The Cave Church is literally built into the karst rocks and caves of the Gellert Hill, Budapest. The Cave Church was founded in 1926 as the ‘Rock Church’ (called ‘Sziklatemplom’ – rock church – in Hungarian). The church is not a historical monument but a still functioning church of the Hungarian Pauline Order (Pálos rend).
Budapest Church in a Cave?
Admittedly a cave is an unusual choice of place for many things, let alone for a modern church. You would think the grotto church must have been a pagan ritualistic place gradually getting Christianised. Not so. The construction of the underground church in the 2oth century was a conscious decision: Hungarian pilgrims saw the Maria Cave in Lourdes in France, and thought it should be built in Budapest too. There was a ready made natural cave in the Gellert Hill, the St Ivan cave, which – according to the legend, was a place for healing. Some time in the medieval ages there was a hermit called Ivan (doesn’t sound very Hungarian, we know) who cured many people with the thermal healing waters that kept flowing from the underground hot springs from the karst caves of the Gellert Hill. Anyway, at that time the name of the hill was ‘Pest Hill’ (‘pest’ – say ‘pesht’ – meant ‘cave’ in the Slavic languages, and Hungarians used the Slavic word for this area – yes, you are right,’Pest’ is part of BudaPest now), indicating that the natural cave existed many centuries ago. St Ivan cave was not too big, so to make the church more spacious, there was a series of explosions carried out.
But why did the Hungarian pilgrims find it important to copy the Maria Cave Church in Lourdes? They were devastated. The nation was devastated. And it all began with the Treaty of Trianon. Since 1920, Hungary was mourning and mourning, crying for its loss (see some more historical background at the bottom of this article).
Back to 1924, when a group of Hungarian monks went to Lourdes in France and Limpias in Spain to pray for … well, peace, and consolation – there was a widespread national mourning. Just imagine: almost every Hungarian family had a relative who was beyond the newly drawn borders, or forced to move to a new place in the much much smaller Hungary).
So Hungarians prayed to Maria, historically the Patron of Hungary, and the Cave Church was founded to adore Maria (the idea came from Gyorgy Pfeiffer, ministerial advisor). Just like in Lourdes. So it was The Cave of Maria in Lourdes that inspired the pilgrims, and brought back the idea that Hungarians should spread the love of Maria from this healing cave. “In our 1924 pilgrimage,” says Gyorgy Pfeiffer, “we understood that we would need to set up a shrine for our lost Hungarian Patron in the heart of our motherland, the truncated Hungary so that the respect of Our Lady would spread from the shrine.”
Widening the Cave Church in Budapest
In 1926 the main altar was in the outer cave and the benches for the church goers were outside the cave, on the terrace. In order to channel the thousands of believers attending (wishing to attend) the church, the engineers were trying to make a tunnel in the hill. However, the attempts to make a tunnel failed, thus giving way to several little chapels underground in the Cave Church. By 1930, the church proved to be too small, so a newer, deeper and wider Cave Church was shaped in the Gellert Hill.
The Pauline Order returns from Poland to Hungary
In 1931 there were approx. 20,000 attenders to inaugurate the newly constructed nave (the main hall) of the Cave Church in Budapest (also called the St Gellert Cave Chapel). If you visit the Cave Church, you will feel how incredibly crowded the cave and its surroundings must have been. The Hungarian Pauline order, for whom the Cave Church was built, freshly returning from Poland, received its new church in 1934. During the WW2, the number of Pauline monks suddenly surged: the Pauline order disguised refugees as the members of the Pauline order.
In May 1948 during the Fatima mass there were about 100,000 attenders at the Cave Church where Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty, the symbol of the Nazi opposition as well as the Communist opposition also participated. The church was much too popular for the Communists. The Fatima mass was brutally beaten down. To make things worse, in 1951 the Cave Church was closed down, and later on simply walled up (with 2 metre thick concrete – part of the concrete wall is still visible at the entrance). For more than thirty years.
The Pauline order got the church back in 1989. Since then, the Cave Church started its life again with 3 daily masses.
How to get to the Cave Church, Gellert Hill?
Take bus number 7 from Keleti Train Station – Blaha square – Astoria square – or Ferenciek square (this is the inner city route of the bus number 7 and 7A). Alternatively, take the tram (47 or 49) from Deak square (also stops on Astoria square, Kalvin square, Fovam square (Fővám tér) by the Central Market Hall)
Masses from Mon – Fri at 8:30 am, 5 pm and 8 pm and on Sundays 8:30 am, 11 am, 5 pm and 8 pm
About the Hungarian Pauline Order
The Hungarian Pauline order was founded by Ozseb the Merry in 1246 near the Hungarian village of Kesztölc in the Pilis mountains (today about an hour’s drive from the city of Budapest, 40 km). He chose St Paul the Hermit as their patron saint (also known as Paul the First Hermit). The Hungarian Pauline order got papal approval in 1308.
Attractions by the Cave Church, Gellert Hill: the Art Nouveau spa resort and bath complex, i.e. the Gellert Baths, the Danubius Hotel Gellert, the Citadel on top of the Gellert Hill, the Statue of Liberty and the green metal Liberty Bridge.
Historical Context of the Budapest Cave Church
From Ivan the Hermit, let’s flash forward to the end of WWI, and the Treaty of Trianon when the Hungarian state lost a good deal of its former territories. Quote “The treaty regulated the status of an independent Hungarian state and defined its borders. Compared to the pre-war Kingdom of Hungary (which was part of Austria-Hungary), post-Trianon Hungary had 72% less territory …. 31% (3.3 out of 10.7 million) of ethnic Hungarians who lived in the pre-war kingdom lived outside the newly defined borders of post-Trianon Hungary.” (Wikipedia referring to Richard Bernstein’s NYT article, the “East on the Danube: Hungary’s Tragic Century”). So you see, Hungary was mourning and so were the pilgrims.
The Treaty of Trianon felt like a huge a punishment for the losers in WWI, which Hungarians did not like. They did not find it fair to see many Hungarian families torn apart, there were / are millions of Hungarians living in the newly formed neighbouring countries. But the Treaty was done. As was the damage of WWI done.
This is probably the most sensitive point, the Achilles heel of many Hungarians even today. Just say ‘Trianon’ and people will jump up trying to explain to you the injustice done to Hungarians, or, quite on the contrary, you could be hushed up, as many say ‘let’s avoid this topic, man, we are tired of it’. Typically right wing voters think that Hungary should still fight for the once lost territories, no matter what, and no matter how the socio-economical landscape has changed in the last century. Even joining the EU has not been able to heal the wounds (unfortunately, that’s why many Hungarians mutually dislike Romanians, Slovakians, etc. with more zeal than an average neighbour, but there is a solid group of Hungarians who would like to put aside the hatred once and for all. )
Basically, in light of the above, no wonder Hungary was happy to join the Nazi Germany in WW2 in order to ‘get back’ those lost territories (e.g. Transylvania).
This was indeed a complicated situation created by the Treaty of Trianon.
(source of the history of the cave is the info on the official website of the Cave Church, Sziklatemplom.hu)