Left: Msgr. Boehm in his office; cupola of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church; plaque in Washington, DC Basilica; Right: New church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Cleveland, OH, dedicated in 1922.
Msgr. Charles Boehm, First Hungarian Priest in America
Towards the end of the 19th century, Cleveland, OH offered immigrants the opportunity to work, so that many Hungarians settled there. But they had no Hungarian-speaking clergy to minister to their spiritual needs, and many fell away from the church, since they could not understand the sermons in the existing churches nor go to confession in their own language.
At the request of the local American bishop, a Hungarian priest, Rev. Boehm Károly, Pastor of Márianosztra, was sent by the Hungarian Prince Primate, Vaszary Kolos. Fr. Boehm arrived in Cleveland on December 1st, 1892. The bishop entrusted him with the organization of a new Hungarian parish, and on December 11th, he founded the first Hungarian parish in America under the patronage of St. Elizabeth of Hungary.
After buying four plots of land, the church was built in three months, and Fr. Boehm celebrated the first Hungarian Mass in the first Hungarian church in America on September 8th, 1893. The following month, the parishioners built a wooden school, where a single lay person began teaching the children. In 1896, they erected another building, which served both as a rectory and had two more school rooms on the first floor. Two Ursuline Sisters came to teach religion to the children, while Fr. Boehm himself taught them Hungarian. In 1900, a two-story, brick school was built, with 10 classrooms.
In 1894, Fr. Boehm began publishing his weekly Szent Erzsébet Amerikai Hírnöke containing parish news and later, news of his planned mission trips to Hungarian immigrants in other parts of the US. In 1901, his bulletin joined the weekly Katolikus Magyarok Vasárnapja (Catholic Hungarians’ Sunday), and appeared as part of that paper for the next five years.
Not content to minister to Hungarians in Cleveland, Fr. Boehm sought out Hungarians from San Francisco to Bridgeport, CT, from Rockspring, TX to Trenton, NJ, from Chicago to Omaha, traveling by train, horse-drawn cart and on foot to bring the Sacraments to the flock scattered from sea to shining sea. Slovaks would also flock to him wherever he appeared.
People would gather in someone’s house, where he would baptize children, hear confessions (often into the wee hours, to accommodate shift workers), hold prayer services and preach, and say Mass for people who had been away from the church for years. It is said that 19 other Hungarian parishes across America owed their existence to the work of Fr. Boehm.
In 1907, Fr. Boehm received his bishop’s permission to relocate to St. Louis, MO, to continue mission work among the Hungarian immigrants there. While he was away, a new, larger church had to be built to accommodate the increased congregation. It was blessed by Bishop Schrembs of Cleveland in February of 1922.
Fr. Boehm returned to Cleveland in 1923, and in 1925 was named Monsignor by Pope Pius XI. In 1926, the new rectory was blessed by Csernoch János, Hungary’s Prince Primate at the time, who was visiting the US to take part in the Chicago Eucharistic Congress. This was also the year Msgr. Boehm celebrated the golden jubilee of his ordination.
He had been born in Selmecbánya in 1853, studied in Vienna, and had been ordained in Esztergom.
In June of 1927, at the age of 74, Msgr. Boehm resigned from his post as Pastor, but continued to reside in the rectory until his death in 1932.
The plaque in the Basilica calls him ”A zealous missionary, faithful shepherd, pioneer Hungarian apostle.” And the Cleveland parish he founded still flourishes to this day.