Diaconia - In the Service of Community
by Zsuzsanna Bagdán
by Zsuzsanna Bagdán
It is somewhat surprising ...

... how many connections can be found between Scots and Hungarians. We can identify several links between the lives, self-interpretation and ideology of the two nations – even if we only seek such links within Scottish and Hungarian Protestantism. There are also tangible structures, in service of Hungarians, which represent such connections: one of them is the Chain Bridge, the construction of which was carried out by Scottish builders, among others; and a less obvious example is Bethesda Hospital, founded with Scottish support by the German-speaking branch church of Pest.  

Conflicts due to the pursuit of evangelisation

The Scottish missionaries who ended up in Pest by chance found the perfect excuse to become active in the area, namely the pastoral care of the Scottish builders working on the construction of the Chain Bridge. They were able to begin their spiritual activities in 1841, with the support of Maria Dorothea and the tacit consent of Archduke Joseph, within the organisational structure of the Pest Reformed Congregation. Up until the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence of 1848-49, Scots and liberals – the former urging spiritual renewal, the latter wishing for social renewal – would meet in conferences and discuss issues relatively peacefully. The activities of evangelical movements, however, had always been looked upon with aversion – just like today – which resulted in the liberal and the evangelical-pious factions of Pest Reformed Congregation getting more and more estranged from each other after the death of Archduke Joseph and his wife.

One of the conflicts that led to a rift revolved around the Evangelical Society for Orphans, founded in May 1859. The first all-boys orphanage in Pest was opened in 1843, and a similar institution was set up in 1848, accommodating three orphan girls; neither of them, however, took in any child unless they were Catholic. Initiated by Protestants, who constituted an insignificant minority at the time, a co-educated orphanage for seven children was also launched in 1848, with the aim of protecting and guiding orphans in a Protestant spirit regardless of language or background, helping them find the career in adulthood that best suited their God-given gifts. At the end of 1859, the pious-evangelists striving for home mission found themselves in the minority in the board of the foundation, which marked the beginning of a years-long process, the result of which was that the followers of Scottish- and German-style spirituality left Pest Reformed Congregation and founded the German-Speaking Reformed Branch Church of Pest. The new congregation was made up of Reformed people from Switzerland and Germany, Lutherans from Austria-Moravia, Brits as well as German-speaking Jews evangelised through the work of the Scottish Mission. Their minister was provided by the Scottish Mission. 

Hospital before church

Already in 1859, the idea arose within the German-speaking branch church that a denominational hospital should be established – besides the tasks of building a church and a school – as there were very few hospital beds available in Pest-Buda compared to the needs and also to Western-European standards: the only place that took in patients indiscriminately was Szent Rókus (St. Roch) Hospital. The congregation also wished to open the would-be hospital’s doors to foreigners residing in Hungary. The plans for the hospital were supported by the physician Tivadar Bakody and the engineer Theodor Biberauer, as well as the Prussian minister of the Scottish Mission, Rudolf König. Although in May 1864 Biberauer attended the Synod of the Free Church of Scotland in order to raise funds for their church-building endeavour, during his six weeks in Scotland he also went to see several hospitals, orphanages, almshouses and labourers’ hostels. On the way home, he visited the Diaconal House of Kaiserswerth to inquire about the possibility of inviting deaconesses to Hungary. However, several years passed between this preliminary trip and the realisation of the plans.  

The first donors

Tivadar Bakody offered his own funds to furnish a small hospital room, but in the end this proved to be unnecessary when the first foreign donations started arriving. The first donors were people who knew what it meant to be ill in a foreign land. One of them used to be a matron in Pest – she collected and sent 225 francs from Germany. Another one was described by church historian Richárd Bodoky in the spirit of the Gospel: “one could conclude that it was God’s design that made a rich Scottish lady, Miss Mackichan fall ill in Pest, on the way to Scotland. She belonged to the circle of König in Constantinople, and she stayed with him. She was treated by Bakody in König’s home, and again there was talk of opening a hospital for foreigners in Pest, where they could be treated and nursed in a professional manner.”

During her prolonged medical treatment during the winter of 1864-65, Miss Mackichan was nursed by a young Jewish girl. König described this situation to the readers of the Scottish magazine Monthly Record the following way: “The case of Miss. N., a young Jewish lady of talent, enterprise and originality of character is most interesting. Chiefly through the labours of our dear friend, Miss Mackichan, who spent the last winter with us, Miss N. was attracted to Christianity and brought into terms of friendship and intimacy with our own and Mr. Moody’s family.” Just like Biberauer before him, König obviously wished to indicate to the Jewish Mission Committee of Edinburgh that the diaconal mission of the hospital would provide a great opportunity for the Jewish Mission, which had been advocated by Scots so much.

After her departure, the illness of Miss Mackichan had a two-fold impact. On the one hand, thanks to her illness, the Jewish Miss N. began to show interest in Christianity, which was of great significance from the point of view of convincing Scottish donors. On the other hand, in 1865 Miss Mackichan donated 100 pounds sterling, the equivalent of 1105 Hungarian forints at the time, to support the foundation of the hospital, as a token of her appreciation. In the same year, there were four further donors: Eszter Kárász (50 forints); Rofer Liedemann (50 forints); Andrew Moody, the other Scottish minister (100 forints); and Mr. Gordon of St. Andrews (109 forints). The substantial amount that was mostly raised by Scots enabled the fund-raisers to rent a building for the purposes of the hospital.


The Bethesda Children’s Hospital in Budapest is one of the oldest children’s hospitals in Europe, and it is the only Christian children’s hospital in East-Central Europe. The Bethesda Hospital was established 150 years ago. At the beginning the hospital was maintained by the German-speaking Affiliated Congregation, which was established by the help of the Scottish missionaries with the aim of carrying out diaconal work on biblical basis. Today the Bethesda Hospital belongs to the Reformed Church in Hungary. >> Read more...

Mended relations

The Reformed initiative was supported by many, irrespective of their denomination: people from all walks of life, from simple craftsmen to the most influential members of society, became involved. The opening of the hospital was a definitive moment in the life of the Reformed Church, which was in a significant minority in the capital. On the one hand, this event marked the foundation of the first Protestant hospital in Hungary, and on the other hand, the leaders of two distinct groups of different intellectual and theological views – the parent congregation, which was under Hungarian national, liberal-spirited governance, and the branch church, which was under the influence of German-speaking and British evangelism – managed to work in unison, putting their earlier conflicts behind them

The branch church, however, did more than just accept what was given to it. They offered to the parent congregation of Széna Square (today: Kálvin Square) that their members would enjoy the financial benefits of the new hospital to an equal extent, and this was set forth in the statute of the institution. The gesture was greatly appreciated by the elders of the parent church.  The unique initiative was received with immense enthusiasm, amply shown by the offer of Károly Cs. Kiss, a pharmacist and elder of the Reformed Church of Pest. In König’s words: “having learnt that an allopathic ward would be opened, [Kiss] undertook to provide 100 forints worth of pharmaceuticals annually for the next five years.” As a result of the favourable public perception, people got more and more enthusiastic, and the donations increased. The First Insurance Company of Austria, the Trieste branch of Assecuratione Generale, as well as the saving banks of Óbuda and Pest all offered financial support for the expenses of the hospital. A great number of renowned public personalities also contributed financially, including Pál Török, Mór Jókai, Ferenc Deák and György Majláth. In May 1866, König reported that in the course of six weeks, a sum of over 100 pounds sterling was raised within the congregation to support the hospital. As a result of the ever-increasing amount of donations, the first patient was admitted to the hospital on 26 February, 1866. During the first two months, the patients were all foreigners: two of them were Czech, one came from Upper Austria, another from Hannover, and there was also a French and a Saxonian patient. 

A self-standing Scottish congregation is born

The work of healing carried out in the hospital was greatly admired all over Europe; and yet, the Scottish missionaries decided to formally leave the institution. Despite the fact that there were charity beds reserved for Jewish patients, the Jewish Mission Committee of Edinburgh did not consider healing to be the most effective tool within the Jewish mission. They also felt that the other objective of Scottish missionaries – namely, contributing to the renewal of local Protestant church life – was being neglected, as the German-speaking congregation and hospital were inadequate for this purpose. From this point on, the Scottish Mission – in line with the assimilation efforts of the time – decided to use Hungarian more and more frequently as the language of work. 

Meet Rev. Aaron Stevens

Rev. Aaron Stevens, Minister at St. Columba’s, moved to Budapest in 1993, planning to teach English "for a year or two” and has called Hungary home ever since. Rev. Stevens is married to a Hungarian and has two children born in Budapest. He graduated from Union-PSCE seminary in Richmond, Virginia with Masters Degrees in Divinity and Christian Education and is a Minister in both the Church of Scotland and the PCUSA. He has been the Minister of the St Columba’s Church since 2006. Here, he talks about the diaconal work and the community-oriented attitude that are so vital to the congregation.

"It's about being a community..."

Help during the world wars

The period between 1866 and 1929 was a time for building and rebuilding. During the First World War, Scottish ministers were not allowed to stay with their flock – the congregation was kept alive by Hungarians who had been bursary students in Scotland. After the end of the war, the spiritual work was once more complemented by intensive efforts to help the needy: Webster, Chairman of the Jewish Mission Committee of Edinburgh, launched a fund-raising campaign to support Budapest Reformed Theological Academy, which was in a dire financial situation; and he also did a lot for the impoverished Hungarian population. Between 1920 and 1922, twenty-six thousand pounds worth of clothes and food cans were distributed in Budapest and in other Hungarian towns, irrespective of denomination. 

The various clubs, societies and associations of the Scottish Congregation also worked hard to help the poor: in December 1936, one hundred and sixty families were provided with a food package. They also offered hot meals to families, distributed clothes and made children’s clothing on a regular basis, among other activities. The alumni of the Scottish mission’s school also offered help: Kriszta and Erzsébet Frőlich set up a foundation of one thousand Hungarian pengős to help the needy. 

As the Second World War drew near, this sort of social responsibility became aligned with resistance: the Jewish-Christian aid foundation of the Jewish Mission Committee of Edinburgh became committed to “facilitating emigration”.

International congregation

The end of the war and the Communist takeover brought a long period of dormancy in the life of the mission. The diaconal spirit was kept alive by former students of the Scottish school: they remained in touch and provided each other with pastoral care even in the early 1980s, as indicated by the attendance lists and other documents of student reunions.

It was in 1991 that a Scottish minister could return: Allison McDonald became Associate Minister in the Scottish Congregation of Budapest, and in 2000, a Scottish senior minister took over the congregation. The congregation, which for four decades consisted of Scottish-school alumni and English-speaking Protestant people, became an international congregation after the fall of Communism. The process of becoming international has been facilitated by the presence of foreign diplomats, businessmen, exchange students as well as a growing number of refugees. Today, the most significant area of diaconal work that St. Columba Scottish Congregation is involved in is supporting refugees: they are well-experienced in this area as they have been active in the integration of refugees – clients of the Refugee Mission which was set up in 2006 – into the congregation, and the organisation of children’s camps. Thanks to them, those supported by the Refugee Mission have been able to find a spiritual home, a religious community, a shelter.