What does a small Hungarian border town, an oil boom, and an old Peugeot 106 have in common?
Nestled in the hills of Zala County, on the Hungarian side of the Hungary-Croatia border, the small village of Szentmargitfalva seems, at first glance, to be an out-of-the-way hamlet in an otherwise economically depressed region. In part due to its humble appearance, Szentmargitfalva seems very similar to most of the small villages that appear in valleys and glens around the borderland, however its history deserves a second look.
Let’s start with the name: Szentmargitfalva—or Saint Margaret’s Village. In the late 1200’s the Mongols invaded Hungary and the Hungarian King Bela IV had to flee to Croatia. Bela’s wife was pregnant with a little girl, and legend has it that she was born in the woods near Szentmargitfalva during the flight south to the safety of the fortress of Klis. It is more likely that she was actually born during the stay in the Croatian stronghold, but the town maintains its name nonetheless.
As the story goes, Bela and his wife promised God that if he would turn back the tide on the Mongol horde, Margaret would be given to the Catholic Church in return. While Bela later tried to marry her off to two different princes, Margaret stayed true to the promise and joined a convent on the island situated in the middle of where the Danube River separates Buda and Pest, later named for her. Margaret died young from a disease she contracted while working with the poor.
Since Szentmargitfalva is named for a Hungarian royal who was devoutly religious and desired to serve God, one might assume the town has a rich religious heritage. That is actually not the case.
Szentmargitfalva, unlike most villages, does not have a community place of worship. Situated in a predominantly Catholic region of Hungary, to understand the lack of a Catholic presence is to understand how the church itself is structured. In this small section of villages, Priests are only allowed to have three charges on a Sunday. Szentmargitfalva is the fourth village. Therefore, they are without a priest, and without a Catholic presence.
The town has only really known one significant growth period, which took place in the 1930’s. In 1936, oil was discovered in Zala County. The Hungarian-American Oil Company, predecessor to Hungary’s largest Oil Company, MOL, was founded in 1938 (America was the preeminent expert in oil production at the time) and oil soon became a boom industry in the area.
While there was no place of worship in town, up on the hill above it, a small alter and tower held the town bell that was rung to alert locals of an emergency. One night, the bell tower exploded. Local townsfolk have different theories as to what happened, but no one knows for sure. After this, a new tower made of metal was created. Nobody knows when the current bell tower was constructed, but it’s believed that sometime in the 1950’s a townsman working for the Hungarian American Oil Company was given some piping to build it.
The bell was retrieved from the wreckage of the old bell tower and the pipes were bent to create a new tower for the bell. Sometime during the 1960’s, it was decided that the bell tower would be moved to a small city park. This park was designated in the center of town with the hope that a chapel might be built in it, adjacent to the bell tower. Due in part to lack of funds and communist “discouragement,” the chapel was never built.
At least, it hasn’t been built yet…