These Monks Fled Communism and Founded a University

Five of the refugee Cistercians. Fr. Roch is second on the left.

Five of the refugee Cistercians. Fr. Roch is second on the left.

In 1956 a small group of Hungarian refugees—Cistercian monks fleeing from the communist presence in their country—were invited to Texas to aid in the establishment of the University of Dallas. These men came to the United States with nothing but their sense of community, their calling to teach, and the memories of the horror they had left behind. Each of these attributes aided in the foundation of the university, and the presence of the original Cistercian community can still be felt on the campus today.

Fr. Roch Kereszty was one monk who fled to the United States. He recently spoke with me about his past in Hungary, his experiences with communism, and the founding of the university.

He began by giving me a brief history of the communist infiltration of Hungary. “In 1945, there were almost entirely free elections [in Hungary],” he explained. “Then communists filled the ministerial posts which were the most important—notably, the police. They established political, secret police that were supposed to ferret out their enemies. By 1949, the communists had managed to eliminate the best non-communist politicians.”

One year later, their takeover was basically complete. Religious institutions were targeted: “communist authorities disbanded the then-flourishing Cistercian mother-house of Zirc, seizing control of its land, schools, and parishes. Of the 215 displaced monks, more than 30 successfully fled the country, seeking refuge in other European abbeys.”

I asked Fr. Roch about what that meant for religious communities. “The government started to remove the religious from their houses, and in such a way that the police came in big trucks and said ‘You have an hour to put together a 16 pound package or a 20 pound package, and you have to come with us. Leave everything else.’ It was always at night and it was terrible… [The religious] didn’t know where they were being taken. [The police] didn’t take them to Siberia at this point, but to religious houses where they were crowding together thousands and thousands… Of course, they didn’t give them anything to eat, but the people in the surrounding villages brought them food. But they couldn’t leave. That happened in 1951.”

Eventually, communist officials began to negotiate with the bishops and other religious leaders. Their offer was uncompromising: for the sake of appearances, they would allow the continued existence of eight religious schools staffed by priests, monks and nuns—but everyone else would have to live as secular citizens. Many Cistercians returned to their families, took up jobs in factories, or continued to do scholarly research. But not all were willing to cooperate with the communist demands. “The Cistercians organized themselves into an underground kind of formal organization,” Fr. Roch explained. “That’s when I entered in the summer of 1951, and so we were meeting in small private homes, in the forest, at the shore of a lake, or making trips in the countryside. It was a kind of romantic novitiate. We tried to observe the basics of religious life: prayer, celibacy, meeting from time to time, and a certain simple lifestyle.”

Life was not so serene for others. Those deemed “reactionaries” still lived in fear of a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Targets included “the families of former military officers, the families of important politicians or businessmen… One night also they rang the bell in our apartment. My mother came out and opened the door, but they were actually looking for the family above us. So we survived it. But our friends, my classmates, quite a few were deported.”

By 1956, citizens were beginning to vocalize their unrest. University students staged protests and demonstrations in the city, which was met by gunfire from the secret police. As a university student at the time, Fr. Roch was required to be in the ROTC. He described one instance in which a crowd of freedom fighters stormed his base. “The Commander spoke through the loudspeakers to the crowd and said, ‘You have to clear out in 10 minutes or I will shoot at you.’ But nobody wanted to shoot at the Hungarian crowd. Ten minutes passed, the crowd broke through the gates and took over the base. Within an hour, the whole base was with the crowd, singing old songs of liberty in Hungarian.” For a short moment, things began to look hopeful.

That hope was short-lived, however. “The Russian commander invited the Minister of Defense and other government leaders to negotiate. And so they were peacefully negotiating when the secret police surrounded them and arrested all the Hungarian leaders. Meanwhile, the new Soviet troops began to take over Budapest. That was November 4, 1956, and then again came the terror.”

The Cistercians had already been looking for new options, however. “The abbot was thinking of a place in America that could provide some financial support for Cistercians because [the communists] had already taken our property.” The answer eventually came in an offer from Bishop Thomas Gorman in Texas: come build a new community and teach at the recently formed University of Dallas. I asked Fr. Roch how their experiences in Hungary influenced their mission in Texas. “The fact that we came from communist persecution, that influenced the way we were teaching… the fact that we were refugees, having nothing of our own except our minds and Providence, that certainly influenced our whole attitude to the university because the university meant for us at the beginning a way to serve… a way to stay here as a community.”

On a recent visit to the University I was immediately struck by the twisting footpaths, the many art installations, and the evidence of a flourishing environment of academic inquiry. Posters for lectures on Dante, seminars in philosophy, and excursions to museums lined the halls of the college buildings. The school maintains a balance between an almost otherworldly peacefulness and a vibrant energy, but beneath its surface lies the history of the Cistercian refugees, as well as all those the monks had to leave behind. The Catholic church on campus includes Hungarian-style art; a monument in front of an academic building details a brief history of the original Cistercian refugees and lists the names of the nine men who “to enkindle and to enlighten” the minds of generations of American students. Establishing an institute committed to personal growth, the cultivation of the mind, and the appreciation of beauty seems an ideal response to the horrors experienced by the small band of Hungarian monks, for these are some of the tools that will aid in the continued fight against communism remaining today.