A Millennium of Catholicism in Hungary

The Catholic faith has a deep and lasting legacy in the history of the Hungarian people. Not too many nations can boast of the canonization of one of their former monarchs as Hungary can of its beloved King St. Stephen.

The Catholic faith that was established in this western European nation – although challenged by Islam, Protestantism, and Communism – is still solid today. In fact, the new Hungarian constitution that will take effect in January 2012 has strongly reaffirmed the nation’s dedication to its Catholic foundations. (Read my Catholic Gene article Hungary’s New Constitution Reestablishes its Foundation on the Catholic Faith of its Forefathers.)

St. Elizabeth of Hungary serving the poor

Today, November 17, we remember another beloved Hungarian saint, although unlike King St. Stephen, she never actually lived in what is now considered present-day Hungary. This 13th century queen-turned-Franciscan-tertiary is remembered as St. Elizabeth of Hungary (Szent Erzsébet in Hungarian) although she was born in the area that is now known as Bratislava, Slovakia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire). Elizabeth was promised in marriage to a prince and at the age of four went to live with his family in what is now Marburg, Germany. Despite her royal status, she lived a life of generosity and simplicity committed to the works of mercy as inspired by St. Francis of Assisi.

Being named Lisa (which derives from Elizabeth) and having Hungarian heritage, I’ve adopted St. Elizabeth of Hungary as one of my patron saints. Today as I celebrate both my Hungarian heritage and the feast day of this holy young queen, I’d like to take you on a tour of the Hungarian Roman Catholic genealogy resources which are central to every genealogist’s search for ancestors in Hungary, no matter what faith they practiced.

Hungarian Genealogy 101

Anyone searching for vital records in Hungary before 1895 will have to rely on church records. Civil registration in the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not begin until that year. The Catholic faith has long been the prominent religion in Hungary, and although there are a handful of other churches that also kept records, even a search for non-Catholic ancestors may benefit from a visit to the records of the Roman Catholic Church. From the years 1730 to 1787, priests were required to keep records for all citizens of this Catholic nation, regardless of their religious affiliation (Greek Catholics*, Reformed Calvinists, Evangelical Lutherans and Jews included). When Protestants were first authorized in 1787 to keep their own registers, Hungarian imperial law required that they do so under Catholic supervision.

Depiction of the Council of Trent by artist Matthias Burglechner

The 1563 Council of Trent had first required Roman Catholic churches to keep parish registers, however Turkish rule in many areas of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prevented churches there from complying. A few early Franciscan registers date back to the mid-1600s, however, although most parishes do not have entries until the 1680s or later (after the departure of the Turks). Hungarian Roman Catholic Church records are now the property of the state (through the National Archives of Hungary in Budapest: Magyar Országos Leveltár), although they are stored in various county archives.

Hungarian Roman Catholic records with genealogical interest can come in several languages and include birth and christening registers (Kereszteltek Anyakönyve), marriage registers (Házasultak Anyakönyve) and death and burial registers (Halottak Anyakönyve). In Latin, the sacramental and death records are Matricula Baptisatorum, Matricula Copulatorum, and Matricula Defunctorum, respectively.

This baptismal registry lists the birth of my great-great-grandfather Istvan Tóth in 1874. It indicates the religion of the parents, including the Greek Catholic faith of his mother Erzsébet.

For help with simple translations, visit John Jaso’s Church Record Translations website, specifically the Hungarian and Latin terms and phrases webpages. (The website also includes help with the Slovak language.)

Hungarian Roman Catholic birth and baptismal records, particularly the more recent ones, will often include the birthdate along with the Baptism date, names of the child, parents, godparents (and sometimes grandparents), and town of residence. Marriage records will include the same basic information in addition to residence of origin for both the bride and groom, previous marital status, ages, names of parents and witnesses, and occupations. Church death records tend to have less genealogical information, although they may also include cause of death, birthdate and birthplace of the deceased, and names of survivors.

This 1904 birth record for István Tóth lists the birthplaces of each of his parents: Mezőkeresztes and Gelej, Hungary.

Hungarian Roman Catholic sacramental and death records have been microfilmed up to the year 1895 (some later) and are organized by church and then chronologically by date. They are usually not indexed, so without a known date the search can be time consuming.

Genealogist Felix Game has some helpful tips on reading Hungarian parish registers on his Austro-Hungarian genealogy website. Researchers unfamiliar with Hungarian names are often unaware that the family surname is listed before the given name. When the Hungarian records are in Latin, however, this order is switched and the surname is last.

If you are only beginning work on your Hungarian family tree, or you are well into the lifelong search we call genealogy, you may find the following websites and resources helpful*:

A good printed resource that I have on my shelf is Jared Suess’ Handy Guide to Hungarian Genealogical Records published in 1980 by Everton Publishers.

Subscribing to Hungarian genealogy email lists can be also be helpful to get you in contact with others researching similar areas.

Of course, don’t forget to stop by Nick Gombash’s Genealogy Blog and my 100 Years in America blog which both feature Hungarian genealogy.

Roman Catholic Church in my ancestors’ home village of Mezőkeresztes, Hungary

*Update: I am pleased to announce that I have written a small guide to Hungarian genealogy that I hope will be of help to both beginning and experienced researchers. If you are searching for Magyar roots, take a look at my Hungarian Genealogy QuickGuide™ published by Legacy Family Tree.


In the opening words of the new Hungarian constitution: “O Lord, blessed be the Hungarian nation.” And blessed be you who search diligently through records and struggle to translate foreign documents in search of your Hungarian lineage. May St. Elizabeth of Hungary, King St. Stephen, and all of those that have gone before you tracing their Hungarian genes, smile upon you and give you their blessing.

*Note: The Hungarian Greek Catholic Church comes under the category of the Byzantine or Eastern Rite Catholic Church. It originated in the 1600s after the Orthodox Ukrainian Ruthenes, Romanians and Serbs within the empire agreed to come under the jurisdiction of the Pope while being allowed to continue using the Orthodox liturgy. Most of these parishes began keeping registers in the mid-1700s.