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Harrington, Vilma Szantho (1913-1982)

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Vilma Szantho Harrington

By Donald Szantho Harrington, Vilma’s Spouse

Vilma was born in the tiny Transylvanian village of Aldoboly, Hungary on January 15, 1913. I have seen the humble house in the foothills of the great Carpathians where she came into this world in the days when Transylvania was still the most important part of the kingdom of Hungary, which it had been for some one thousand and seventeen years until the Treaty of Trianon in 1919 gave it to Romania. Her father, Dr. Vitus Szantho, was the presiding judge or magistrate in the nearby county seat town of St. George (Sepsi Szent Gyorgy). Her mother was a beloved kindergarten teacher in the local public school. They had a home in town also, as well as in the village, at the top of a small hill overlooking the Town Hall and Plaza, and were one of the most respected families in the town, their ancestors having lived there and in the surrounding villages from time immemorial.

Vilma remembered vividly the vicissitudes of World War I, when there was little food and no sugar. She remembered when they had to flee to Budapest at the war’s end as looting soldiers ransacked her town, taking away everything they could carry. For six months her family had lived in a railroad car in Budapest before being able to return to rebuild and restore their home. When Transylvania, which was the first settled part of Hungary, and the only part not to suffer Turkish occupation in the sixteenth century, was up for grabs in 1919, it was rather casually given by the French and British to Romania, so Vilma, as a little Hungarian six year old, awoke one morning in her own home and bed to be told that she was no longer Hungarian but a Romanian subject, thenceforth to be required to transact business and pursue much of her higher education in a foreign language.

In 1926, when she was thirteen years old, Vilma went to the gymnasium to prepare for entrance to the University. As she neared graduation from the gymnasium in 1930, her four older brothers, Karoly, Bela, Zoltan, and Andras, were often asking her what she wanted to be when she grew up, to which her answer always was, “A Minister!” Her father and mother shook their heads. In those days in Eastern and Central Europe, when girls graduated from high school, they got married and settled down to have families. A very few might enter the legal profession or seek to become doctors, but a woman minister was simply unheard of. There was no provision in church law for a woman to study for or to be ordained as a minister. No woman had ever been admitted to any of the theological schools in the capitol city of Kolozsvar. But Vilma was persistent, and asked her father to intercede with the authorities at the Unitarian headquarters. He finally agreed to do so, though muttering that he couldn’t understand why she couldn’t become a doctor or a lawyer if she had to have a higher education.

Vilma Szantho

As a citizen of some influence, he evidently was successful, because in 1931 Vilma was admitted to the almost four hundred year old Unitarian Seminary in Kolozsvar. She gathered that the Bishop and Dean were not worried, being certain in their minds that this beautiful, vivacious girl would almost certainly marry one of the young ministers, and so the question of ordination to the ministry would never arise. Even if it did, they felt they could divert her to a teaching ministry, and while she was in theological school she did field work with the children and young people of the capital city’s great Unitarian Church.

They did not know Vilma! She considered her decision to be not just a divine calling, but an imperative human calling. As she put it in one of her memoirs: “I wanted to work with people from the cradle to the grave, with young and old, whether rich or poor, whether happy or sad, and I felt that the only profession that offered such an opportunity was the ministry.”

When the day arrived, not only the villagers, but reporters from nearby Torda and Kolozsvar were present. The villagers were open-hearted and enthusiastic towards this bright young woman who had dared to challenge the sex barrier which had been in place in the church in this part of the world since the beginning of the Christian era. As her host minister and she stood at the door of the church to shake hands with the departing congregation, amidst a buzz of warm approval, only one old man had some doubts. He put it this way: “It is all very well, Miss Reverend, but I am wondering – where you will be minister, who will be the minister’s wife?” The question itself tells something of the role of the minister’s wife in Hungarian Churches. Never is it said of her, as I have heard it said of some ministers’ wives here in America, “Oh, she’s just the minister’s wife.” No, sir. Over there, the minister’s wife sits at the front of the church facing the congregation, and has definite prerogatives, honors, and responsibilities. So his question was by no means facetious. He wanted to know.

In 1936, at the age of twenty three, Vilma graduated from the Unitarian Theological School in Koloszvar and, perhaps further to delay the problem of ordination, was recommended by church authorities for a year’s study at Manchester College, Oxford, and for travels throughout the British Isles. While there, she made many friends and met a number of women ministers from among the British Unitarians. She also attended the Congress of the International Association for Religious Freedom at Oxford in the summer of 1937, where she met the Rev. and Mrs. Alson H. Robinson, from Plainfield, New Jersey. Between Rev. and Mrs. Robinson and Vilma it was love at first sight. “But, you must come to America and study at Meadville Theological School” they exclaimed. When she replied, “I’m sorry, but I can’t. I have no money, no visa and my passport will expire this year,” the Robinsons rejoined, “Then we will extend the passport; we’ll get the visa; and we will see to it that you have a full scholarship, covering everything, including travel.” She made her way at once to Meadville on the shores of Chicago’s Lake Michigan.

As winter turned to spring, I often asked her to go walking with me. One evening, in late March, as we were walking our usual walk, I suddenly realized that I was falling in love with this girl. I proposed to Vilma for the first time. I told her about my growing love of her and of my slowly intensifying conviction that we were made for each other and that we should be married. Her reaction was that she liked me too, but that it was not possible for us to marry. She had been sent to the United States in order to serve her people at home the better. I must confess that this was quite a let down for me, for it had taken me quite a little while to build up the courage to verbalize what was in my heart, and her answer was all too final.


At the time of the new Bishop’s installation, a number of new ministers were to be ordained with the ceremony of laying on of hands. I discovered that Vilma was supposed to be one of them, but as church law didn’t provide for ordaining a woman, no one knew quite how to proceed. My presence, and our new engagement, made the whole thing doubly embarrassing. After lengthy discussion, a compromise was reached. She would be ordained and certified to preach, but not publicly, rather privately, by the Bishop himself. And so it was – to Vilma’s disappointment, but final agreement.

Our joint ministry began upon our arrival in Chicago in September of 1939. I had been called to be minister of The Peoples Liberal Church of Chicago, a fine, old, independent church in the Englewood area. From the beginning, Vilma was both minister’s wife and minister, giving me constant, daily encouragement, support, counsel, advice and criticism. I did virtually nothing of importance without first talking it over with her, and that became a habit which I followed for the rest of my life with her, much to my own benefit and that of my congregations.

By then, our first child was on the way, and we had agreed that while the children were young, our first concern must be for them. Ilonka was born on April 10, 1940, just a little over a year after our wedding on March 28, 1939. Francis David arrived three years later on April 21, 1943. Her first ministering was to me and to them.

Yet, while still pregnant with David, we had together, as co-ministers, founded the Beverly Unitarian Fellowship in the Chicago suburb of Beverly Hills. I repeated my Sunday morning services on Sunday evenings in Beverly, and Vilma took on the task of leading the Church School and serving as Associate Minister.

In 1944, we responded to the call to come to New York City as Junior Colleague and ultimate successor to the famous John Haynes Holmes who was one of our heroes. Here in New York we ministered together, she in one capacity or another, for almost forty years.


For the first ten years, which were while the children were small, she was mostly the Minister’s Wife. Her practice of her profession was sacrificed gladly to the well-being of our children, though as Minister’s Wife, she still took a keen and active interest in every church activity, never missed a Sunday at church, and helped us to start our first Church School.

In 1954, when we lost our Minister of Education, she became for five years our Director of Religious Education. Under her colorful and deeply spiritual leadership, and spirited personality, our school enrollment doubled, tripled and quadrupled. Parents came with their children, eager for them to be with her.

Vilma Szantho Harrington

Then, in the 1960’s, Vilma became Minister to College Students, first for the Metropolitan Unitarian Universalist District, and when it could no longer maintain such a ministry, she continued leadership of the Columbia-Barnard Group on behalf of the Community Church. Vilma was, without question, not only one of the most successful Unitarian Universalist Ministers to College Students, but had for several years the most popular student group on the Columbia-Barnard Campus. She specialized in bringing some of the great personalities of our city who were in retirement to tell the story of their struggles for a better society for everyone, people like David Dubinsky, Roger Baldwin, Roy Wilkins, and the various, local Unitarian Universalist ministers.

In her Journal, she wrote: “Off and on, I have served our church in practically every conceivable capacity. I served where the need was, and never for full pay. My reward was in knowing intimately my dear friends and members of this congregation, and in serving them, working together with them, for nobler lives and a better social order, helping each other to believe that goodness is possible, and to feel that Greater Reality, the Great Spirit which broods over and moves among us always. The friendship and love I experienced across the years at Community Church gave me the strength to say – Yes! to life, even when the going was tough.”

Along with these official functions, Vilma undertook what may in the long run prove to be even more important. She became the unofficial ambassador of the Hungarian Unitarians to the American Unitarian Universalists, ceaselessly telling the story of Hungarian Unitarianism to the people of our liberal churches all across America.

We had left Transylvania in August of 1939. It was twenty years before we could get a visa to go to Romania again. In the meantime, her father and mother and older brother all died. Immediately after World War II we had begun trying to get visas, but not until 1959 were we finally able to do so. That year we took the first of four pilgrimages of American Unitarian Universalists to visit the Unitarian Churches in Transylvania.

None of us will ever forget the first Hungarian village we visited in Transylvania that year. (I believe Frankie Challenger was with us that year). It was an all-Unitarian village, just one church, the Unitarian! As we arrived, the church bell began ringing wildly, and the people poured out of their houses and came running in from the fields. First we went to the church to be welcomed with an overflowing congregation, and sang exuberant hymns, the roar of the voices shouting the hymns almost deafening us. Then we went over to the parsonage for cognac, good food, wine and much visiting. Vilma, of course, had to do all the translating, and as the trip progressed into way after midnight, stopping at village after village, she became dreadfully tired. At that first village, when we finally returned to our bus to go on to the next village, we found the bus quite literally, covered with flowers!

Our last pilgrimage was in 1979, when we went to mark the Four Hundredth Anniversary of Francis David’s martyrdom by visiting the old castle dungeon in the mountain top ruins of the town of Deva. Once again, this was an unforgettable experience, when we all felt very close to that great human being who in 1568 had persuaded King John Sigismund to make religious toleration the law of the land, and who, for his temerity, under a later king had paid the supreme price of martyrdom.

Vilma was always looking forward with hope. In January of 1982, just before we discovered her cancer, she wrote in her diary:

Welcome 1982! May this be a year of fulfillment, joy and hope. Life is endlessly challenging, beautiful and good. Good health, good thinking, good feelings. Let us never give in to the negatives.

She did not lose her courage or her forward lookingness even in the face of cancer, or right to the end when she died on October 15, 1982.

— Abridged from an address at The Community Church of New York on January 15, 1984.

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

The Biography of Donald Szantho Harrington