Laura Ieraci interviews a gypsy lady in her yard for an upcoming documentary on the faith of Hungarian gypsies. Photo courtesy Laura Ieraci

‘Sister in faith’ chronicles gypsy faith

By  Anna Farrow, Catholic Register Special
  • December 8, 2022

As a woman of faith, Canadian journalist Laura Ieraci has a pastoral heart — one that can lead her to distant pastures.

Ieraci spent two weeks this past summer filming on location in Hungary for a forthcoming documentary focused on the faith of a gypsy community and the life of a heroic priest. But the gestation of the project started seven years ago as she and her husband, Rev. Andrew Summerson, had a couple of weeks to kill between the end of their studies in Rome and the next stage of their lives in North America. 

When her husband asked her how she wanted to fill the time, Ieraci answered, “I want to go and learn about Mother Church.” Two years earlier, this cradle Roman Catholic from Montreal had married into the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church. She wanted, she said, “to see the geography, to eat the food and to hear its chant.” 

By the end of their 2015 trip to eastern Hungary and western Ukraine, Ieraci was already making plans. She told her husband, a Byzantine Catholic priest of the Eparchy of Parma, “One day it would be great if we could organize a pilgrimage for the people in North America.” 

In 2018, with the help of her husband and their bishop, she did just that. She wanted to provide an opportunity for Greek Catholics in North America to learn about the history of their Church and to connect with the physical touchstones, the icons and buildings, of the faith. 

As a journalist, she has an instinct for capturing a story. Then editor for Horizons, the newspaper of the Eparchy of Parma, Ieraci organized things so the pilgrimage could have a small film crew attached. She and her team produced a documentary, From Mariapoch to Mariapoch: A Journey of Discovery, that aired on EWTN.

At the end of what had already been a memorable trip, a meeting with Bishop Abel Szocska, of the Hungarian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Nyiregyhaza, led to an experience that would sow the seeds for Ieraci’s documentary project. Szocska insisted they break with their packed itinerary so that he could “show you a special community.” The bus driver was not happy, but the bishop insisted: “It is only a 20-minute drive.” What started out as an unplanned side-trip ended up being “one of the top three events of the pilgrimage,” Ieraci says.

In the little village of Hodasz, pilgrims met with members of the Greek Catholic gypsy community, referred to as gypsy instead of Roma because gypsy is how they describe themselves. There they were welcomed with great hospitality. The pilgrims learned about the history of the people, were treated to a musical performance and instructed about the life of Fr. Miklos Soja, who for 40 years had worked to establish a Greek Catholic parish for the impoverished and overlooked gypsy of Hodasz. 

Climbing back onto the bus at the end of the day, Ieraci knew that something special had just taken place. She leaned over to the cameraman and said, “David, that is a documentary.” 

Back in the U.S., Ieraci began to search for funds to finance another film that would go beyond themes of marginalisation and prejudice to focus on the faith of the Greek Catholic gypsy community and the life of Fr. Miklos. She received a grant from the Catholic Communications Campaign, a subcommittee of the U.S. bishops’ conference, and plans were laid to travel to Hungary to shoot the film in 2020. COVID travel restrictions put those plans on hold. 

When Hungary fully opened again for international travel in June 2022, long days of work were necessary to throw together a team and a plan. Using what Ieraci calls “a Catholic budget,” she had to think outside the box. Her theological consultant to the project ended up doubling as the key grip.

Ieraci credits the assistance of Metropolitan Archbishop Fulop for her ability to scramble so quickly. By the end of August, she and her team had landed in Hungary. As they crisscrossed eastern Hungary, 14- and 15-hour days of shooting ensued. The days were, she says, intense. Intense because of the workload but also “Intense in terms of story-telling.”

At the centre of the story is the figure of Fr. Miklos. Assigned to a Greek Catholic parish in Hodasz in 1941, the priest quickly discovered that the village had slums where gypsies were living in extreme poverty. Just as quickly, Fr. Miklos began ministering to the people. He first focused on the children, establishing a small school where he taught them to read and write, the basics of the Christian faith, but also how to use a fork and knife. Ieraci was pleased that she had the opportunity to interview some of the now elderly individuals who were present during those early years.

The adults of the community were drawn to the priest because of his work with the children. Fr. Miklos then set about building a structure of adult lay leadership. Over the 40 years of his pastorate, he established a model for gypsy ministry for the Greek Catholic Church that has since expanded beyond the village of Hodasz and still bears fruit today. There are now group homes established for single mothers, orphaned or abandoned children, and even student residences for gypsy young people attending university.

For the time, Fr. Miklos had a novel approach to evangelisation. He saw what was good and beautiful in the gypsy culture, the love of children, music and family, and modeled how those values could be incorporated and offered to God in worship. He translated the hymnography and liturgy into the gypsy language. This, when the rest of the Greek Catholic Church was not chanting in their native language. He also encouraged the use of the guitar in the sacred liturgy even though the Byzantine tradition uses a cappella chant rather than instrumentalization. 

Fr. Miklos’ years of ministry overlapped with the 40 years of communist rule in Hungary. Bishops advised their priests to keep a suitcase packed in case they were suddenly taken away. Fr. Miklos and his work with the gypsies was largely ignored by the communist regime, but a brush with the police demonstrated the deep love the people bore for him. When word got out that the priest had been arrested, the men gathered their work tools, hoes and pitchforks and mobilized outside the police station. As they gathered in growing numbers and shouted, “Give us our priest!” the authorities were intimidated and Fr. Miklos was released shortly afterward. Ieraci was told, “He saved our life, and we saved his life.”

The main goals of the documentary are to highlight the work of a saintly priest and the ongoing gypsy mission of the Greek Catholic Church, but Ieraci had a third objective. Her desire was to provide an opportunity for the gypsies to tell their story. She notes there is plenty of material available that covers the gypsy experience of poverty and prejudice.

“It has been done,” she says.

Instead, she asked her interviewees to speak to her as a sister in Christ, to witness to their faith in the Gospel, “to profess their faith and their joy in being Christian.” It is an important distinction, and it was reinforced by her conversations with those currently involved in gypsy ministry. They told her the mission is not a “project” or an expression of activism but rather a collaboration of brothers and sisters in Christ for the good of all.

The excitement and love for her work, for the story of Fr. Miklos, and for the people she interviewed, ate and worshipped with, is palpable in Ieraci. She knows that there are months of labour ahead of her to bring the documentary project to completion. She has plans for a possible release date but doesn’t want to commit it to print. Like the birth of a baby, it will be delivered when it is ready.  

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