Moments Of Creation – Debrecen’s Saint Andras Church: From Ruin To Reconstruction (For The Love of Hungary Part 17)

In my travels around Hungary it became apparent to me that most Hungarian provincial cities had a great church at their core. Sopron has the Goat Church, Szeged the Votive Church, Szekesfehervar St. Stephen’s Cathedral. These are just a few of numerous examples. In this respect, Debrecen is no different. The spiritual and aesthetic heart of Debrecen can be found between Kossuth and Kalvin ters (Kossuth and Kalvin Squares) at the northern terminus of Piac utca, where the Great Reformed Church (a reformatus nagytemplom) stands today. This is the point upon which everything else in Debrecen’s Belvaros (Inner City) revolves. And it has been this way for over seven hundred years. Long before Debrecen became known as the Calvinist Rome and was more a muddy oversized village than modern metropolis, a church stood in the same area that the Great Reformed Church does today.

Frame of Reference - Saint Andras Church in the 16th century

Frame of Reference – Saint Andras Church in the 16th century (Credit: Lajos Zoltai)


A Spiritual Symbol – Frame Of Reference

Almost immediately, the Great Reformed Church and Debrecen became inseparable in my mind. When someone mentioned Debrecen, an image of the church was the first thing I thought of. It was hard for me to imagine that the massive, lemon colored edifice had not always been here. The modern iteration of the church is only a couple of hundred years old. Prior to the 19th century, other churches just as unique in their own way stood in the same spot. As a matter of fact, Debrecen has been defined by a church in the center going back to its earliest days. Knowledge of the first church in this location comes from archaeological excavations. It was likely a Romanesque structure, but since no records or drawings have been discovered, its layout is open to conjecture. The first documented church in the area was constructed in the early 14th century on the orders of a man who shared a last name with the town, the local Palatine Dozsa Debreceni. This large, single aisled Gothic style church sported an octagonal tower. It was dedicated to Saint Andras, thus giving it the name that the church would be known by for many centuries.

The best frame of reference for what the church looked like comes from a similar one that can still be visited today in the town of Csenger, located approximately 100 kilometers northeast of Debrecen, close to the Hungary-Romania border. The church in Csenger was built around the same time as the one in Debrecen. Unlike the church in Csenger, the one in Debrecen underwent a massive overhaul in the latter half of the 14th century, developing it into the most prominent Gothic Hall church on the Great Hungarian Plain. It was expanded to three aisles with six columns each and contained two altars. The church’s size and importance helped solidify Debrecen as the leading town in the region, known for its markets and trade fairs. It would stand as a testament to the power and wealth of the town for the next two hundred years.

Financing Faith – Transylvanian Assistance
One of the most consistent scourges in early modern European history was fire. It could sweep through a village, town or city in a matter of hours leaving its inhabitants destitute and turn buildings into charred ruins. Debrecen was not immune to this destructive phenomenon, nor were its churches, including Saint Andras (Saint Andrew). At the beginning of autumn in 1564, the church was torched by a conflagration that left it a smoldering ruin. Rebuilding went slowly due to the destruction. A decade after the fire, a new chapel was super imposed over what was left of the old one. This area of the church was one of the few that was salvageable. With war raging against the Ottoman Turks and Debrecen on the front line, a full scale rebuilding would not start until 62 years later. It took the leadership of Transylvania’s greatest leader, Prince Gabor Bethlen to provide financial assistance in getting the replacement church started. He donated an incredible sum of money, 1500 florins, for the project. Prince Bethlen also cancelled an annual estate tax on Debrecen so this sum could also be put toward the project.

In addition, to Bethlen’s help, the reconstruction also received valuable support from Gyorgy Rakoczi, yet another Prince of Transylvania. Work started in 1626 and continued for the next two years until it was completed in November 1628. What arose in the ruined church’s place was a substantial piece of ecclesiastical architecture. And reconstruction work did not stop there. Most famously, the church’s Tiled Tower was rebuilt in order to hold the weight of a massive bell that Rakoczi had procured from the Transylvanian city of Gyulafehervar (Alba Iulia). The bell was made from captured Austrian cannon that had been melted down. It was housed in what became known as the Brick Tower, which had been built to house it. The reconstructed church was a formidable structure, but on multiple occasions it came under threat. In the middle of Ferenc Rakoczi’s War of Independence (1703 – 1711) the church was occupied by Austrian troops who committed acts of vandalism against it. These included stealing or demolishing many of the furnishings, horses were quartered in areas of the church and fires were kindled inside. This left the church in need of many repairs.

Before the Great Fire - Debrecen in 1802

Before the Great Fire – Debrecen in 1802 (Credit: Karoly Szegedi)

An All Consuming Conflagration – The Great Destruction
The outbreak of fires in Debrecen were the biggest threat. Major conflagrations occurred in 1719, 1727 and 1759. The last one was barely extinguished in time to save the church from almost certain destruction. Most fires were the product of arson. As such, the city authorities passed laws that harshly punished those who purposely set them. The offender would be strapped to a cart and have their skin pierced by white hot pliers until they died. Such laws helped to forestall all-consuming conflagrations. That was until 1802 when the worst fire in Debrecen’s history broke out. One-third of the town was incinerated. Saint Andras Church was one of many buildings lost in the blaze. The fire burned with such ferocity that several bells in the tower melted. Fortunately, the one gifted by Rakoczi managed to survive. The church was left in such a charred state that there was no hope for reconstruction. Debrecen was left in the same position that it had been in 1564, the spiritual center of the city had been devastated. There was only one thing to do, clear away the residue and begin work on another church at the same location. One that could live up to the precedent set by its spectacular predecessors.

The Fortunes & Misfortunes Of Transylvania – Des to Bethlen via Baedeker The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Six)

Reading Baedeker on Transylvania one gets the sense that the town of Des (Dej, Romania) had a great deal going for it in 1900. It was a “Royal Free Town, capital of the county of Szolnok-Doboka.” The adage of location, location, location best explains Des’ prominence. In their first sentence describing Des, Baedeker makes this clear, stating that the town lies “at the confluence of the Great and Little Szamos”. The town was a meeting point in more than one way, as it was located where the Transylvanian Plateau and Transylvanian Plain meet. A confluence point for rivers, transition zone for land forms and junction on an important travel corridor, Des was always a highly strategic point.

The town also greatly benefited from its proximity to salt deposits. Its supply of “white gold” was one of the most coveted commodities throughout its history. Evidence suggests salt was being mined from the deposits as far back as Roman times. A Roman road and settlement were both located in the area. For centuries, the Szamos River acted as a natural highway for salt to sprinkle out from the area to larger markets. The river’s role in transporting trade goods brought many tradesmen and travelers to the town. Once the railroad arrived in the latter part of the 19th century, many more people arrived and departed throughout the day. Some of these would have been travelers brought by Baedeker to the town.

Snapshots of Des in 1902 - From the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Words and Pictures

Snapshots of Des in 1902 – From the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Words and Pictures

Regime Change – The Harsh Hands Of Oppression
Many things have changed in Dej since Baedeker’s 1900 edition was published, one that has not is the paltry range of accommodation on offer. Baedeker lists two hotels worth staying at in the town, today TripAdvisor lists a grand total of three. Modern travelers have the additional drawback of not being able to dine at Des railway station restaurant which has long since disappeared. More substantial changes have taken place in the town’s population between then and now. The transformation of Des (Hungarian) to Dej (Romanian) is more than the superficial shuffling of a couple letters in the Latin alphabet. Baedeker remarks that Des population of 7,700 is “chiefly Magyar”. According to the 1910 census (the earliest one available online), 70% of the residents were Magyar and 26% were Romanian. In addition, there were over 400 Saxons. Today nearly nine out of ten people in Dej are Romanian, just 11% are Magyar while the Saxons have almost all vanished.

There is no mention of Des’ Jewish population in either Baedeker or the latest census (2011) for Dej. During the era of Austro-Hungarian administration, the Jews of Des were counted in with the rest of the Hungarians, because other than Yiddish, Magyar was their most common language. Thus, the Hungarian portion of the population was boosted by several thousand. There are only a handful of Jews left in Dej today. This is due to the catastrophic effects of the Holocaust followed by the resulting post-war immigration to Palestine by survivors. For good reason they no longer felt welcome in the town. It was Hungarian officials under German guidance that prosecuted the Holocaust in northern Transylvania (part of Hungary from 1940 – 1944) with such deadly malevolence. Ironically, Hungarians would soon feel the harsh hand of oppression during the Ceaucescu regime. In this way, the persecutor became the persecuted. The upshot is that Dej became a Romanian city, not only by nation, but also by ethnicity.

Rising Above All - The Calvary Reformed Church in Des

Rising Above All – The Calvary Reformed Church in Des

The Nature Of Transylvania – From Rural Idyll To Rural Disillusion
One thing that has not changed in Dej is the Calvary Reformed Church, an impressive work of Gothic architecture. Baedeker referred to it as a “Handsome Protestant Church of the 15th century”. This splendid edifice became a model for the many wooden churches found throughout Romania today. It was constructed over a seventy year period straddling the 15th and 16th centuries. A seventy-two meter tower was added in 1643. Since completion, it has become a soaring symbol that rises above everything else in the town. The church was well worth a stop in 1900 and still is today for any traveler interested in architecture. Baedeker’s text on Des also mentioned the nearby settlement of Decskana, a few kilometers to the southwest. The salt that brought Des most of its wealth derived from mines in this location.

As Des was the approximate midpoint of a journey between Klausenberg and Bistritz, it was also where the railway carriages were changed out. This made it a good place for the traveler to stretch their legs and enjoy a meal before embarking on the final half of their journey. When the train rolled back out of the station it began to head eastward. Now traveling along the Upper Szomas River Valley’s right bank, the scenery would have been lovely in the spring, summer and early autumn with cultivated fields in the surrounding countryside and low mountains hovering in the northern distance. Villages were a constant reminder of the rural nature of Transylvania. In 1900, the landscape between Des and Bistritz was much like it is today. The only major development in the countryside at that time and still today is agriculture. In 1900 this was a land only beginning to grapple with the demands of an industrial age. That age never really arrived, at least not in a sustainable sense. The railroad was possibly the greatest innovation to ever arrive in this area. It has carried and continues today to carry many locals away from rural Transylvania in search of greater prosperity elsewhere.

Renaissance Man - Prince Of Transylvania Gabor Bethlen (1613 - 1629)

Renaissance Man – Prince Of Transylvania Gabor Bethlen (1613 – 1629)

In The Beginning –  An Ancestral Residence
The latter half of the journey to Bistritz passed through many small villages and at least one larger town of note, Bethlen (Beclean, Romania), the “ancestral residence of the Bethlen family”. That surname denoted one of the most famous and powerful families in Transylvanian history. The Bethlen family provided Transylvania with its greatest leader, Gabor Bethlen, who ruled as Prince of Transylvania from 1613 – 1629. Prince Gabor reigned over an unlikely Renaissance in his homeland. Prince Bethlen’s Transylvania enjoyed nominal independence during a time when the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires were carving up what was left of the Hungarian Kingdom.  In 1900 the Bethlen name was still spoken with reverence and not just from a historical perspective. As the 20th century began, the Bethlen’s were still one of the most powerful and prestigious families in Hungary. In the coming years, Istvan Bethlen, would become Prime Minister of Hungary (1921 – 1931). He eventually died in a Soviet prison after World War II. His fate was not unlike that of so many other Transylvanian aristocrats. As for the town where his ancestors first realized their destiny, it is still there. Like so much in Transylvania it did not change very much, but the world around it certainly did.