Hungarian refugees arrive in Canada in 1957, fleeing from Communist rule in their homeland. Photo from Archives of Ontario

The Register Archive: Canada opens arms to Hungarian refugees

  • November 27, 2018

Canada has had a long tradition of welcoming refugees looking to escape persecution. One of the most seminal events in that history came in the fall of 1956, when Hungarians revolted against their Communist rulers. They were met with a massive show of force as Soviet tanks rolled through the streets of Budapest and crushed the revolt within days. In early November, thousands of Hungarians began fleeing to Austria. Canada reacted quickly, providing swift approval of refugee claims and within a month they began arriving. Eventually Canada gave asylum to about 37,500 Hungarians and lent support in their first year in Canada. The majority were Roman Catholic, so it’s no surprise the Church played an important role dealing with the new arrivals as this Register story from the Dec. 8, 1956 illustrates. 

MONTREAL – A plea to Catholics across Canada to help Hungarian refugees was made by Paul-Emile Cardinal Leger, Archbishop of Montreal, last Friday. 

The cardinal was speaking at a press conference on behalf of the Canadian Bishops’ Commission on Immigration of which he is episcopal chairman.

“The time for words is past,” said the cardinal in his message urging families throughout the country to aid the refugees.

“Cardinal (József) Mindszenty has said that his country is dead because she was given nothing but promises. The time for practical charity has come.”

The cardinal said that hundreds of refugees will begin to arrive next week, bringing with them nothing more than the clothes they wear. 

“Our federal government has done its share. We must now take over because of our union with them in the faith,” Leger said.

Stating that 90 per cent of the refugees are Roman Catholics, the cardinal declared: “Every diocese in the country should prepare to receive some of these families, and parishes should make ready  to sponsor them. Individual families ought to take in one or two each.”

Each parish priest was to obtain from his parishioners the offers of help so urgently needed.

The cardinal declared: “During the last few weeks we have witnessed some tragic events. In spite of the speed of communications, we have not yet been able to grasp their full import.

“The subject to which we call the attention of all men of good will and especially all Catholics is the plight of 100,000 Hungarians who have fled their country and are begging the free nations to receive them.”

Canada has already opened her doors to these victims of 20th century barbarism and within a few days approximately 5,000 Hungarian refugees will be in Canada. “We have an obligation of welcoming these brethren if we wish to be true to our faith.” 

The cardinal said he received a telephone call from James Cardinal McGuigan, Archbishop of Toronto, who spoke of the faith shown by refugees already in Canada. Leger asked whether Canadians — especially youth — would show the same courage if forced to flee to Africa or Asia.

As the cardinal spoke, some newly arrived refugees were setting their bearings at Montreal’s Dorval Airport. One couple, who arrived safely with a family of six, learned from reporters for the first time that the borrowed funds for their passages would be refunded by the Canadian government.

“What a country!” the father yelled, waving his hat.

C.E. Coutre, president of the rural settlement society of Canada, a Roman Catholic organization, said plans are well begun in various dioceses for reception at refugees. The Calgary diocese had asked for 50 families.

Leger said “families, parishes, associations, professional organizations and even companies” can be sponsors. “The sponsor may have to provide board and lodging for the first weeks following arrival and, until such time as the refugees are in a position to earn their own living,” he said.

In Toronto, Cardinal McGuigan presented a cheque for $1,000 to G.G. Temesvary, president of the Canadian-Hungarian Federation and co-chairman of the Canadian Hungarian Relief Fund, to help the refugees. The cardinal said that money had been coming in large amounts to his office.

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