Over the last 100 years we have retained many records and documents of our rich history. Rev. Emil Varga, our minister for 40 years, captured many of his thoughts in writing and wrote a rendition of the history of our church for its rededication and 50th anniversary. Daniel Meeter did likewise for our 80th anniversary celebration. Professor August Molnar, President of the American Hungarian foundation, was a great asset to the Anniversary Committee for his recollections and knowledge of the Reformed Church.
With all of this historical information, one issue that still plagues us is no one really knows for sure when our Church first began. We can trace back to the late 1890’s. We believe a small group of our ancestors worshipped together – sometimes in each other’s homes, sometimes in store fronts, sometimes in other churches in South River, and also with our neighbors from New Brunswick, Woodbridge and Perth Amboy. Minutes of meetings trace back to early 1903. One fact we know to be absolute is that in 1906 this Church was built here on this property. So that is how we come to celebrate 100 years of worshiping in this sanctuary.
The American-Hungarian communities were formed along the eastern shores during the years 1870-1914. During that period, great waves of job seekers left the predominantly agricultural countries of Eastern and Central Europe. They found work in the industrial areas of the middle-west and eastern U.S. South River and its neighboring towns also offered work places in walking distance for both men and women.
In South River a group of these Reformed Protestants contacted the Presbyterian Church and then invited a Hungarian Reformed minister from a nearby community to come on Sunday afternoon to conduct a holiday worship service for the fellowship of Reformed Christians. As the community of Hungarian Reformed worshippers grew the congregation was organized and plans were made to build a church building. The Church would be located on Thomas Street. The cornerstone of the building was put into place on July 4th and on September 1st the dedication took place. We were named the Hungarian Reformed Church.
An excerpt of the minister’s talk was translated by Professor Molnar and reads “This day will be remain an unforgettable day in our history, a day of joy. ….No longer shall we meet for worship in un-accustomed places. With joyous acclaim we stepped across the threshold of this holy place to say this place is God’s house and heaven’s gate. . The pastor is his detailed history of the struggles to establish the congregation said that the church was built to be the religious center of the community, where we can prayer in our own language, where our children shall have an opportunity to learn the basis of their Reformed faith. But also it shall be a meeting place and a social center for the people.”
Rev. Paul Hamborsky stayed with us for 5 years until 1910. From the period of 1910 – 1925 we had several ordained and student supply ministers serve our Hungarian Reformed Church. In 1911 when Rev. Louis Almassy was pastor the congregation became affiliated with the Reformed Church of Hungary. And, the parsonage was built.
With WWI and the collapse of Hungary after the war, the Reformed Church of Hungary had to let their American congregations go. During the time when Rev. John Ambrus served the church we became affiliated with the Episcopal Church, resulting in much dissension.
From 1922-1925 we had several renovations to our Church. A new slate roof was put on, the church bells were installed and the first rooster was installed on the steeple. In 1925 the church obtained its release from the Episcopal Church.
Rev. Andrew Kosa was called to supply our church. He recommended we become affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, for which we remain.
Rev. Andrew Babinsky became the next installed pastor and served the church faithfully as an excellent preacher. Rev. Babinsky helped to make the 1st furniture for the Sunday School. He was an excellent teacher. In the summer he ran a 6 week school teaching the bible and also Hungarian reading, writing, history, music and literature. Rev. Babinsky also started English language services for the young people. The early days of high prosperity stretched into the depths of the Great Depression, facing poverty of the Church and congregation, Rev. Babinksy left in June 1937.
From the period of 1938-1944 to Rev. Andrew Harto served the congregation first as student supply for two years, and then upon graduation from the seminary, became our pastor. The church was revitalized: two local Hungarian churches united; English services continued for the youth; a new organ was purchased and installed; the church was repainted and the corner building was bought. The church debt was cancelled and choir organized. The church basement was renovated. There was a summer school program, dinners, plays and many other social events occurred. The church was an integral part of the congregation’s social life.
Rev. Emil Varga began his ministry in October 1944. He graduated from Rutgers University and the NB T. Seminary.
At that time, our church was essentially a Hungarian congregation following traditions of their roots. Pastor Varga was a strong supporter of the RCA and sought to invigorate the life of the Church with more modern ideas. South River was changing. He sensed the need for our Church to become an American church and threw all of his energy into creating a competitive American congregation. Yet, he never forgot our Hungarian roots and continued to lead Hungarian serves until the middle of the 1970’s.
Rev. Varga put much effort into the Sunday School – teaching our young children American hymns and gospel songs. Mrs. Varga served loyally our church as organist and choir director throughout Rev. Varga’s tenure.
In January 1950 the congregation voted to expand the existing structure by 37 feet. The construction was delayed for 2 years due to the Korean War. The expansion included a larger sanctuary, a chancel, narthex, sacristy, new light fixtures and new windows. The Sunday School auditorium was enlarged to include a kitchen, parlor and Rev. Varga’s office. The roof had to be reinforced and the sidewalls strengthened with steel columns. The interior of the church was redone to reflect more of an American colonial style.
The congregation grew steadily in the 1950’s and early 60’s reaching at one point a membership of 376, representing 206 families. The Church was debt-free. These families’ social lives centered upon the church and enjoyed participating in such activities as the Girls League for Service; Young Women’s Guild for Christian Service; Men’s Brotherhood; Reformed Church Youth Fellowship’ and the Friendly Circle. There were picnics, bazaars, family nights and social dinners.
Rev. Varga was an active leader in the SR community, leading many ecumenical movements.
In 1966, the name of the church was changed form the Hungarian Reformed Church to the First Reformed Church of South River and then in 1969 the Hungarian rooster fell off the steeple and the American rooster was mounted.
In the 1970’s our membership declined, straining our finances. In 1973 the Friendly Circle established their stuffed cabbage dinners. We also purchased the house next to the Parsonage - #44 Thomas St.
In 1980, Rev. Emil Varga retired, leaving a strong leadership and ministry for which we are eternally grateful.
1980-1986: Dan Meeter came to our Church. He was not Hungarian but he and his wife Melody became enthusiastic students of our Hungarian heritage. He began bible studies, family activity nights, and started an every member canvas program. In 1983, the church celebrated its 80th anniversary. Rev. Meeter captured our history in writing and Mr. Sitz designed and baked a cake in replica of our Church building. In 1986, Rev. Meeter left to serve another congregation.
Rev. James Brumm came in 1987. The SR Food Bank was relocated to our church housed at 36 Thomas St. and we rented out our church basement to a day care facility. We also became a part of the SR. Council of Congregations involving us in a Thanksgiving Service.
Due to finances we could no longer support a full time minister. Rev. Brumm resigned in 1992. In 1993 since we did not have a minister we came under the supervision of the Classis of New Brunswick and we were assigned a supervisor to oversee our Church. That supervisor was Don Stager. Soon thereafter we contracted with Don to become our "minister under contract". Prior to coming to S. River, Don served as a minister of the Finderne Reformed Church (North Brunswick) and as chaplain at United Campus Ministry at Rutgers. Don graduated from Rutgers U and the NB Seminary. A few years ago he earned his doctorate degree in social work.
Needing income we began to rent out our houses. At one time all 3 houses were rented to Franciscan nuns. This rental income allowed us to make extensive repairs to all of our buildings as well as improvements – the stained glass windows and the cross, which hangs in our chancel.
In 1995, with 4 young children and dedicated parents, a Sunday School program was reborn. This year two of those 4 original children were confirmed. Back are children’s day plays, family fun nights, youth groups being established. Vacation Bible School is a great success. Last year we had over 80 young children participate in vacation bible school, children from all denominations and races. A HS graduation scholarship fund began.
Through our benevolence programs we contribute financially to support the local SR community, the Middlesex County McFoods program, several missions of the Reformed Church, and our teen youth group began working with the Ronald McDonald house in New Brunswick. In 2004, the consistory (elders and deacons) decided not to rent our properties and we sold house #36. This allowed us to renovate our kitchen and church hall.
As South River has evolved over the years with much diversity, so has our church. Although still rich in our Hungarian heritage we have become a multi-cultural congregation, and new members bring new gifts and talents. Today our congregation has people of Hungarian, Russian, Slovak, Japanese, Page Mexican, Afro American, Trinidadian, Germany and many other cultural backgrounds.
As S. River continues to change, our eyes are set on new ways of ministering to a diverse cultural population. We march forward in the same spirit and with the same faithful devotion that of those who build this church. A new era has begun for us as we prepare to “install” Rev. Don Stager as our part-time minister in September.
-Text prepared by Karen Sullivan
June 27th, 2007