The pastor of St. Stephen of Hungary Church’s pastor, Angelus Gambatese, OFM, provided this reflection about the New York City church’s namesake, whose feast is Aug. 16. Although in many ways, St. Stephen ruled with an iron fist, he was also renowned for his charity. This reflection also appears on the parish’s Web site.
When St. Stephen of Hungary (975 to 1038) lived during the 10th and 11th centuries, many areas of Europe were ruled by warring fiefdoms and leaders struggling to build nations. The Magyar House of Árpád was determined to create a country that would be known as Hungary.
During the late 900s, Duke Géza fought tirelessly to unite the Magyar tribes of Hungary and forge closer ties to Western Europe. He was convinced that Christianity would help to forge his people into a strong country. In 985, the duke and his entire family converted to Catholicism. His son was to become St. Stephen of Hungary.
The First King of Hungary
When St. Stephen came of age, he continued his father’s work and forcibly wrestled control of Hungary from warring factions. On Christmas Day in the year 1000, he became the first king of Hungary. His crown was a gift sent from Rome by Pope Sylvester II.
István Király (King Stephen) demanded that all Magyars convert to Christianity. He built churches, appointed bishops and invited Benedictine monks to teach the people.
St. Stephen recognized that it would take time for newly converted Magyars to develop the habit of practicing their faith, including attendance at Sunday Mass. Knowing that farmers and tradesmen held market days once a week in towns throughout Hungary, he ordered that towns with churches could only host markets after Mass on Sundays.
“Make the strangers welcome in this land; let them keep their languages and customs, for weak and fragile is the realm which is based on a single language or on a single set of customs.”
— St. Stephen in a letter to his son, St. Emeric (Imre), 1036 A.D.
Known for his Charity
Though in many ways he ruled with an iron fist, St. Stephen was also renowned for his charity. Once, when a crowd of beggars knocked him off his horse, he calmly stood up and assured them, “I will always give alms to anyone who asks me.”
The last two years of his life were marred by sickness and tragedy. His son, Emeric, was killed in a hunting accident, and nephews vied for his throne. Still, by the time of his death, St. Stephen had created a stable nation — one that would become a bulwark against the Ottoman Empire, an asylum for refugees, and rich in cultural achievements.
His dynasty ruled Hungary for 300 years. It also gave the Church numerous saints, including his wife, Giselle, and his son, Emeric, as well as King St. Laszlo of Hungary, St. Elisabeth of Hungary, her niece, St. Elisabeth of Portugal; St. Margaret of Scotland, St. Margaret of Hungary, and her two sisters, Blessed Yolanta and St. Kinga, both of Poland.