Feast Day: August 16th | Patron of Hungary, Kings, Stonemasons/Bricklayers, Protector against the Death of Children
We’ve got ourselves quite the story this week (and the next two weeks as well. This’ll be another three-part-er.) We begin our tale on January 6, 1978. On that feast of the Epiphany, the US Secretary of State, an Illinois Senator, a Nobel Prize Laureate, and a Catholic Monsignor stepped off a plane carrying an ancient crown… No joke here, the Secretary of State was Cyrus Vance (who carried the crown), the senator was Adlai Stevenson (of Illinois), with them was Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi (who discovered Vitamin C and had won the Nobel Prize for Medicine because of that discovery in 1937), and along as part of the delegation as well was Msgr. George Higgins (a Catholic priest ordained in Chicago, who had attended Vatican II and had since gained fame for his defending the rights of workers.)
But this is where our story gets even crazier. These men, and a few others, had been sent by President Jimmy Carter to return to Hungary the 1000-year-old Holy Crown of St. Stephen that had been spirited out of that country in 1945 to save it from the Communists, and in the intervening 32 years it had been safeguarded at Fort Knox! History is stranger than fiction! A Hungarian Army Colonel, perhaps part of the Hungarian Crown Guard, on May 4th, 1945, had handed a non-descript black bag containing that sacred crown and the other Hungarian crown-jewels, to an American Army Colonel of the U.S. 86th Infantry, in order to get them away from Hungary, where they had been hidden (buried somewhere in the castle to keep them from the Nazi’s), but where it was now feared that the Communists, who were coming to power in Hungary, would eventually find them. The Americans smuggled them west, and got them safely out of Europe, eventually all the way to safekeeping with the US Gold Reserve. History is way stranger than fiction!
If you were to fly into the Budapest at night, as that delegation just had after a hasty refuel in England, you would see clearly lit below you an ancient city divided by the Danube river. On the western bank you would see the enormous and ancient Budávari castle surrounded now by communist architecture, the aftermath of the brutal annihilation of the city between Nazi and Soviet forces in 1944. On the Eastern bank you would see much of the medieval brick and stone city still intact, with homes and churches stretching east up from the river. A hundred years before, these were actually two cities, “Buda” and “Pest”, beautifully perched on either side of the river, which merged into the one city of Budapest in 1872, becoming a united capital for the Kingdom of Hungary. Both cities had, for centuries, been known for their numerous lime kilns, with “buda” being the German word for “furnace” and “pest” being the Slavic term. There in its name itself, you can already see some of the cultural-overlap that had happened here over the centuries, but to get to the heart of that, and to find out more about that sacred crown, and the story of St. Stephen himself, we’re going to have to rewind the clock a bit further.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin once dressed up as St. Louis King of France for Halloween, and as part of his costume had to craft a crown out of cardboard, gold spray-paint, and glue-on plastic gem “stones”, … so nothing nearly as beautiful, historic, valuable, or sacred as that which crowned St. Stephen.