A vision of home
BERKELEY SPRINGS — Ilona Gyorik walked slowly across the churchyard, each careful step a victory over her 80 years. She emerged from the shadow of the steeple and made her way to the weathered, wooden bell tower.
“I never leave without ringing the bell,” she announced in an accent brimming with Eastern Europe — in this case, Hungary.
She pulled hard on the thick rope, rolling her shoulders downward to get all of her strength into the cherished task. The peal was sharp and clear and it rolled for miles along Tabor Ridge.
It has been nearly 25 years since Gyorik and her late husband first laid eyes on this property. They were searching for land to build a chapel — a Hungarian chapel, like the ones they left behind when they fled the Iron Curtain.
When they saw the sign for Tabor Road, they knew they had found the place. Tabor is the Hungarian word for camp.
“You wouldn’t believe how happy we were when we started to build here,” Gyorik said, smiling at the memory. But her tone soon turned wistful. “And now ... it’s over.”
‘Fate delivered us’
Rebellion was brewing in Hungary in the autumn of 1956. Young intellectuals were making a push for Hungarian independence.
University students formed a political organization and began making demands, among them the end of Soviet occupation and communism. They wanted Hungary out of the Warsaw Pact, the agreement that bound satellite countries together in a Soviet alliance.
The movement quickly turned deadly when Hungarian secret police opened fire on demonstrators on Oct. 23.
The Soviet army then moved in, prompting the rebels, who would become known as Freedom Fighters, to pick up arms and try to repel the tanks that rolled into Budapest.
Soon, the tanks retreated, and the Freedom Fighters spent several days believing that they had taken back their homeland. But it was not to be. The Soviets stormed back with thunderous force and quickly smashed the revolution.
The initial deaths in the fighting — numbering in the thousands for the Freedom Fighters — were followed by trials, imprisonment and, for hundreds, executions.
Ilona Gyorik’s husband, Jozsef, was 48 at the time of the revolution. A talented engineer with ideas contrary to the ruling party, he had already tasted imprisonment — 20 months — at the hands of his communist government.
Unwilling to let that happen again, he and his family headed for the Austrian border. They had special stamps on their papers that allowed them to get close to the border because Jozsef’s son was attending a boarding school nearby.
“That was our luck in ’56,” Gyorik said. “The police stopped us, so we said we were going to see my husband’s son.
“Fate delivered us ... but [in Europe] the enemy was always close behind.”
America was their hope.
About 200,000 refugees escaped Hungary in late 1956. At the border, Gyorik, then 31, impulsively scooped up a handful of soil and thrust it into her pocket, a final keepsake from a land to which she would never return.
A chapel of their own
The Hungarians who settled in the United States gathered in clusters. They formed chapters of a Hungarian Freedom Fighters’ Federation.
The Gyoriks became part of the Washington, D.C., group. They soon acclimated to life away from their homeland, but firmly held on to their Hungarian traditions.
In 1962, the D.C. Freedom Fighters began celebrating their heritage by presenting an annual Hungaria Ball, a lavish affair complete with debutantes escorted by midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy. The first ball was held at Georgetown University.
Gyorik was secretary of the D.C. Freedom Fighters, and worked to plan each year’s gala, which included a host of honorary patrons from Sen. Robert C. Byrd to Bob Dole.
Meanwhile, Gyorik, her husband and others in the D.C. group, many of whom attended the National Cathedral, turned their attention to plans for a chapel of their own, a place uniquely Hungarian.
Gyorik and her husband both suffered from arthritis. They often ventured from their D.C.-area home to Berkeley Springs to take soothing mineral baths in the naturally flowing waters.
They decided their chapel should be here, where the deeply forested mountains reminded them of home. And so, with the group’s purchase of 183 acres in 1972, a little bit of Hungary took root in West Virginia.
Gyorik said the plan was for a Hungarian community, surrounding the chapel. The idea to sell lots to Hungarians never really played out, but in 1979, the group broke ground on the chapel.
Phil Maggio, the Morgan County commissioner who recently died, was the builder.
The work was slow going, and Gyorik worked to keep the donations flowing by holding Hungarian dinners and fundraisers.
“I kept the Hungarians together with food,” she said.
Alba Regia Chapel opened in 1981 with ecumenical services on the second Sunday of the month from May to October.
Twenty-five years after fleeing a wrecked and bloody Hungary, the Gyoriks and the others had re-created a peaceful, spiritual memory of home.
A mournful refrain
The chapel perches at the top of a long, winding lane. The steeple, built in the style of northern Hungary, is ringed with colorful crests of Hungarian counties. Carved wood and ironwork are evident all around the small building, and a bank of tiered plants and shrubs seem to lift the chapel even higher.
Early one recent afternoon, Ilona Gyorik pulled aside the heavy door of the underground crypt. Cool air rushed out from the dim interior, meeting the hot day head on.
The remains of dozens of Hungarians who fled their homeland for America are at peace in the walls. Gyorik’s husband, Jozsef, is among them. He died in 1982.
“I’ll never forgive him for that,” she said with more than a hint of seriousness.
Inside the cool confines, Gyorik pointed out each burial plaque with the crook of her cane, telling of the people behind the names, people like Ilona Massey, the 1940s Hollywood actress who championed anti-communism causes, particularly after the 1956 uprising.
The dead are from all over — New York City, California, Florida — their only similarity a desire to be buried in a true Hungarian chapel, albeit thousands of miles from the graves of their ancestors.
Gyorik touched her cane to a black case stashed under a bench in a darkened corner.
“Open it for me,” she said.
The case overflowed with baby food jars and film canisters, each full of powdery Hungarian ground, each labeled with the name of a Hungarian region. Those who venture back to the motherland return with a jar of soil, much like the piece of Hungary that Gyorik took from the border so many years before.
Everyone buried at Alba Regia is buried with a handful of home.
Gyorik struggled to lift a few of the plaques that are yet to be installed, hoping to show off their engravings.
“When we started, everybody helped us. But the new generation is not interested. The new generation is different,” she said, again asking a visitor for help. “My biggest problem is, no one wants to take my job. What will happen when I go?”
Regular services haven’t been held at the chapel since the minister died seven years ago, Gyorik said. The chapel and its grounds are falling into disrepair. A water-damaged hole gapes in the ceiling beneath the steeple.
The churchyard once overflowed with Hungarian gatherings, weddings and christenings. Now, it’s just the occasional funeral and burial, she said.
“Things would be better if the old ones didn’t have to go. It’s over ... it’s over,” she said, the words a refrain in her story of the chapel.
Inside the chapel, golden-hued, delicately curving wood, much of it carved by Gyorik, surrounds visitors. Colored light, filtering through stained-glass windows, illuminates Hungarian flags. The faces of the legends of Hungarian history gaze down from the ceiling, along with a patchwork of coats-of-arms.
“I’ve spent a couple thousand hours here,” Gyorik said, carefully lowering herself into the first pew.
A plaque commemorating Gyorik’s service to the chapel and the Freedom Fighters is propped against a nearby wall.
“I hope there will be a rejuvenation with the young people,” she said. “Everyone is too busy today.”
After stopping by the stones in the graveyard and ringing the bell goodbye, Gyorik rode along the lane leading away from the church. The physical trials of her age didn’t allow her to look back as the steeple disappeared behind the trees.
“Everything is changing,” she said quietly.
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Staff writer Tara Tuckwiller contributed to this story.
To contact staff writer Robert J. Byers, use e-mail or call 348-1236.