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Final four congregants say goodbye to Magyar Presbyterian

Members of tiny Magyar Presbyterian Church in Lackawanna figured they'd have to close the doors once their numbers dipped to 10 people.

That happened at least five years ago, but the congregation established by Hungarian immigrants in 1907 simply refused to die.

Only now, with just four active members remaining and little chance for a revival, has the proud congregation decided to call it quits.

Today marks the church's final service, after which Magyar will be quietly dissolved into a glorious memory.

"We just don't have the people," said Sandy Drozdowski, a member of the church for more than 60 years. "We kept it going as long as we could possibly do it."

The church hasn't experienced a baptism in four years; the last marriage was probably 15 years ago. Funerals have been more common.

"Twenty years ago, we said when we drop down to 10, we're going to close," said Jim Drozdowski, a former Catholic who joined Magyar when he married Sandy.

"We kept going a little longer than that," said Francis Wesselenyi, whose father served as minister of the church in the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Magyar has been able to support itself in recent years with the help of rental income from a small Pentecostal congregation that also used the building.

The name Magyar refers to the main ethnic group of Hungarian people.

In 1913, faithful members of Magyar, many of them steel mill laborers, built the stout red-brick church on Ridge Road in Lackawanna's hardscrabble First Ward. They topped the spire with a five-pointed star to distinguish the building from several Catholic churches nearby.

Membership at Magyar was never huge, topping out at about 165 people in 1946, but it included a congressman, John R. Pillion, and a few Lackawanna city judges, and at one time featured lively ministry, a couple of choirs, a school and annual Christmas pageants.

In the late 1950s the church experienced an influx of more than a dozen former "freedom fighters," who had participated in a failed revolution against Soviet occupation of Hungary.

Louis Basty, 80, the eldest member, has spent his entire life with Magyar. He recalled having to sit through two services, one in English, another in Hungarian, each Sunday as part of the religious education program.

"If we never went to church again in our lives, we were well-churched," he said.

Francis Wesselenyi arrived in 1958 when his father, the Rev. Nicholas Wesley-Wesselenyi, became minister of Magyar. He was the last minister who spoke Hungarian, and when the congregation no longer could afford to pay him, Wesley-Wesselenyi officially retired to collect Social Security but continued to lead services.

Wesley-Wesselenyi died in 1992, but Francis Wesselenyi continued to show up, and usually played the organ to boot.

In 1981, a lay preacher, Clayton L. Adams, took to the pulpit, but technically is not considered a member.

Adams, a retired teacher, watched the attrition. And through it all, he has admired the resilience and faithfulness of the final four.

"They just sort of put off thinking about the end as long as they could," he said. "They didn't want to get up and walk away until they absolutely had to."

"They're a very fiercely independent group of individuals," said the Rev. William James Hardy, pastor of South Park United Presbyterian Church in South Buffalo.

As moderator, Hardy will oversee the dissolution meeting, which requires a majority vote of the membership.

"It will be remarkable in many ways," he said. "Churches don't close every day like this." Sandy Drozdowski battled back tears over the decision to close. But at least the last members standing were able to do it on their own terms, she said.

"We wouldn't want the presbytery to tell us what to do," she said. "It's good that we didn't have to have them say, 'You have to close.' We did it ourselves."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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