Hungarian nativity play is Birmingham indicator

By Joshua Benton and Jack Baessler
Blade Staff Writers

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Lack of Hungarian-speaking men and the further decline of Hungarian culture in the Birmingham neighborhood appear to be the reason for the cancellation of a century-old Christmas tradition, authorities on the neighborhood said.

For the second straight year, the oreg (pronounced er-deg), a colorful Hungarian nativity drama that celebrates the birth of Christ, won’t be performed at St. Stephen’s Church, 1880 Genesee St.

This year’s cancellation of the light-hearted play can be blamed on busy schedules, a lack of Hungarian speakers, and a change of pastors, church officials said.

But some say it indicates one of Tole do’s proudest ethnic neighborhoods may be los ing its unique character. It also might be due to a lack of leadership at St. Stephen’s, they say.

“A neighborhood is dynamic,” said Andrew Ludanyi, a political science professor at Ohio Northern University who has studied the neighborhood. “It’s going to revive if there are leaders interested in giving the neighborhood life. In the leadership in the Catholic Church, I think a dynamic personality is missing.

“The play deserves to be preserved. I’m sure if there was institutional support for it, people could be recruited. … Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

“We are going to have to work on getting others to learn it so we can do it next year,” said Father Ken Morman, associate pastor at St. Stephen’s.

“I think this is just a temporary setback,” said John Ahern, a University of Toledo education professor who directs the Birmingham Cultural Center. “I am convinced that next year, with the stability in the pastorate, that it will return, in one form or another.”

He said that might mean the Hungarian script might be translated into English, with the singing still in the original tongue.

“It would not be the same [in English],” Mr. Ahern said. “But the Hungarian-Americans have adjusted to a number of changes.”

Elmer Molnar, a member of St. Stephen’s parish council, said yesterday the play still has a strong appeal in the East Toledo neighborhood and among Hungarians around the city who mark the season by attending the pageant.

“I think we will hear some comments if we don’t have it,” Mr. Molnar said. “It is easy to say why don’t we have it. But somebody has to take the bull by the horns and say, ‘Let’s have it.'”

About a week ago, St. Stephen’s parishioners read in their bulletins that the absence of complete scripts for the pageant had forced its cancellation, he said.

Parish council members had been told Peter Ujvagi had taken chairmanship of the drama and would see that it was performed, Mr. Molnar said.

“Since he was chair, you ought to talk to him about it,” he said.

Mr. Ujvagi, a Toledo councilman, could not be reached.

The pageant failed to be performed a year ago because the church was in the midst of changing priests, Mr. Molnar said.

“It was all up in the air,” he said. “We didn’t know who was coming.”

The oreg has its origins in early Christian tradition that dates to the 7th century when Pope Theo do si us had the relics of Bethlehem brought to Rome.

Drawing from that event, people built little manger scenes. Later, festival plays were created.

Various versions evolved. Some were faithful to Christian teachings, and some strayed from the original form and were banished from churches in the 13th century.

Later, more faithful scripts were spread by Jesuit and Franciscan schools throughout central Europe. These plays eventually were brought to Toledo and enacted at Christmas.

The pageant was outlawed in Hungary by the Communists after World War II and, when communism fell almost a decade ago, native Hungarians came to Toledo to relearn the play’s traditions, Mr. Ahern said.

“That’s a pretty powerful tradition,” he said.

Yolanda Danyi Szuch, who has written a history of St. Stephen’s Church, said the plays included an Old Man, who was regarded as cranky, lazy, and hard of hearing. His flaws represented the dark side of human nature.

Several decades ago, it was common to have tryouts for the six to 10 roles in the oreg cast and commitments to do a lengthy list of performances.

In recent years, performances were limited to Midnight Mass at St. Stephen’s.

“For me, it was really great when the oreg came,” said Louis Dudas, a St. Stephen’s church member, recalling when the troupes visited his home.”

Several parishioners couldn’t agree whether the loss of the oregs marked a decline in the Hungarian influence in the East Toledo neighborhood.

Mr. Dudas said the cancellations reflect the ethnic group’s loss of influence. “There is nobody to do it anymore,” he said. “The Birmingham neighborhood is basically not a Hungarian neighborhood. There are all kinds of people living here.”

Nancy Packo Horvath, co-owner of Tony Packo’s Cafe, and Mariska Kinsey, owner of Kinsey funeral home, disagreed.

“It is a great loss and I am hopeful it will come back,” Ms. Horvath said.

The Rev. Imre Bertalan, pastor of Calvin United Church of Christ near St. Stephen’s, said the oreg has important lessons and was enjoyed by many people.

“Maybe we will try to band together to perform it ecumenically,” Mr. Bertalan said.

Mr. Ludanyi said the church needs to find a strong leader to bring the neighborhood together.

“I think the Catholic Church should look for a good ethnic parish priest who cares about the ethnic character of the neighborhood,” he said. “If that happens, the play will continue for another 100 years.

Mr. Ahern said the play’s performance is an important part of keeping the neighborhood’s morale high.

“There’s a lot of sadness at a very joyous time of year. It’s like the loss of a friend of the family,” he said. “I suspect whoever is pastor next year will give this a high priority.”

But he is confident the play will return. “I’ll bet you $25 it will be back in next year,” he said.