As is my wont, I wandered across the road for 6 o’clock mass to find the church packed to the rafters – standing room only. And I was only a minute late. A quick scan of what knowledge I have of feast days threw no light on this unexpected crowd. Two priests stood on the altar, one who might well have been a bishop. And in front of them, on an easel draped on flowers, was a black-and-white photo of a woman about my age. She didn’t look familiar.
I caught a few words in Hungarian – something is happening in 10 days’ time and the woman in the photo died in 1944. There were other bits and pieces but I couldn’t catch it. Nuns, in habits and in plain clothes wandered around, the tell-tale grey cardigans and white blouses a giveaway. Like the Gardaí (Irish police) you can always tell them, even when they’re out of uniform. So I figured the woman in the photo might be a nun.
I did the unthinkable and skipped the queue, cutting out the priest who was giving out Communion in the half of the church I was in. I wanted to catch a name on that photo – and I did. Beata (Blessed) Sára Salkaházi (1899-1944). Her birthday would have been tomorrow.
Still clueless, I came home and Googled her and discovered what a fascinating life she had. She was a tomboy with a strong will and a mind of her own, someone who liked to play tug-of-war with the boys, who liked to joke a lot, who wrote plays and short stories. She qualified as a teacher, learned her trade as a bookbinder, and then became a journalist. And before she signed up, she had been engaged to be married.
From what I read though, she never did get to take her final vows – because she was the 1940s equivalent of a female dynamo and the sisters of the Sisters of Social Service (an order of nuns I’ve never heard of) thought that all her energy was her way of drawing attention to herself and this wasn’t exactly God-like. She was into everything to do with women and set up the first Hungarian college for working women near the Balaton. But wilfully, and in spite of their narrow-mindedness, Sára lived her life with self-imposed restrictions as if she had taken her final vows anyway. I like that.
She set up a Catholic Women’s Association and three years before her death, was appointed National Director of the 10, 000-women-strong Hungarian Catholic Working Women’s Movement and edited its magazine, frequently writing against Nazism. She started hostels for working single women and in these hostels she hid those fleeing from the Nazis. On 27 December 1944, the Nazis descended on one of her hostels on Bokréta Street (just across the road from me and I never knew it) looking for Jews. They’d been betrayed by a woman who worked there. Sára wasn’t there at the time and could have stayed away, but she came back. And along with five others, she was arrested, taken to the banks of the Danube, and shot by the Arrow Cross. Together the sisters had saved more than 1000 people; Sára had saved 100.
She has the distinction of being the first non-aristocrat Hungarian to be beatified and I wonder when she will be canonised.
I can only imagine what the Sisters of Social Service thought when this chain-smoking, in-your-face, live-wire of a woman turned up declaring her vocation. From the little I’ve read, she seems like she was a force to be reckoned with, doing the work of ten, all the while challenging the system and standing up for what she believed to be right. That so many owe their lives to her is testament to the courage she had in her convictions and the beauty of her selflessness.
This week was a blue-arsed-fly type of week week, a good one that never let up, full of challenges and new discoveries. To end it by stumbling across one of life’s better people is a bonus. I’m grateful that there are women in the world who truly have made a difference and still do. And I’m grateful that I know (of) some of them. I’m grateful, too, that I can include Sára on my list of the dead I’d like to have to dinner. What a woman.
And to Budapest, the city that keeps on giving – ta much.