The Hungarian-American pastor who held services a block away from the White House while working as an FBI agent

April 21. 2022. – 09:02 AM

Stephen Sziarto (Sziártó István) was born in 1910 to Hungarian immigrants in the southern part of West Virginia. He was fluent in Hungarian, and despite never having visited Hungary, his dual Hungarian-American identity stuck with him throughout his adventurous life. He worked as a Hungarian Reformed pastor, a special agent for the FBI, and even an entrepreneur in forestry. How did a talented boy born into a coal-mining family become a prominent member of the Hungarian-American community?

Arcanum Digitheca is Hungary's largest press database, where you can search and browse through tens of millions of pages of newspapers and magazines from centuries past: daily, weekly, and sports newspapers, as well as women's magazines. This article was written using the sources that had been processed and made searchable in Arcanum's Digitheca.

The Reformed pastor

It wasn't the intention of little Stephen's (István's) parents for their son to live the life of a coal miner. They sent him off to university, where in 1931 he obtained a bachelor's degree in sociology. In 1934 he went on to graduate from a theological seminary, where he was subsequently ordained as a pastor that same year. In 1935 he moved to Columbus, Ohio to become the pastor of a Hungarian Reformed congregation.

He was the congregation's first American-born pastor. It was here that he married Margaret Nagy, who also was of Hungarian descent and a fluent speaker of the language. They had a son and a daughter. Starting in 1939, he worked as the pastor for Cleveland's Hungarian Reformed parish for 10 years. Although he applied for military service in 1941, the church didn't permit Stephen to go – the reason being that it would have been very difficult to find a replacement for him, as he led a bilingual congregation.

The FBI agent

After the end of WWII, he was contacted by the FBI, who asked him to translate some Hungarian documents. This one-off request resulted in a professional relationship that lasted 20 years. Sziártó's tasks at the agency were mainly related to his language skills in Hungarian: he spent most of his time translating documents and working as an interpreter.

The FBI was not the only one to enlist his services: the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) asked him to prepare highly classified reports on three separate occasions. Sziártó also played an important role during the influx of Hungarian refugees in 1956. As one of the FBI's few Hungarian-speaking agents, he was responsible for questioning hundreds of refugees upon their arrival in America.

Not surprisingly, his work required the family to pick up and move to the nation's capital, Washington D.C. His wife, Margaret, began working as an analyst for the NSA (National Security Agency), and she gradually worked her way up the ranks and retired in 1973 as a cryptographer.

Special agent by occupation – Hungarian Reformed pastor at heart

Notwithstanding his special agent status, Sziártó did not neglect his pastoral work in the Reformed Church. He went on to become an important member of the congregation in Washington D.C. For more than thirty years, he organized evening prayers for FBI employees of the Reformed faith, and he regularly participated in Reformed services in Washington.

Front cover of the 40th-anniversary booklet of the Hungarian Reformed Church of Columbus, 1946. Source: Sárospataki Grand Library, Repository, Hungarian American collection / Ethnographia – Volume 128 (2017) / Arcanum Digital Library
Front cover of the 40th-anniversary booklet of the Hungarian Reformed Church of Columbus, 1946. Source: Sárospataki Grand Library, Repository, Hungarian American collection / Ethnographia – Volume 128 (2017) / Arcanum Digital Library

According to the newspaper Amerikai Magyar Népszava ["The Hungarian-American People's Voice"], on March 6, 1956, at a service in St. John's Episcopal Church – located a block away from the White House (where Donald Trump posed holding a Bible in 2020) – "István Sziártó, a former pastor from Columbus, Ohio, delivered an uplifting prayer in English and Hungarian."

He remained an active member of the Hungarian-American community throughout his life. He regularly attended meetings of the Hungarian Reformed Church in America and was a member of the Hungarian Freedom Fighters Federation in the US.

The "retired" forester, pastor, philanthropist, and dictionary compiler

Stephen's retirement in 1971 in no way signaled the end of his active years. While he was still working for the FBI, Stephen and his wife purchased a 500-acre plot of woodland in West Virginia in 1967. He began farming the forested parcel according to the advice of forestry experts and focused on planting thousands of pine saplings of various species. In just a few years, it developed into the Sziarto Tree Farm, which has since become one of the most beautiful forested areas in the eastern United States. In addition to harvesting and selling pine trees, the establishment also organized hunting excursions.

The business proved to be profitable, and the names of Sziártó and his wife began to appear as donors in the columns of several newspapers at the time. In 1996, in celebration of their 60th wedding anniversary, the couple donated $100,000 to Stephen's alma mater, the Lancaster Theological Seminary. The funds were used to establish a study-abroad scholarship that provided Reformed students from Debrecen the opportunity to attend Lancaster Seminary for a year.

Of course, he still kept up with his pastoral work. In the 1980s, he held regular services, baptisms and memorial services at the Alba Regia Hungarian Reformed Chapel in West Virginia. The "little church in the woods" (consecrated by Sziártó himself in 1981) has appeared in several newspaper articles as a building of significance for the Hungarian-American community.

According to an article in Amerikai Magyar Népszava, "It is a picture book of Hungarian history – a relic of what future generations will have to look back on in order to appreciate their past." Every event in Hungarian history has been commemorated in the church, and memorial plaques were regularly mounted on its walls (for example, in honor of the victims of the fight against communism). In 1984, the church also honored the actress Ilona Hajmássy, an opera singer who arrived in Hollywood in 1937 and went on to have a successful film career. According to a report in Kaliforniai Magyarság ["California Hungarians"], the chapel was "decorated with floral arrangements" in honor of the artist, who had passed away ten years earlier. Pastor Stephen Sziártó "remembered her in an intimate service on St. Stephen's Day".

Sziártó never allowed himself to be bored. In addition to his many pursuits, he also had an interesting hobby: collecting strange and amusing definitions of words. Not only did he record the definitions but he carefully cataloged and published them in 1993 under the title Deft and Daft Dictionary. Although he didn't publish any other books, he was also an avid collector and translator of Hungarian poetry. He passed away at his home in 1998 at the age of 88. After his death, many classic – as well as lesser-known – Hungarian poems that he had translated into English by hand were found among his personal papers.

This article was written with the aid of Arcanum.

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Sources used in this report:

  • Amerikai-Kanadai Magyar Élet, February 12, 1977,
  • Amerikai Magyar Népszava, October 13, 1956, and March 15, 1958,
  • Magyarság, August 31, 1984,
  • Ethnográfia, No. 4, 2017,
  • Szabadság, June 20, 1986,
  • Katolikus Magyarok Vasárnapja, August 18, 1985, October 27, 1985, July 13, 1986,
  • this piece by László Ambrus from the Vasváry Collection (Somogyi Library, Szeged).