Nagy, Zoltan

Zoltan Nagy (January 28, 1914-June 4, 1969) was the only continental European Unitarian minister who, after emigrating at the end of the Second World War, continued an active ministry in America. He served congregations in Transylvania and the United States, was Unitarian chaplain to the Hungarian army, and ministered to Hungarian refugees in Germany.

Zoltan was born in Hatzeg, Transylvania (then Hungary, now Romania). His family, which had been Unitarian in Transylvania for many generations, included many ministers. His father, Sigmond, was killed in World War I, leaving his mother and himself, an only child. He was educated at Gabriel Bethlen, a 350-year-old Presbyterian elementary and grammar school in Nagyenyed (Aiud), Transylvania, until 1931, when he enrolled in the Unitarian Theological Academy in Kolozsvár (Cluj). While there he was elected chair of the students organization and won prizes for his literary work. Having earned a ministry diploma, 1936, and supported by a Sharpe scholarship, he attended the Unitarian College in Manchester, England, 1936-38.

In 1938 Nagy was ordained by the Unitarian Church of Transylvania at the Central Church of Kolosvár. Then, based in Timisoara, he spent two years as minister-at-large for Unitarians in the Hungarian District of Barat. While serving there, he married Ibolya (Ibi) Weszely, a Catholic from Timisoara. Back in Kolosvár during the uncertain days following the outbreak of war in Europe, he took temporary positions.

In 1942 Nagy was appointed the Unitarian chaplain for the Hungarian army—including its hospitals and a growing number of prisoners of war. He worked closely with the Red Cross. When he was sent to the Eastern front, Ibi came with him, disguised as a man. They witnessed the horrific siege of Stalingrad, at which the Hungarian Second Army was destroyed. Ibi suffered a miscarriage there. Later, while working in a camp for displaced persons, the couple met a four-year-old homeless refugee girl, Vera. They adopted her.

In 1943 Nagy prepared a prayer book, Imahos, published in Kolosvár for use by Protestant servicemen and prisoners of war. During the fall of 1944 he went briefly to Budapest to help shelter American and British citizens and Jews fleeing from the Gestapo. Later that year he, and those working with him, were forced by the retreating German army to fall back into Germany. Arriving in the Nuremberg area, he began caring for children and families evacuated from Hungary. Adults were ordered to do forced labor. Ibi worked at a German uniform factory. During the closing days of the war he was screened by the advancing American army and found politically acceptable.

After the war ended, Nagy worked until 1949 with a Unitarian mission in Germany—organized with the help of American, English, and Transylvanian Unitarians—ministering to displaced Unitarians and other Protestants. In order to help fellow ministers he translated American and Hungarian Unitarian literature into German. He was later employed by the Information and Education Department of an American regiment as an instructor, directing evening classes for German youth and teaching Sunday School classes. To raise funds for the mission, in 1948 he worked for six months as bookkeeper and secretary for an American officers mess. In 1949, while awaiting the resettlement of his family in America, he helped other displaced persons obtain American immigration status.

In 1950 Nagy and his family arrived in the United States. As the only Unitarian minister coming from Europe to America at the end of the war, he received a warm welcome. Under the sponsorship of the Unitarian Service Committee, he preached to numerous eastern Unitarian congregations. He then settled in Detroit, where worked in an automobile factory while waiting to receive ministerial fellowship with the American Unitarian Association. In the meantime, he was befriended by Tracy Pullman, minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Detroit.

In 1951 Nagy accepted a call to the Unitarian church in Alton, Illinois. In Alton he was active in community affairs, serving on the city’s music board and, for seven years, chairing the League of Women Voters panel on citizenship. In 1955 both he and Ibi became naturalized citizens. During the winter of 1956-57 the church granted him a leave of absence to work in Bavaria with the Unitarian Service Committee, resettling Hungarian refugees. Two hundred families were brought into the United States. He left the Alton church in order to live in a more urban area. His wife and daughter felt isolated by their inability to speak English, a handicap that neither of them ever fully overcame. Zoltan, helped by the two years spent at Manchester, spoke English well.

Nagy served the Unitarian Society of Fairhaven, Massachusetts from 1958 until 1964. It was a community church, with only a minority dedicated to Unitarianism. He led a major expansion of church facilities and was active in community affairs, especially education. He also served as president of the Channing Conference, 1961-62, and, beginning in 1961, held a position on the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Committee on World Churches. That same year he attended a meeting of the International Association for Religious Freedom in Switzerland. He left Fairhaven in 1964, feeling that his work there had been undermined by a visiting summer minister and wishing to serve a church more in the mainstream of Unitarianism.

Accepting a call to the First Church in Chestnut Hill, Unitarian, Nagy continued his community work in education and, until 1965, on the Committee on World Churches. In 1965 he became a ministerial consultant for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in the Massachusetts Bay District. Despite his effective parish work, he never felt accepted by the congregation as a true American citizen.

In 1969, with his five-year contract nearing its end, Nagy was searching for a new settlement when he died suddenly from a heart condition. Shortly after his death the Unitarian Church of Northampton, Massachusetts, unaware of what had happened, tendered him a call. A short memorial service, led by Dr. Richard D. Pierce, was held following the morning service at the Chestnut Hill church. His body was cremated and his ashes eventually returned to Hungary by Ibi, who found the trip so exhausting that she suffered a heart attack upon her return.

On learning of Nagy’s death, Vilma Harrington, who had been his classmate in seminary in Transylvania, wrote a tribute. She called him “a true figure of a tree transplanted. In spite of difficulties, he became used to and grew in the new soil straight and strong. His death is not a slow withering away of the tree, but comes as a crash, broken down by a sudden gust. Those who knew him well, who knew him intimately, feel a great loss. We grieve over his untimely death, but we rejoice that he lived so nobly and courageously.”

Although Nagy’s theology was couched in somewhat more traditional language than most American Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists preferred, he was widely accepted because of his earnestness and strong commitment to the ministry. He devoted himself to pastoral work, making house calls and visiting the sick. The role of the minister, as he understood it, was “to create favorable conditions in the pulpit and at committee meetings under which the members can grow and serve as they want to grow and serve.” He tried to follow this same philosophy in the religious education of children. In community work he was guided simply by openness and the basic principles of freedom and truth.

After Nagy’s death, his wife, Ibi, lived on for many years until 2008. She had been living with her daughter, Vera Nagy Lassua, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

The Zoltan Nagy papers are at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. There is additional information in Elderberries, the Newsletter of the Unitarian and Universalist Retired Ministers and Partners Association (February 2008).

Article by Charles A. Howe
Posted September 23, 2008