Of course, the cave that houses the Cave Church is much older, there are legends from the Middle Ages to suggest that a hermit, a monk named Ivan once lived here. The name Pest is also suspected to be derived from the name Mons Pestiensis, in which the word pestiensis means cave or furnace. The original cave was much smaller than today, as today’s cave system is largely artificial. 

The Cave Church above Gellért Square (Photo: Balázs Both/pestbuda.hu) 

Although the cave was said to have been the residence of a monk in the Middle Ages, after the expulsion of the Turks, the southern slopes of Gellert Hill were practically uninhabited, home only to grapes. At the foot of the hill was the Sáros Bath, cave dwellings were hidden in the cave itself.

Cave dwelling in the cave of Gellérthegy in 1874 (Photo: Fortepan / Budapest Archives, Archive reference: HU.BFL.XV.19.d.1.05.057)

However, the grapes were destroyed by the phylloxera epidemic in the last decades of the 19th century, and this part of the city became more valuable, as at the beginning of the 20th century, the vineyards were replaced by villas and elegant residential buildings, and by 1918 the Gellért Hotel was rebuilt and today's Bartók Béla út was laid.

The idea of transforming the Cave on Gellért Hill into a chapel came up during a pilgrimage in 1924 when Hungarian pilgrims visited Lourdes. The town at the foot of the Pyrenees is notable for the several visions seen by a French nun in the nearby cave in 1858; Lourdes has been a place of pilgrimage ever since.

The entrance of the Cave Church nowadays (Photo: Both Balázs / pestbuda.hu) 

The idea of building the church was embraced by Ministerial Counselor Gyula Pfeiffer, who was also at the forefront of organizing the works. The plan was to slightly enlarge the cave by blasting and to build a small passage. However, something went wrong, the mountain did not explode in the planned direction, but towards the Danube, opening up the opportunity to build a larger cave system.

The original altar of the Cave Church (Photo: FSZEK Budapest Collection) 

The Cave Church, is only partly a natural cavity, most of it was artificially created by a series of blasts. The construction was led by the “St. Gellért Hill Cave Church Committee”, largely through volunteer work, covering the construction costs from donations. Not only money was donated, many contractors offered building materials or did the work for free, for example, the creation of the 12-meter-wide and 2-and-a-half-meter-high iron lattice in front of the altar was undertaken by Christian Socialist workers of Diósgyőr, naturally free of charge.

Béla Bangha celebrates Mass in the Cave Chapel in 1928 (Photo: Fortepan / No.: 100056)

The first version of the cave chapel was completed on 23 May 1926, by which time its consecration was scheduled for Pentecost. The church was presented in the issue of the Nemzeti Ujság on 23 May 1926 as follows:

“The unadorned character of the old cave has completely disappeared and the space in front of it awaits an army of worshippers who can enter the cave church dedicated to Our Lady of Hungary through the door leading through the ornate lattice. This lattice already has a history, as will everything related to the history of the cave place of worship. It is a story that speaks of sacrifice and the deep zeal of souls. Three thousand Hungarian workers - employees of state iron factories – worked on it completely free of charge, and each hammer blow was accompanied by a prayer. Architect Kálmán Lux remodeled the cave and stylishly adjusted the fittings. He chose the early Christian, almost catacomb style, leaving as much as possible everywhere in the rock the original work of nature. As for the technical alterations, they were carried out by skilled miners – on shifts from all the Hungarian mines – also completely free and in prayer, and they were supervised by Alfréd Czerninger, chief commisioner of the mines. Thanks to him, there is more space than planned, and the cave church also has a side exit beside the main entrance for the comfort of the worshippers. The ornaments of the cave church are the fine and poetic statue of Mary of Lourdes by György Vastagh and the group of sculptures to be made by him (which is has replaced by a model for the time being): St. Stephen offers the crown to Our Lady of Hungary. ”

The church was used in this form until 1930. However, it proved to be narrow, and in the meantime another idea arose, namely that the only Hungarian-founded order of monks, the Paulines, could return here, to the side of Gellert Hill. The Pauline order has medieval origins but Joseph II dissolved it, and since then they did not have a convent in Hungary.

Reconstruction work began in November 1930, during which the chapel was enlarged by 1,228 blasts. The church was completed for Pentecost 90 years ago, in 1931, and the Paulines settled in 1934 in their new convent overlooking the Danube. With this, a strong connection was established between the Cave Church and the Polish center of the Pauline order, Częstochowa, one of the largest Polish pilgrimage sites. During World War II, the church became popular among Polish refugees.

The altar of the Cave Church after the 1931 enlargement (Photo: FSZEK Budapest Collection)

After World War II, the Communist regime did not really take the Cave Church above the city on Gellért Hill to heart, nor the monastic orders. The Paulines were arrested on Easter Monday, 1951, and many were executed. The wooden cross at the top of the mountain was knocked down.

The Cave Church was destroyed, but the destruction did not end there. The cave was walled up, a one and a half meter thick reinforced concrete wall was erected, leaving only a small iron door. In the 1960s, a karst water monitoring station was established in the passages and then it was used as a warehouse.

Television interview at the VITUKI karst water monitoring station, i.e., the Cave Church in 1968 (Photo: Fortepan / No.: 56304) 

The Catholic Church did not regain the chapel and convent until 1989, and restoration and reconstruction of the church began immediately, although the concrete wall enclosing the Cave Church was only demolished in 1992.

Altar of the Cave Church in 1990 (Photo: Fortepan / No.: 76470)

Today, the Cave Church operated by the Pauline Order is an integral part of the capital's religious life, and the tibia of St. Paul the Hermit, which is one of the most valuable relics of the order, is preserved here. To strengthen Polish-Hungarian relations, in 1994 the Polish-Hungarian Friendship Society donated a copy of the image of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa to the church on the 60th anniversary of the Pauline repatriation, and a Polish altar and a memorial plaque to Polish internees were erected here.

Cover photo: The entrance to the Cave Church in 1926, in the background the Liberty Bridge (Photo: Fortepan / No.: 28443)