden panels by its famous minister in the 1930s Ferencz Balazs, who also founded agricultural cooperatives, folk high schools, and rebuilt the church. We had a fascinating discussion with the current minister, Robert Balint, on the difference between what is chosen in religion and what is given, and

Next we visited Torda Gorge, but we couldn't descend because the rain had raised the water over the path. But you can see in the photo what a spectacular place it is.

Yesterday we tweaked Marta on the subject of deep theological discussions, so today we just had to have one. After having wrestled with the fundamental problems of Being and Destiny, we went out to dinner at Agape (where else could we have gone after such a discussion?), a restaurant run by the Catholic church.


Posted by at 3:29 PM

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Aeries and Arias


First, a look at our accommodations from last night, the Melita
Guest House, run by the Presbyterian Church, which prepared for us an abundant feast last night and this morning too.

The guest house was almost around the corner from the ruined fortress of Deva. Francis David was brought here after his condemnation as a heretic by George Biandrata, because Deva was far from Koloszvar and Torda, where the people were sympathetic to him. David died within a short time of arriving here. The fortress was ruined when its Austrian defenders during the revolution of 1848 chose to blow up its magazines rather than turn the fort over. To reach the summit of the steep, isolated hill outside of town, we took a funicular up into the clouds. (At the base was the gymnasium where Nadia Comenici and all of the other famous Romanian gymnasts trained. It made for a strange contrast.) The shattered bastions, particularly in fog and rain, seemed haunted by David's death. The cell, which the UUA persuaded the government to set aside as a monument for David, may or may not have been his actual cell, but it was the only one to survive the 1848 explosion.
In the photo, you see Z0ltan, Michael, Denisa, and Marta in front of the Francis David cell.

Next we drove to the Hunyadi castle in the city of Hunedoara. Hunedoara was a great steelmaking center under Communism, but only one of its many mills remains operational today. The castle, in fact, is surrounded by abandoned steel mills. We visited Hunyadi's grave yesterday, and his son, Matthias Corvinus, was the last seen by us mounted heroically upon a bronze steed in Kolozsvar. The castle seemed to be every little boy's idea of what a castle should look like, also it seems more like a castle out of Wagner than out of Disney. Speaking of opera, we entered the castle to the sound of a rehearsal of La Traviata in progress, which several of us sat and watched, transfixed. The castle itself was full of reminders of the brutality of the middle ages, from the isolated defensive tower (called "Don't be afraid") which could, in its day, only be reached by a rope bridge, to the 26 meter deep well dug by Turkish prisoners over fifteen years who had been promised freedom, only to be murdered instead. They left a chilling inscription in the well: "Now you have water but you have lost your soul."

From there we drove through a beautiful, hill-bordered valley up into the mountains. The fresh green landscape looked remarkably like Bavaria. We arrived in Sibiu in midafternoon and dropped Zoltan off at the railroad station to return to Gagy to prepare for our arrival on Thursday. Sibiu was one of the cities of the Saxons, brought to the Carpathians to hold off the Turks, and the German aspect of the city's architecture has survived the departure of almost all of its German speaking inhabitants. Sibiu has been named a cultural center by the United Nations, and as a result has been spruced up considerably. We enjoyed a taste of the cafe life before setting out in quest of a restaurant we had read about in our guidebook. We searched for the restaurant for quite some time before discovering that it was the very cafe we had just left. We retired to the hotel and to a beautiful sunset over the old city.


Posted by John Burt at 3:08 PM

Saints and Martyrs


Our first stop today (4 July) was the church at Torda, where the great debate happened that made Francis David so famous for proclaiming the principle of religious freedom and tolerance. The church is practically in the middle of the road in town, and was in some disrepair. This is the view of the main sanctuary space.

Then it was on to Alba Iulia, or Gyulafehervar, for lunch at a medieval-themed restaurant in the middle of the restored fortified town wall. You can see a few of us walking toward the entrance in the picture below. This town is also the home of the thousand-year-old St. Michael’s cathedral, where the great King John Sigismund is buried along with his mother Queen Isabella, and the Hungarian hero King Janos Hunyadi (and his sons), who defeated the Turks in the 15th century. We also visited the Orthodox cathedral next door, which was built in 1920 to commemorate the coronation of Romanian King Ferdinand and Queen Maria, granddaughter of Queen Victoria.


There was an archaeological dig in progress in front of the cathedral as well (complete with exposed skeletons), which concerned either a medieval cemetery or Roman ruins, depending on whom you asked.

Deva was our next stop on gray, cold, and rainy afternoon. We put off visiting the citadel where Francis David was imprisoned and died until the next day. After dinner, we put Zoltan on the theological hot seat and conducted the Diet of Deva.


Posted by at 2:09 PM

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Folk and Fortifications


The day started with a visit to te very large grounds of the Astra Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization in the outskirts of Sibiu. They had hundreds of outdoor exhibits mostly concerning folk industries like pottery-making, weaving, cider and oil presses, and mills of all sorts. Although most of this technology goes back to the Middle Ages, at least one of these mills was working until 1960. There were also homesteads of the characteristic styles of different regions. In the fence below, notice how the fence was woven together out of green branches and then a roof built over it to keep it from rotting in the rain.

The funky-looking wooden ferris wheel is actually a swing (or a medieval carnival ride) and we saw a picture showing it in use by kids and adults.



This is the painted ceiling of a traditional small (and I mean small) wooden church from Maramures. The sanctuary couldn't have been larger than 12' x 20'.

Many of the exhibits were arranged around a small lake---you may notice the collection of different kinds of windmills behind Jo Anne, Marta, and Mary.

In beautiful weather like we had this morning, even the Middle Ages seem attractive.



After lunch we were free to wander around the city admiring the amazing Saxon architecture of central Sibiu. A portion of the city walls survives, and each of the towers was maintained by a different Guild. This tower was maintained by the Potters Guild.


Tomorrow we're off to the village of Gagy to meet and get to know the people of our partner church, and learn what village life is all about.


Posted by at 3:07 PM

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Spirits and Spirituality



A view of the Gagy Unitarian Church (with the reformed church in the background) on the way into town. What you can't see in the picture are the green hills in every direction. If we were to paint them, a critic might say, "Really? Come on, it can't truly be like that!"

There was a brief reception for us in Zoltan's office in which we drank the first of many toasts of palinka (extremely potent home-made fruit brandy, the first of which was made from pears and had been aged for 15 years). People attending were the mayor of Gagy, the congregation president, the past president, Zoltan, and our host families (and us, of course).

We presented the quilts for Botond and Emese (and Zoltan and Magdika) and read the accompanying letter from the quilters.



Then it was on to the church and an introduction and question and answer session about the history of the church and its people. They also had questions for us about Unitarianism in America. (And Marta tried out another Transylvanian pulpit.)


Across the street from the church and in front of the Community House is the town sign (pictured above with one of the pilgrims). This sign also advertises the next game for the town futbol team.

Also nearby is the town playground, which was a joint project between the church and the mayor's office. As nice as it looks, there are plans for more improvements to the grounds.


We took a tour of the town during which Mary admired a neighborhood garden, whose owner invited us in for another round of palinka. He also gave a gift of a rose to Marta, Mary, Carol, Jo Anne, Denisa, and Eniko (Michael's host's daughter).

Shortly before sunset, the cows came home from the hills. The drover moved them along the streets with a cracking whip and they each knew exactly where to turn off from the convoy.
The church president, Mihai Pal, invited us to watch him milk his cows. A truck picks up the milk every day and takes it to the dairy plant.



But some of it didn't make it there.


Posted by John Burt at 3:24 PM

Dancing and Divinity



Sunday began with a joint service by Zoltan and Marta. There was peak attendance as villagers came to see just who these strange pilgrims were, wandering around town. As in many Transylvanian churches, men and women sat in separate pews and the men entered in a group following the ministers after all the women were seated.

Their women's choir, led by Zoltan, sang "Spirit of Life" to us in English. Marta asked John to do a solo on the spur of the moment as our musical contribution ("This Is My Song", the official partnership church hymn), which he nailed.

Marta's sermon's theme centered on showing kindness to strangers, an apropos topic to all of us. Zoltan translated it as it was delivered, and then all of us from Arlington read a selection of passages to give our hosts a more complete picture of Arlington. Our hosts were very moved to have us there, and everyone was moved by the whole spiritual experience.

After the service there was a goulash party in the community hall across the street, which about 80 people attended. The goulash was prepared in a large cauldron in the yard. The elders were up front (with the mayor at right). The former minister attended and talked with Marta and Zoltan after giving a five-minute address.

As the goulash was cooking, we drank too much of several kinds of palinka, so that when the meal was over the singing began. Our hosts started it off with a hearty Transylvanian anthem, we answered with "If I Had A Hammer", and after they responded with another local song, we came back with "When All The Saints Go Marching In". To the next song, many of the women got up and danced, and we were reduced to teaching everyone the Hokey Pokey.

At the same time as the goulash party (which was the cool place to be in more ways than one since it was over 90 degrees Fahrenheit), there was a local futbol tournament happening up the road. Our friend Lajos was grilling sausages for the hungry players and their fans. There were about five teams, all of which played six short games lasting into the evening.

As Michael watched with a complimentary beer in his hand, he was asked to play. Unfortunately it was just before needing to leave to meet up with the rest of the pilgrims (which was ok considering he was still in his church clothes and it was so hot).

We then visited Kismedeser---a very small village a few miles from Gagy. Zoltan preaches there once a month to the handful of residents that remain. To get to the church, you must ford the Gagy River, where the bridge was washed out a number of years ago. The church seems forlorn from the outside but was charming and beautiful on the inside, and of course Marta made a beeline straight to the pulpit. The table in front of the pulpit was a masterpiece of folk art, sitting on the dirt floor of the church.

On our way out of Kismedeser, Csilla wanted to show us her uncle's old house. We ended up interrupting a pizza party that her relatives were having, and they invited us to share some pizza before we left.


Posted by at 3:02 PM


Baking and Breaking Bread


Our first job of the day (Friday) was to "supervise" the bread baking in Zoltan's outdoor oven. The bread was already rising when we arrived (overseen by local experts). Almost every house has an outdoor baking oven. They mix and raise the dough in a large wooden trough that have seen decades of use (and many repairs). They build a fire in the oven until the bricks turn white. Then the coals are moved to the front and the oven is swabbed out with a wet mop. They form loaves and place them on top of wet cabbage leaves, which are then slid into the oven with a large wooden paddle. When the bread is cooked, they knock off the outer crust with mallets and smooth out the crust with graters. The finished product, shown with bakers, was saved for the Mittitei party later in the day. In the meantime, we enjoyed a local delicacy, a sweet cheese bread usually made only for Pentecost.

While the bread was baking, Michael, Denisa, Marta, and Bori (18-year-old translator and granddaughter of Michael's hosts) took a morning stroll near the village. In addition to getting a sense of the countryside, we saw a stork on top of the church (the nest is right next to the building) and got some different views of the village.

Before the party, Bori showed us pictures of her life (including a school dance or two). The party was a big hit, especially the bread and the grilled sausages (mittitei----a Romanian specialty). Everyone ate and drank and made merry, including Denisa and her new friend.


Posted by at 2:53 AM

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Going Back In Time (sort of)



In the morning (Saturday), John, Jo Anne, and Denisa's hosts (the Nagy's) also baked bread. With the last of the dough they made a pastry called kertesz kolacs (chimney cakes). They rolled a ribbon of dough onto a wooden form like a long rolling pin. Then they basted it with oil and egg, and rolled it in sugar. When the embers were piled on the platform in front of the bread oven, they lay the rod across the embers, supported on bricks, and rolled it as it cooked, so that it would caramelize evenly. When they were done, they would carefully slip the pastry off the pins. They were delicious, and they made enough of them to feed an army.

We also met Eva and Csilla, the daughters of the Nagy's, who stopped to say hi. Eva just finished university and is starting graduate school in special education. Csilla is about to start university in the fall and wants to be a lawyer. Csilla has also been Jo Anne's pen-pal for the past year (we're not sure at what point she realized that she was not corresponding with a fellow teenager).

The day before, Mary met some little boys getting water from the well outside her guest house. This morning she discovered fresh flowers on her doorstep, which the boys were embarrassed to admit was their handiwork.

Saturday's theme was time travel. We visiting several local workshops, including a blacksmith, a wheelwright, and an embroiderer. All three are masters of dying crafts with nobody to carry on their tradition. The blacksmith made two horseshoes (his primary product) while we were there and his assistant was Lajos, who made and cooked yesterday's mittitei. The blacksmith has been doing this work for 57 years, since he was 14.

The wheelwright demonstrated several special tools he uses. In addition to wheels, he also makes barrels for storing the fruit waiting to be distilled into palinka. The embroiderer (Lajos's mother Matild) invited us into her home, which was filled with gorgeous examples of her work.

The highlight of the afternoon was a horse cart ride through the village and up into the hills. We met our friend the stork again and headed out of town. The lay president of the church, Mihai, whom you have seen in a previous post milking his cows, became a grandfather yesterday. We think the stork is resting by the church from his labors. (They have the same folk belief about storks and babies that we do.)

The ride was very bumpy but scenic, as we passed families we met at the party yesterday working in the fields. Most agriculture in Gagy is still horse-powered and you still see horse carts on the highway carrying hay or logs (to the vexation of all the truck drivers). We passed a renovated cabin in the hills that is now used as a summer camp for children. The view from the top was breathtaking. And on the way down, we saw a nice scene that sums up the local culture: our friend Lajos, one of the horse cart drivers, on his cell phone.


Posted by at 3:19 AM

Monday, July 11, 2011

Farewell to Gagy


We headed out of Gagy in the morning, giving tearful goodbyes to all our new friends. The mayor showed up to see us off as well.

Then it was on to Segesvar/Sighisoara, a German-Saxon town and birthplace of Vlad Tepes, the Impaler (aka Dracula)---who otherwise had nothing whatsoever to do with Transylvania.

We entered through a main gate, complete with portcullis. The town is famous for its 17th century clock tower.


One reaches the Church on the Rock via a covered stairway with almost 200 steps. One can visit the creepy crypt under the altar.

Its beautiful streets also contain a few odd decorations. The Saxons may have been fierce, but were not without whimsy.


Finally, we had our farewell dinner in the beautiful Agape Restaurant, which we knew and loved from our previous stay in Koloszvar. Farewell, Transylvania!


Posted by at 4:00 PM



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