Feast Day : August 16
Patronage: bricklayers; against death of children; kings; masons; stonecutters; stonemasons; Hungary
Name meaning: Vajk: rich or master
Also known as: Vajk, Vaik, Stephen the Great
Vajk was born in 970 to the Magyar leader Geza and his wife Charlotte. That year also marked an end to the threat of terror from the great barbarian hordes when they suffered a crushing defeat by the Byzantines at Arcadiopolis (located in what is now northwestern Turkey). By 972, Otto II had married the Byzantine princess Theophano, uniting the Holy Roman and Eastern Empires and leaving Hungary squeezed in the middle. In order to survive, Geza determined that his people’s aggressive tribal and heathen culture had to be destroyed and replaced by Christianity so that paganism could not be used as an excuse for invasion. So in 972, Geza announced the conversion of his people: an act of political expediency. Bishop Pilgrim of Passau established the first episcopal see near the royal residence at Esztergom on the Danube River. About 980, Bishop Pilgrim returned and baptized Geza and about 5,000 Hungarian nobles at Pannonholma (an event described as resembling a cattle round-up). Although Geza ruthlessly imposed Christianity on his people, he and Charlotte continued to worship their pagan gods. Young Vajk was baptized along with the rest, receiving the name Stephen (Istvan), but legend tells that he had been destined for Christian greatness. During her pregnancy, his mother Charlotte supposedly saw St. Stephen the Protomartyr in a dream. He told her that she would bear a son who would be the greatest leader Pannonia (which became Hungary) had ever seen, and that the boy should be named after him. Young Stephen received Christian instruction from the martyred St. Adalbert of Prague. By 995, Geza was old and ill, exhausted from 10 years of battle with Bavaria’s Prince Henry the Quarrelsome. He named Stephen the future king, ignoring the practice of “seniorate,” in which the next member of the ruling family ascends the throne—in this case Geza’s brother Koppany. In the old traditions, Koppany also had the right to Geza’s widow, a practice called “levirate.” To protect her son’s interests, Charlotte arranged Stephen’s marriage to Gisela, daughter of Prince Henry and sister of Emperor St. Henry II. Geza died in 997, and Stephen became king after defeating and killing his uncle. Koppany’s lands were given to the abbey of Pannonholma for the establishment of the great church of St. Martin, still the mother church of the Hungarian Benedictines. In 999, still uncrowned officially, Stephen decided to cast Hungary’s lot with Rome and the German princes. He also desired official recognition by the new pope, Sylvester II, formerly the learned French cleric Gerbert of Aurillac. So in 1000 Stephen sent St. Astrik to Rome to ask that the pope name him King of Hungary by the Grace of God, a designation that would make Stephen an apostolic king and canon of the Church. Sylvester II eagerly agreed, sending Astrik back to Hungary with the official papers and a crown originally made for Duke Boleslaus the Brave of Poland. When Astrik arrived at Esztergom, Stephen rode out to meet his envoy and stood at attention to hear the pope’s message. On August 15, 1000, Stephen received the papal crown in a coronation ceremony based on the Mainz Sacramentary, including his anointing with holy oil and reception of the ring, sword and scepter of the Church. The young king concentrated on the organization of the Church and the just administration of his nation. He established the Church’s primatial see at Esztergom, the royal residence, and used the spoils of a war with the Bulgarians to build the cathedral at Szekesfehervar. Next the king divided his country into dioceses, decreeing that every 10 villages join together and build a church and support the local priest. Tithing was mandatory. Any family fortunate enough to have 10 children must dedicate the tenth as a monk at the abbey at Pannonholma. All people except churchmen and members of religious orders were required to marry. To establish control, Stephen built an extensive system of castles and royal residences that employed about a third of the population on their maintenance and subverted traditional clan loyalties in favor of the king. Stephen introduced private land ownership, wrote laws and established royal courts, repressed murder, theft, blasphemy and adultery, and established a security force in the Alps and along the Danube to protect travelers. In 1014, Stephen allied Hungary with his former enemies, the Byzantines, against the Bulgarians, and his success yielded not only the booty, which became Szekesfehervar Cathedral, but a Greek princess for his second son, Emeric. Stephen’s first son, Otto, had died in childhood, and the king placed all his dreams for a Christian monarchy on the young prince. Emeric’s early spiritual adviser was St. Gellert (who was martyred by pagans, like his predecessor St. Adalbert), and Stephen himself trained and educated his son in the responsibilities of a Christian king and servant. In 1030, Prince Emeric successfully led an army against the ambitious German emperor Conrad II, and Stephen, convinced his son was ready for kingship, prepared to name him regent. But a wild boar killed Emeric in a hunting accident in 1031, and the devastated Stephen faced the prospect of succession by his cousin Vazul, described as stupid and half-pagan. Often sick and delirious, Stephen began seeing parallels between his life at the millennium and that of Christ. Fears of the apocalypse abounded, and Queen Gisela set craftsmen and seamstresses to work making crosses and sacred vestments, particularly a red and gold silk mantle for the king that portrayed St. Stephen and King Stephen together with God. In an act establishing the cult of the Virgin in Hungary, Szekesfehervar Cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin Mary—a move that appealed to the stillpagan worshipers of the goddess whose gown was the blue sky. Shocking even his closest followers, the dying Stephen named his nephew Peter Orseolo as his successor, cutting out Vazul. Such a move also curtailed Hungarian independence since Orseolo was the son of the Venetian doge. Vazul sent assassins to kill the king in his bedchamber, but they were apprehended. He was convicted and punished by being blinded and having hot lead poured in his ears. King Stephen I died on August 15, 1038, exactly 38 years after his coronation. Orseolo ascended the throne, but Vazul’s sons soon overthrew him, establishing a 200-year dynasty. Stephen was buried next to his son, now Blessed, in Szekesfehervar, but his relics were eventually enshrined in a chapel of the Church of Our Lady of Buda. Reports of miracles at his tomb circulated almost immediately, and Hungarians—even during the years of communist rule—still appeal to their patron for aid in time of crisis.