The history of the old church began at the end of the 18th century, when the area south of Pest and previously belonging to Józsefváros gained its own name after King Francis I, who ascended the throne in 1792. In 1795, the local master carpenter János Fellner donated a plot of land to the church and parish along the street then called Soroksári (today Ráday), and he even confirmed the donation in his will before his death in 1798.

The Pest city council dealt with the issue of the church to be built several times. When the Beautification Committee was founded in 1808 at the initiative of Palatine Joseph, among their ideas was a church to be built in Ferencváros.

In 1820, there was already a church building foundation: anyone who wanted to donate money to the noble cause could pay to this foundation. Pest mayor Benedek Fellner, for example, donated 150 forints in this way that year. Perhaps as a result of his actions, in the same year the citizens of Ferencváros, who had civil rights, turned to the city council and initiated the construction of a temporary church.

Portrait of János Boráros from the 25 November 1934 issue of Pesti Hirlap Vasárnapja

The case was taken up by János Boráros, who at the time was acting as a councilor (he was the chief judge of Pest between 1790 and 1807 and deputy mayor from 1827), and his preparatory work bore fruit. In March 1822, Sándor Rudnay, Cardinal of Esztergom, indicated in a letter to the Council of Pest that he supported the case of building a church. The document also revealed that although the inner citiy parish priest at the time acknowledged the legitimacy of building the new church, he asked for compensation in the event that the number of people belonging to his parish decreased by 3,500 people (so the number of Catholic believers in Ferencváros could have been that large at that time). 

Prince-Primate Rudnay visited Pest on 20 May 1822, and although he had to deal with many important matters, he took time out to see the lot on Soroksári Street. He found the place to be suitable, and events accelerated so much that Bishop István Kollár of Tribunic was able to consecrate the first church in Ferencváros on 12 October 1822.

Portrait of Cardinal Rudnay in the volume of Samu Borovszky's series titled Magyarorszg vármegyéi és városai [Counties and Cities of Hungary] presenting the County of Esztergom (1908)

The 16 October issue of Hazai's lülföldi Tudósítások  reported the inauguration events as the first news and gave a brief description of the church. The one-nave building, approximately 20 fathoms (roughly 36 meters) long and 7 fathoms (13 meters) wide, had a west-east layout, and its entrance faced the Danube. We do not know for sure who designed it, but we do know that its interior decoration and furnishings were made or financed by the citizens of Ferencváros themselves.    

The front page of Hazai's Külföldi Tudósítások on 16 October 1822

In 1819, Ferencváros judge Béla Szoltis cast a 650-kilogram bell at his own expense, the belfry was made by János Sturm and his wife. Jakab Nachtigall, master baker, gifted a monstrance, a sacrificial cup and a chalice. Master miller Gáspár Pauer had a full church dress made. The costs of the construction of the altar were borne by soap master Jakab Schlechta.

The high altar picture, which depicted Saint Francis, was painted by József Schöfft on the order of blacksmith Antal Mendl. The main altar and the pulpit were carved by the sculptor Lőrinc Dunaiszky, a busy master of the period. A small-sized organ was also installed in the church, which was commissioned by master basket weaver János Vizer. 

The temporary church on the map section of Ferencváros published by Károly Vasquez in 1837 (Source: Ferencvárosi Helytörténeti Gyűjtemény)

Among the many small interesting things related to the temporary church, it is worth mentioning that the first public mass was held by the then parish priest of Lipótváros, Ignác Simoncsics, in Slovak on 13 October. In November 1822, the Franciscan order was given the task of running the parish and church in Ferencváros.

Thanks to the Franciscan brothers, the church was expanded with side altars, one in honour of St. Philip and the other in honour of St. John of Nepomuk. In 1832, a clock was also installed in the tower. Unfortunately, no depictions of the church were made after the consecration, but the huge flood that reached the capital in March 1838 "made sure" that it was immortalized. Of course, it was not the flood, but the elimination of the damage and the reconstruction that resulted in the birth of the illustrations. Many graphic artists, lithographers, and drawers created pictures of the consequences of the natural disaster, and the proceeds from the sale of the duplicated works were used for remediation.

The engravings that show a square or a building in Buda, Óbuda, and Pest from the days of the flood are well known. Among them are the lithographs made from the drawings of Károly Klette, Károly Kohlmann and Károly Schwindt, which show the almost completely destroyed Soroksári (Ráday) Street with the church in the middle of the compositions.

The flooded square with the old church on a lithograph made from a drawing by Károly Klette, 1838 (Source: Ferencvárosi Helytörténeti Gyűjtemény)

Károly Kohlmann's steel engraving of the church's surroundings (published in the 1939 issue of the Hazai Magyar Vándor calendar)

It can be seen from the pictures that the building survived the flood, but it is not visible what damage the flood actually caused to the building. In the first days, the water almost completely covered the church, the altars and the pulpit were swept away by the flood, and the walls began to sink. In May, the Pest council took care of the restoration, the walls were equipped with huge supports, and the equipment was replaced with the help of new donations.

However, the deterioration of the church proved to be unstoppable. The walls sank and cracked, and although it welcomed the ever-increasing number of believers from Ferencváros for another 25 years, in April 1865 it was permanently closed due to its life-threatening condition. Two classrooms of the school built in 1859 on the north east corner of the square were designated for holding masses. From the church, József Schöfft's painting was transported to the Franciscan convent, which has been displayed on the side wall of the sanctuary of the inner city Franciscan church since 2017, and is thus the only remaining work from the temporary church.

József Schöfft: Stigmatization of Saint Francis, 1822 (Photo: Tímea Simon)

In 1866, preparations for the construction of the final church began. Miklós Ybl, the designer of the new church, commissioned master builder János Wagner to re-strengthen the walls of the crumbling church so that it could be used as a stone carving workshop and a warehouse from then on. The master builder must have done a good job, because the old church stood next to the new one under construction until 1878 and provided the place for the stone carving works. It was then demolished in the summer of the same year, because it was obstructing the construction of the terrace of the Ybl church, which was to be built against floods.

In György Klösz's scenery of the Danube bank in Ferencváros around 1878, the tower of the temporary church can be seen on the left (Photo: Fortepan/Budapest Archives. Reference No.: HU.BFL.XV.19.d.1.05.152

In György Klösz's scenery of the Danube bank in Ferencváros around 1878, the Ybl church under construction and the still standing temporary church can be seen on the right (Photo: Fortepan/Budapest Archives. Reference No.: HU.BFL.XV.19.d.1.05.181

At the end of the story, a word must be said about the person to whom we owe the fact that so many details about the temporary church have survived. In 1879, the year of the consecration of the new church, Vilmos Kurtz, a Franciscan monk and parish priest, published a booklet containing his recollections and researches related to the history of construction. He began his service in the temporary church in 1855, and until his death in 1909, he lived and worked as one of the most respected citizens and as a true local patriot of Ferencváros, which was transformed from a suburb into a district. Without him, we would know very little about the first Catholic church in Ferencváros, which was handed over 200 years ago this year.

Cover photo: On the site of today's Bakáts Square parish church, there once stood a small, village-style church built in 1822, which suffered severe damage during the flood of 1838 (Source: Vasárnapi Ujság, 14 March 1886)