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Szaján Serbian Church

My father's side of the family can trace its roots back to Szájan, a speck on the map of present-day Serbia, and once a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Formally a thriving spot for tobacco farming, the village lost most of its inhabitants to emigration in the 1900s, my own family included. 

In 2021 I drove from Budapest to Szaján, some 230 kilometers, to see for myself the ancestral homeland. After driving through miles and miles of uninterrupted grasslands, we spotted a church steeple rising above the monotony of the plains. The church was over 100 years old and, as my great-grandmother had been born here in 1900, would have been the same one she attended as a young child on Sundays. 

We parked and walked up to the church, expecting only to spend some time communing with its exterior, when suddenly the side door opened and a priest walked out. He beckoned us to come inside, saying "Billy bácsi will help you!" Billy bácsi, or "Uncle Billy" in Hungarian, a term of endearment, was the local sexton, and he ushered us in. The sweltering summer heat dropped away as we entered this century-old church, filled with a solitude and solemnity that only the passage of many uninterrupted years can provide. The following are the photographs from that day. 


Click on any photo to read more. 


Szaján is ethnically Hungarian, a common finding in the border towns around Hungary. Following the Treaty of Trianon, the borders of the Austro-Hungarian empire were dramatically reduced, and many ethnic Hungarians now found themselves living in a new country. The village of Szaján was first recorded in 1225, and as of 2011, Szaján had a population of just over 1,000 residents. When we visited, we were told that the church has no permanent priest, and the man we met at the door is a visiting priest who comes in to perform the necessary religious duties. 

Billy bácsi

Billy bácsi was a local man, and very proud of his church. He pointed to me and asked my boyfriend, "Your wife?" No, but her great-grandmother came from here, he answered. Oh yes, said Billy bácsi, it was a common story. Szaján was once a popular spot for tobacco farming, but them many of the citizens left for Canada and the US. Now there is hardly anyone left. 

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