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.
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.
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.