The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

November 28, 2010

Ligonier facility once served as Hungarian orphanage


— The orphans are long gone, as is the old hotel they called home.

Bethlen Communities now is a modern care center for the elderly, and it has branched out beyond its hilltop headquarters overlooking Ligonier Borough.

But one thing has remained constant throughout the facility’s nearly 90-year history: People of Hungarian ancestry founded this place and continue to operate it.

And they are not about to let their proud history disappear, with plans to soon open a museum and archive that will have nationwide significance.

“This is the way we can pass on the history, the lessons, the dedication and the sacrifices that were made over so many decades,” said the Rev. Imre Bertalan, Bethlen Communities executive director.

Bethlen traces its roots to the other side of Westmoreland County, where 239 miners lost their lives in the Darr Mine disaster of December 1907. Most of those who died were Hungarian immigrants, and it remains the worst mine disaster in Pennsylvania history.

For children left behind by the Darr explosion, an orphanage was created at the First Hungarian Reformed Church in Pittsburgh.

“At that point, the orphanage began to open to people of other ethnic backgrounds,” Bertalan said.

“The common denominator was industrial accidents.”

That led to a need for more space, and the orphanage moved a few times in Pittsburgh, Bertalan said.

But things changed when the owner of the Park Hotel in Ligonier, who was looking to leave his business, heard of the orphans’ plight. The Hungarian Reformed Federation of America bought the hotel and surrounding land, and on July 4, 1921, the building was rededicated as Bethlen Home.

The facility has evolved since then.

In the 1930s, the orphanage moved into Ligonier Borough. Some of the orphans’ aging caretakers stayed on the hilltop, leading to the formation of what today would be called a personal-care home.

The hotel building eventually was razed to make way for more-modern structures.

Currently, the property hosts a nursing home and cottages for independent living. Bethlen Communities also includes a personal-care home and apartments in Ligonier.

The orphanage closed in 1979, having served more than 3,000 children. And today, only about 20 percent to 25 percent of Bethlen Communities’ residents can claim Hungarian ancestry.

But a Hungarian flag still flies at the facility. And three organizations with Hungarian connections – the Hungarian Reformed Federation of America, the Hungarian Reformed Church in America and the Calvin Synod Conference of the United Church of Christ – play a big role in the leadership of Bethlen Communities.

Administrators also are looking to preserve Hungarian culture. There is an extensive collection of artifacts and books at Bethlen.

“We encourage people, don’t throw anything away,” Bertalan said.

“Send it to us.”

Enough people have heeded that request that administrators have plans for a large Hungarian museum and archive on site. Bertalan envisions a place for “display and healthy storage – it would be climate-controlled.”

Bethlen also will serve as a repository for Hungarian Reformed church documents from across the country, Bertalan said.

“There will be no other site like that in America,” he said, adding that the museum and archive may be open in the third quarter of next year.

In the meantime, Hungarian-themed displays welcome visitors.

And at the Moriah Chapel – now the oldest building on the Bethlen campus – there is a Hungarian-language service on the first Sunday of each month.

Bethlen’s chaplain, the Rev. Gabor Nitsch, also leads Hungarian and English-language services each Sunday at the nursing home and personal-care home.

Additionally, Bethlen publishes an annual almanac containing information on Hungarian Reformed churches throughout the nation.

The facility’s diverse activities are both an extension of and a tribute to a mission that started 89 years ago, when Hungarian-Americans were fortunate enough to find a property where they could care for the less fortunate.

“This is a place that they felt was theirs by the grace of God,” Bertalan said.

“This is our place.”