Little known facts: Cistercians at UD

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Refugee monks are photographed in front of the Cistercian General House in Rome, circa 1957. Photo courtesy of UD archives.

The Cistercian monks are a teaching order that originated in France. In the 1950s, many Hungarian Cistercians were forced to flee their homeland to escape the brutal oppression of the Soviet-controlled Communist regime. The Cistercians in exile helped found the University of Dallas, and they have remained an essential part of our university ever since.

Before the establishment of the monastery and school in Irving, the Hungarian Cistercians had never founded this type of establishment outside of their homeland, according to Abbot Denis Farkasfalvy’s chapter in the Cistercian publication “The Cistercians in Texas: The 1998 Jubilee.

“They saw their culture [as] deeply rooted in an old provincial and prophetic outlook which they formulated in a saying ‘outside of Hungary there is no life’ and to which they were fond of adding: ‘And if there is life, it is not this kind of life,’” Farkasfalvy wrote.

“One must, therefore, treat the foundation of ‘Our Lady of Dallas,’ a late offshoot of the mother  Abbey of Zirc, as a true anomaly, an enterprise which the participants considered not only as a challenge but more often as an imposition by Providence, calling them to go beyond their cultural limitations and interest,” Farkasfalvy added.

The first known document about the foundation of a Cistercian monastery in the United States was a letter from Fr. Lewis Lekai to Fr. Anselm Nagy, who later became the first Abbot of the monastery in Irving and whom Anselm hall is named after.

In this letter, Lekai wrote that “a group of Hungarian Cistercians must emigrate to the United States and build a new monastery and school, in order to live and teach according to the original ideal [of the Cistercian order],” according to Farkasfalvy.

Farkasfalvy added that, when Lekai wrote to Nagy in 1945, “hardly anyone thought that in the near future Cistercian life in Hungary would be threatened.”

Yet, Lekai ended his letter with a prophetic statement: “I do not want to exaggerate, but one may say that the survival of our community depends on our readiness to work with dedication and diligence for what we set out as our goal,” according to Farkasfalvy.

Two years later, the Hungarian communist regime nationalized all five of the Cistercian schools, and in 1950 suppressed the Abbey of Zirc. All of its 214 members were dispersed.

The first to leave for the U.S. were Nagy and Fr. Raymond Molnar, who in 1945 made their way to a small Cistercian Abbey in Wisconsin. They acted as scouts, seeking out a new home for the monks, according to Fr. Thomas Esposito, O. Cist.

After a daring escape in 1950, 13 Cistercians made their way to America. However, eight of their brothers were apprehended in this attempt and imprisoned, along with Abbot Wendelin of Zirc. In 1956, another group escaped, 10 of which came to Dallas.

In 1951, Cistercian Fr. George Ferencz came in contact with a group of the Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur, who told him about the University of Dallas project and offered the Cistercians “a ray of hope in their newly launched American journey,” according to Farkasfalvy.

Throughout 1954 and ‘55, Nagy laid plans for the Cistercians to build a monastery in the Diocese of Dallas and to take part in the UD project. In June of 1955, Nagy was appointed Vicar of the Abbot of Zirc with authority over the monks of Zirc outside of Hungary. Nagy negotiated a land grant from the university and in 1956 signed the first contract between the Cistercians and UD. When the university’s doors opened on Sept. 27, 1956, eight Cistercians were part of the faculty.  

Nagy taught math at UD until he was elected the first abbot of the newly constituted abbey, Our Lady of Dallas, in 1964.

To this day, the Cistercians are active on campus and in our classrooms.

Come back next week for an interview with one of the Hungarian Cistercians, Fr. Roch Kereszty, and a more personal account of the Cistercians’ story.

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