Compiled by Barry Nobel (2023)
The Sister Church Program of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was founded in 1990 by Natalie Gulbrandson, who at that time served as UUA Moderator. The program’s purpose was to reach out to the 130 Unitarian congregations in the Transylvania region of Romania, the birthplace of Unitarianism. A UU World editorial by then UUA President William Schultz ended: A concrete way to rebuild religious freedom in Transylvania is by encouraging your congregation to become a “sister church’ with one of the 130 Unitarian churches in Transylvania. As of 2003, over 200 UU congregations were participating in the program’s successor, the Partner Church Council, strengthening UU-ism worldwide.
Midge Jones, the chair of the Denominational Affairs Committee (DAC) of the North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society (NSUUS), was inspired to reach out to the new Sister Church Program. Then in June of 1991, Natalie recommended that NSUUS, later to become the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock (UUCSR), reach out to an urban congregation in Transylvania which is alike in size and emphasis on religious education. Our Board of Trustees on June 27 passed this resolution: “That the congregation accept the proposal of the Sister Church Csikszereda (in Hungarian) [pronounced /chick séh reh dah/, Miercurea-Ciuc in Romanian] by Natalie Gulbrandson and her committee.” (Text of the resolution is not available.)
On August 9, 1992, Attila Demeter, a member of the Unitarian Church in Csikszereda addressed our congregation from the pulpit. Some of our members including Bob Reed, Midge Jones, Christel McNally and Ruth Reeves engaged with Attila, showing him around New York and Long Island. In November, Midge reported that the Csikszereda congregation had about 500 members with around 200 children in Sunday school.
The January 31, 1993 worship service included several works by Unitarian composer Béla Bartok, and acknowledged a gift from Transylvania of a Hungarian tapestry by Iren Orban. The day’s special collection went to our Partner Church. That year, Midge became the first chair of the Partner Church Committee.
January 9, 1994 was our first “Partner Church Sunday” with Reverend Tom Chulak. The day’s collection went to our Partner Church. Rev. Chulak and his wife Diane visted Csikszereda that year. Fran Walker coordinated a jazz concert and two Hungarian Nights to raise funds for our Partner Church. Around this time, the Csikszereda congregation began an ambitious project to build a new church. Members in the RE Program learned about our Partner Church and were encouraged to make small contributions. The RE service on January 8 focused on Unitarianism in Transylvania and our Partner Church. In the February Quest, Fran reported that the Veatch Program granted $160,000 between 1991 and 1993 for reconstruction of several UU churches in Transylvania. It is unclear whether any of this money went to Csikszereda.
The January 8, 1995 worship service with Reverend Gretchen Thomas was entitled “Our Dark Times Were Very Deep: Stories from Transylvanian Partner Churches,” focusing on King John Sigismund and Francis David, the first Unitarian bishop. Reverend Thomas had visited Transylvania several times, and announced that Reverend Domokos Simen, minister of the Csikszereda congregation, and his wife Eva would be visiting NSUUS in March. The special collection raised over $2,100 for their travel expenses. In February, leading up to Rev. Simen’s visit, Rev. Thomas held three evening programs on Transylvanian Unitarianism and our Partner Church. On March 26, Reverend Simen led our worship service with his sermon “A Vital Tree Renews Itself.” Midge later reported that the Board of Trustees would consider making a $150,000 grant to our Partner Church to assist their building program, but the Board did not act at that time. The Gala Hungarian Dinner in honor of Rev. Simen and his wife took place April 7, and the first of several annual Partner Church Auctions was planned.
The August 1995 Quest reported that Midge visited Csikszereda and presented a gift from our Women’s Group of $900, which was acknowledged in a beautiful response from Biborka Keleman, Chair of Csikszereda’s Women’s Group. On August 13, the Board of the Unitarian Church in Csikszereda wrote a letter to our Board of Trustees calling for our help in building their new church building, with an estimated cost of $300,000-400,000. The existing building, a converted family residence, was much too small to accommodate worshipers. The letter mentioned people standing outside in the cold waiting to receive communion, and stressed the importance of their congregation as a Unitarian leader within Transylvania. The letter also noted that Unitarians suffered persecution under the former Ceaucescu dictatorship, which was followed by severe economic problems. As a consequence, the church was able to raise only about a quarter of the required funds for their building program.
This issue was discussed at the February 6, 1996 meeting of our Partner Church Committee, where the following resolution was passed: Resolved that this committee will continue to lead efforts for the sorts of fund-raising which we have done in the past, and we hope we can increase the amounts we raise, but we don’t envision the possibility of raising a major part of the funds to build a church. They decided to sell books, hold an auction, jazz concert, raffle, and a Hungarian dinner. The Board of Trustees adopted the Partner Church’s recommendations at their February 15 meeting.
In the Quest of February 20, 1998, chair Zed Kesner announced plans for a group tour of Transylavania to occur that summer. The Annual Report of that year mentioned continuing fund-raising efforts, including George Kesner’s Pre-Owned Bookstore. In October, the Partner Church became a sub-committee of DAC, dedicated to sustaining our commitment to our fellow Unitarians in Eastern Europe, maintaining contact with our partner congregation and sponsoring fundraisers for them. The December Board packet included a description of the program’s purpose: To establish person-to-person relationships with the partner congregation, to exchange cultural and religious ideas and ideals, to provide moral support and inspiration, and to help financially with mutually agreed-upon projects.
In April 2000, Zed announced that our library had received Confessions About Ourselves, a collection of writings by Transylvanian religious leaders including a section written by Rev. Domokos Simen. We had received many gifts of handiwork by members of the Csikszereda congregation, some of which are still on display off our main lobby. Zed asked our members to reciprocate by crochet, knit, tat, cross-stitch, sew, appliqué, or whatever, small Christmas ornaments that can be hung on a tree or wall, that are flat, lightweight, and easy to carry or package. In July, Zed and George thanked the congregation for raising $4,900 in fiscal 2000, and reprinted an excerpt from Rev. Simen’s most recent letter, in which he announced that his congregation had acquired title to land adjacent to the existing church building where they were planning to build a new church, and he announced that he would be retiring.
Rev. Arpad Szabo, Bishop of the Transylvanian church preached on October 8, 2000, during which he mentioned how the former Communist regime seized buildings and property and stifled Unitarian worship. The collection went to our partner church. In November’s Quest, Zed reported in the first of three articles about what she and Susan Caravello experienced on their pilgrimage to Csikszereda in October. The field slated for constructing the new church was then a vegetable garden planted by members to supplement their meager food supply. Zed and Susan presented Rev. Simen with $2,000, some of which was used for a minister’s discretionary fund to help families in crisis.
On Sunday May 6, 2001, Rev. Béla and Olivia Krisbai, who became minister of the Csikszereda congregation following the retirement of Domokos Simen, preached during the segment An Introduction to New Friends. Rev. Krisbai thanked us and expressed hope for the future, including new ideas for the proposed new church which would include a community center, a large worship hall, a kitchen and three guest rooms. In the September Quest, they expressed their horror and concern for us following the 9/11 disaster. In October, a concert given by pianist Akira Eguchi raised $3,686 for the partner church.
In Rev. Barry Andrews’ Touchstones article in the Quest of February 18, 2002, he described his visit with a group of our members to Csikszereda. He spoke of the warmth of Rev. Krisbai and congregation members who helped arrange a tour of the area’s Unitarian churches, as well as providing meals and sleeping arrangements. During the trip, they met with architects planning the new church building. The trip was capped by a pot-luck dinner held in the rain because the church was too small to accommodate the celebrants. Rev. Andrews mentioned that our Senior Seminar was planning two events, a car wash and band concert, hoping to raise $3,500 to finance a trip by youth members of the Csikszereda congregation and their minister to visit Shelter Rock. The Quest of July 23 reported that Rev. Krisbai used some of our donated funds to purchase computer and e-mail services, as well as updating the existing facility. Also in 2002, twelve of our members got together to provide a scholarship for Tamas, an art student from Csikszereda.
In the Quest of March 18, 2003, Zed reported that our partner church had submitted architectural plans with a request for funds to the Partner Church Sub-Committee. Our partner church had 800 members with room in the church for only 150 people! In May, we hosted a week-long stay at Shelter Rock for Csikszereda’s youth group and minister. The visitors attended our annual Seder and Easter services.
On September 11, 2003, the Partner Church Sub-Committee recommended to the Board of Trustees that we institute a two-year challenge grant program to aid partner church fund-raising efforts to run from July 2003 to July 2005, which would present a strong incentive to giving. A petition signed by members of the sub-committee and the travel group to Transylvania urged the Board of Trustees to consider a 17-page proposal from our partner church, dated Fall 2002, to allocate UUCSR congregational funds for Csikszereda, noting that all funds sent so far have been donated by members. The proposal — to participate in serving human need—religious/spiritual, social/cultural, physical/congregational—through development of The Unitarian Religious and Cultural Centre of Csikszereda outlines the history of Unitarianism in Transylvania and the history of their congregation, describes the current state of the congregation, and outlines their short and long-term needs. The total cost of the centre was put at $360,000, with $245,000 hopefully coming from Shelter Rock. The proposal also acknowledged the help of Linda and Barry Andrews, Sherry and Thornton Smith, Pat Lee and Bill Sabatino. There is no indication that such a challenge grant was even implemented.
A ”Grand Gala” was held on May 1, 2004 to benefit our partner church, with food prepared by Monika Dorman. The December 7 Quest reported that the second Partner Church Auction with auctioneers Paul Johnson and Gerry Peet raised $9,000 to help Csikszereda’s building program. They had broken ground by then, but construction was proceeding very slowly.
Zed Kesner visited Csikszereda in the spring of 2005 and reported that they had almost completed the foundation for the building, but worried that the work would be undermined by the following winter weather if walls and roof could not be completed by then. Rev. Krizbai visited Shelter Rock on the weekend of March 18. There was a potluck dinner honoring him on Saturday evening, and on Sunday he joined Paul Johnson in celebrating Partner Church Sunday with this sermon Transylvania: my Home, my Church, my Freedom.
The Quest of September 6, 2006 reported that the walls of the new church in Csikszereda were nearing completion, and that they expected the roof to be installed before winter. They had obtained grants from their local and national governments as well as $16,000 in contributions from Shelter Rock members. The fourth Partner Church (Silent) Auction was held September 2. In August, a flood devastated the Nyiko Valley in Transylvania, and Shelter Rock contributed $100,000 to flood relief along with contributions from the UUA and the Partner Church Council.
In May of 2009, the congregation approved $100,000 as a two-year “Large Grant” for construction of the new church in Csikszereda. This represented the first time that congregational funds from our endowment were allocated directly to our partner church, and an exception to the policy that UUCSR funds should never go to individual congregations. The first installment paid off existing debt for completion of exterior walls and part of the roof, and installation of electrical wiring and plumbing. The second installment paid for finishing interior walls and ceilings, lighting installation, and purchasing windows and doors. Work remaining included additional construction, interior painting, heating, more electrical and plumbing work, interior furnishings, a bell tower with bells, an organ, and landscaping and utility improvements. Also in 2009, the congregation filled their open position of minister, calling Rev. Alpar Solymosi.
In May of 2010, DAC began planning for a trip to Csikszereda, to coincide with the dedication of the new sanctuary in July of 2012. The trip was led by John Dale of the Partner Church Council, and included visits to historical and cultural sites as well as several Unitarian Churches. The dedication was a joyful event, and included their choir singing Spirit of Life in our honor.
Since the 2012 trip, there has been little fundraising effort, except that the newly christened George Kesner Book Exchange continued. In 2020, Congregation Operations Administrator Adam Barshak made a personal donation of $6,000 with Board approval.
On May 8, 2021, DAC hosted a Zoom meeting with Rev. Alpar. He reported on the church’s response to Covid-19 and, using his cell phone, gave us a virtual tour. Signs of our partnership were visible everywhere. Also during the call, Rev. Alpar played his guitar and all participants sang Come Sing a Song with Me. He said that future initiatives would include renovating the sidewalk in the building’s courtyard, replacing the windows in the residential wing (the original church building now connected to the new sanctuary), and treating all windows, especially north-facing windows, so that they can better withstand freezing winter weather. After introducing his wife and daughters, Rev. Alpar expressed his gratitude to UUCSR for our help. Elena Litescu arranged the call and served as translator.
In June of 2022, DAC revived the tradition of hosting a Partner Church Auction event. It raised $1,400 for our partner church to help them in their efforts to aid refugees fleeing war in Ukraine. Around the same time, Adam Barshak contributed an additional $8,000 as payroll deductions during fiscal year 2022.
Another Partner Church Auction is scheduled for June 11, 2023.