The North American Delegation of the Hungarian Knights of Malta – The End of an Era

The North American Delegation of the Hungarian Knights of Malta –

The End of an Era 

 Charles Bálintitt Jr. 

I was personally saddened to see Megyesy Jenő’s letter of June 27th, informing us that “The North American Delegation of the Hungarian Association has successfully accomplished its mission and will terminate its activities”.  This is truly the end of an era.  They had been operating in North America since 1961, Imre de Jeszenszky initiating their work here, because the Communist government in Hungary would not allow them to function there.  During their 58-year history here, they accomplished a lot of good and I will always have fond memories of attending many of their events for well over 40 of those years.

All of this comes to mind now, since normally in November the Hungarian Knights of Malta would have their annual cocktail party in New York; often held at the Hungarian House.  (Later on, a general fundraising letter was sent out to members and friends alike, replacing the cocktail party.)

Among their other events, they would host a retreat usually in March of each year.  These were originally held at Mount Augustine and later at Mount Manresa, both in Staten Island, NY.  My mother would usually attend for its entirety from Friday evening till mid-day on Sunday.  I often went on Sunday, with my father, to join them for breakfast and the Mass.  It was always impressive to see all of the Knights in their black robes walk in together.  In mid-year they would celebrate another Mass, followed by a reception, on or near June 24th, which is the feast day of their patron saint, John the Baptist.

The North American Delegation was always raising money for one of their worthy causes – the training of doctors and nurses being a priority. Among many other things, I remember them helping the Hungarian victims during one of the larger Tisza River floods in 2001.  They also initiated a collection to buy beds for some Hungarian hospitals that were having financial difficulties.  Each year they would ask for donations that could be either earmarked for a couple of specific causes of immediate concern or a general donation to be used for the greatest need.

I remember one year, when Baron István Szentkereszty hosted a poolside outdoor Mass in his yard for the annual Saint John the Baptist Day celebration.  Also for many years, Dénes Szabadhegy would invite most of the attendees to his house for a Sunday afternoon lunch at the end of the yearly retreat, since he lived on Staten Island not far from the venue.  Those enjoyable afternoons came to an end about 15 years ago, when Dénes retired and moved back to Hungary.

Among the Knights, I had many close family friends, such as Dénes; and a few relatives, such as Istvám Sándor.  Some of them were former presidents of the delegation (Count János Hoyos, MD, Baron Ferenc Bessenyey and Baron Ferenc Schell).  I know that in some areas of the world things have changed, but to the best of my recollection, at least for the Hungarian Knights of Malta, part of the acceptance in to the Order was a review of a person’s family tree.  I know that my mother, with her great penmanship, had actually handwritten the family tree for a couple of the Knights.  Many of them are no longer with us.  This includes all of the above, I believe with the exception of Ferenc Schell.  Another Knight and my confirmation sponsor/godfather, István Sándor, just passed away a number of weeks ago.  It may be the fact that so many of these fine men and ladies (amidst the Knights, there were also some Dames of Malta) could not be replaced, that caused the recent demise of the association in this country.

To give a little background: this organization was founded in the middle of the 11th century by Blessed Gerard as the “Order of Saint John”, also known as the “Knights Hospitaller”.  They began their mission by aiding the poor and sick or injured pilgrims of all religions who went to the Holy Land.  To begin with, they built a church, a hospital and a convent in Jerusalem.  But during the First Crusade, in 1099, the pope decreed that they should also defend the Holy Land, so they became a military religious Order.  As a result of this, the motto of the Knights of Malta became “Tuitio fidei et obsequium pauperum” (Defense of the faith and service to the poor). 

They had to leave the Holy Land during the fall of Jerusalem in 1291.  Soon the Order moved to Cyprus, and then to the island of Rhodes in 1310.  They found a new home on the island of Malta in 1530, where they remained until Napoleon’s occupation of the island in 1798.  Since the Knights had a rule not to go into battle against other Christians, they left the island, never to return.  Their headquarters was reestablished in Rome in 1834.  But there are many divisions all over the world – with just one notable division fewer now.

It is still somewhat comforting to know that they will continue on in Hungary and any remaining members in the US will now be a part of the Association in Hungary.  There, the Knights of Malta founded the Máltai Szeretetszolgálat (Maltese Charity Service) in 1989, which cares for the homeless, the elderly, the disabled, children, and provides emergency aid when necessary.  Their ambulance service has become part of the national alarm system.  Most of the associates are not Knights or Dames of Malta, but volunteers. 

I am also happy to note that my childhood friend Kristóf Szabadhegӱ is the current President of the Hungarian Association.  Kristóf followed his brother Péter (former Hungarian Ambassador to the United Kingdom), to Hungary in the 1990s to work in the financial industry after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and receiving an MBA from Duke University.  So the Hungarian Knights of Malta are still in good hands, with a hopefully bright future in Hungary.  But it still leaves me with somewhat of a melancholy feeling to know that another Hungarian group that did a lot of good over the years, and found ways to bring people together at uplifting get-togethers, could not find a way to continue on in the US.  


Charles Bálintitt Jr. is a working Customs Broker in Lawrence, NY and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.