Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: Home for Saint Stephen’s holy dexter

The right hand of the blessed man was deservedly exempt from putrefaction because, always reflourishing from the flower of kindness, it was never empty from giving gifts to nourish the poor.

Bishop Hartvic, Life of King Stephen of Hungary, about 1116

Construction of the Basilica of Saint Stephen in Budapest took more than 50 years because the original dome over the facility designed to accommodate up to 8,500 worshippers completely collapsed in 1868. During the intervening years, the desired style evolved from neo-classical to neo-renaissance by the time the church was inaugurated by Emperor Franz Josef in 1906. The dome is the same height as that of Parliament, and no buildings in the historic center are allowed to tower above them.

Saint Stephen (975-1038) is celebrated as the first king of Hungary. His royal coronation was held on the first day of the second millennium, and the crown itself was a gift from Pope Sylvester II. King Stephen’s later sainthood was merited for his commitment to crush paganism in Hungary and for miracles credited to his right hand, the holy dexter.

The incorrupt hand was stolen at one point, recovered, hidden by nuns and finally returned and honored with a public procession in 1938 and enshrinement in a chapel in the basilica. The annual procession of the mummified dexter was ended abruptly by the communists in 1950. Since 1988, the church has been free to parade it through the streets annually on his day, August 20.

The crown presented to King Stephen served as the coronation crown for all subsequent kings of Hungary, but, like the dexter, spent some time in hiding. It and some of the royal jewels were spirited away for safekeeping in the United States during World War II. They remained locked in Fort Knox until returned to the Hungarians by an order of President Jimmy Carter in 1978. The crown and jewels are displayed in the House of Parliament.

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