By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Citizen)
Fairfield, CT – Near to the ceiling on a wall space above a stage in Calvin United Church of Christ’s Calvin Hall, there’s an expression painted that sums up the open-armed feeling exhibited here: “Isten Hozott”, Hungarian for “Welcome.” That spirit is seen in the friendly faces and warm handshakes that greet you, clap on the back from the head clergyman, wonderful food smells that tickle your senses and folksy music that recalls an Old Country atmosphere.
These elements were part of the reception attendees of the Church’s Annual Picnic encountered midday Sunday. According to Bishop Bela Poznan, the institution’s leader, the event has been held for the past 17 consecutive years. “For 15 years, we had sunny weather,” he said, and the event was held outside under sun tents. “The last two years, we have had rainy weather, but people are still faithful and come to enjoy the fresh food.”
There was no lack of the aforementioned, which covered the tops of several long tables at the head of the room. In pots, trays, bowls, plates and warming dishes was gulyas (goulash), chicken paprikas, stuffed chicken legs, roast pork dinner, kolbasz (sausage), stuffed cabbage, stuffed peppers and a field of pastries.
Standing behind the tables were several volunteers, spooning these wonderful selections onto large paper plates and handing them to patrons, who were mostly Hungarian, and Roman Catholic, the church’s discipline.
“My maiden name is Horvath,” said one volunteer, black-haired, pleasant-faced Gabriella Kari. “I was born in Kisgyar, Hungary, and came to the U.S. in 2000. I came by myself to visit a Hungarian friend. She ended up going back to Hungary, while I stayed. I married, but divorced five years ago. I’ve gotten used to life here, but I still like to take part in Old Country traditions.”
Manning the dessert table was the Bishop’s wife, Julianna Poznan, along with Rita Boldogh. “This is the biggest event of the year besides the Beef Goulash Dinner in January,” Julianna said. “One-hundred percent of the funds raised here go to our mission work and to support the church.”
The Bishop noted that the parish was founded in 1925 and has always been Hungarian based. Currently, there are 120 parishioners. “Membership has dropped over the years as older parishioners die,” said Bishop Poznan. “The Hungarian church is experiencing a real estate crisis in Fairfield. It’s hard for people of lower and mid-income to get established here. People are having to come from great distances to enjoy services.”
Looking out across the sea of faces gathered in the hall, one could see they were mostly senior citizens – the aging population of which Poznan spoke. Their collective memories held many stories, but perhaps no more so than Steve Olajos. He was one of some 30,000 Hungarian Freedom Fighters who, in 1956, revolted against Russian occupation of their country imposed by Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev. Olajos was reluctant to dredge up details, so he instead shared his experience in the United States.
“I came here in 1973,” he said, “and established a precision metal fabricating business in New Haven. It’s a blessing to be an American citizen, to be free with ideas, enhance your wisdom, pursue your dreams. I’m thankful to God for all my achievements and success.”
Sitting within earshot of Olajos, Veronica Litrop, who is Slovenian but was raised in a Hungarian community in the west end of Bridgeport known as Hunk Town, shared her own thoughts about declining church membership. “In the late 50s, the exodus began, with people moving from Bridgeport to Fairfield, and Easton. Young Hungarians are mixed marrying and not following religious traditions. When you pick and choose what you want in a religion, it becomes diluted.”
Certainly, challenges to the enclave were several going forward but, for now, the uppermost thought was “Jo Etvagyat” – a Hungarian’s way of saying “Bon Appetit” or “enjoy your meal.”