BY: JAMES PHELPS
Portola Valley, California— It was a sunny Wednesday morning and I had just taken the routine break that was given to all Priory students after the first class that day. I was walking up the hill and past the art building to the monastery when I saw a car pulling up towards me. It was Father Maurus pulling up and coming back from a doctor’s appointment with Father Pius. He parked the car, stepped out and greeted me warmly with a handshake. He then showed me into the Monastery and into his office. He was wearing casual clothes that day and not in his usual monk attire. His office was welcoming and cozy. He offered me a chair and something to drink. I was glad for the drink and thanked him.
“How are you doing?” he asked me.
“Good,” I replied. “Thank you so much for letting me interview you.”
“I’ll do my best,” he responded. With pleasantries covered, we launched into the interview. I had only been in the Monastery once before and I was once again struck by quiet, solemn atmosphere. The Monastery has a long hallway with a living room and offices at one end. Bedrooms or “cells” as the monks call them are at the other end of the hall. Each monk has their own room that consists of very minimal furniture, a twin bed, table and dresser. I continue to be amazed at Father Maurus’ dedication of his life to God and the Priory.
Born in a small village near the Austrian border in Hungary, Father Maurus went to high school just before the Hungarian revolution broke out. Also, at the time during the revolution, Soviet Russia viewed going to church as a criminal offense. Hungary was under the Communist rule of Soviet Russia at this time. Communist Russian Rule started in Hungary after the defeat of Hungary during World War II when Russian forces took the capital city of Budapest on February 13, 1945.1 Russian forces would remain in Budapest until Allied forces liberated the city on April 4, 1945.2
“So, James, you’re a senior this year, does this mean you’re eighteen?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“I was your age when I fled my home country. But, I couldn’t just leave. I had to say goodbye to my family and friends first.”
Father Maurus said goodbye to his family, which included his mom, dad, and his younger sister who was eight at the time, and started the journey to the Austrian border. Just after crossing the border into Austria, and approximately twenty-five miles from his hometown, Father Maurus was placed into a refugee camp and given temporary asylum in Austria. He was then given a choice as to where to eventually end up and start a new life.
With the goal to eventually get to the United States, Father Maurus chose Canada as his final destination at the time since the United States had already filled its quota of refugees for that particular year. After a week’s time on a boat, he finally landed in the Quebec Province of Canada. But, that was not Father Maurus’ final destination; he wanted to get as far west as possible. So he hopped on a train, “a nice sleeper” as he called it, and rode the train all the way to Vancouver and arrived in June of 1957. While in Vancouver, Father Maurus participated in various job settings, two of which were the most interesting. During the non-winter months, he worked in the railroad industry making repairs on various parts of the railroad in order to keep the trains and the passengers safe. During the winter months, he worked as a lumberjack in the cold Canadian North miles away from any big city such as Vancouver. He told me that he enjoyed doing various jobs in Canada. But, he was always focused on his ultimate goal, to eventually get into the United States.
Father Maurus came to the Priory on August 10, 1963, but had to work hard in order to get to the Priory. Since arriving in Vancouver, he had been in constant communication with Father Egon around the holidays. Father Maurus contacted Father Egon by phone through a mutual friend and asked for help with their Hungarian Christmas celebration in Vancouver. Father Egon gave him help and sent Father Leopold to Vancouver to help in the Hungarian Christmas celebration, specifically with the Christmas mass services and celebrations. This went on for the next couple years and after the second Christmas was held in Vancouver, Father Maurus was invited to come to the Priory. When he arrived, Father Maurus immediately loved the campus. He joined the Priory community that very day. After joining the Priory community, Father Egon asked Father Maurus if he wanted to go back to school in the United States. Father Maurus took the offer and graduated from St. John’s University in New York in 1968, studying Biology and Philosophy. After graduating, Father Maurus went to St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park and graduated in three years. Upon his return to the Priory, Father Maurus became the Biology teacher and Science Department Head for 25 years, relinquishing his role in 2008.
Since his arrival at the Priory, Father Maurus has become the spokesman between Priory and a number of Catholic schools in Hungary and he goes back to Hungary every year to recruit possible students for the next academic year.
“This allows community expansion,” he says. “It is a change for Hungarian students in that they get to experience American culture and lifestyle.”
At the end of the interview, I asked him whether or not he forgave his oppressors during the time of the Hungarian Revolution. He responded with just a simple sentence.
“Not to forgive is hurting no one except the person who refuses to forgive, and to forgive is to also be free.”
Father Maurus did eventually get to see his family again. Thirteen years after the Hungarian Revolution had ended, he went back to his hometown to visit. Since he had left, his sister had grown up and become a teacher but she suffered oppression from the government due to the fact that he had escaped during the revolution. Father Maurus feels that he has a scar from his escape that “wouldn’t cause bitterness or regret” and that, “it was God’s will for my escape.” He views this event in his life as “a miracle from God himself” and he is deeply grateful that he was able to escape from Hungary at the right time.
Looking back on the interview, I think that this was a good experience to get the chance to interview a refugee from a significant event in world history. Father Maurus provided the intellectual insight that helped to educate me about the Hungarian oppression during the time of the Soviet Union and Communist Russia. He also provided understanding into his own life that I had not previously known about in my entire time at the Priory. It is important for researchers to study this event because it marked the break-up of the Soviet Union during World War II and contributed to perhaps one of the most major events in American History. I believe that smaller events within bigger ones such as World War II go unnoticed by the public eye most of the time and doesn’t give those who suffered traumatic events during those times the opportunity to share their stories. Father Maurus’ story is one of these cases.