The old Romanian church in the village of Petrinzel saved from destruction


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In the summer and autumn of 2021 a small local team came together to organise emergency repairs to the former Greek-catholic church in the village of Petrinzel in Salaj county, Transylvania.

The church was rebuilt according to the plans of well-known Transylvanian architect Kós Károly between 1924-7  and incorporates material from a much older wooden church used by the Romanian community which stood in the nearby village of Stana.

Therefore, a few months ago, the team made up of Zsigmond András, villager and creator of Marathon, the beautifully quirky guest house in the village, Bogdan Ilieș, who has a PhD in history from the History institute, George Barițiu in Cluj-Napoca, local, now retired, village clerk Debreczeni Pali, local craftsman Zagor Tibor and NGO Târnaț Kalotaszeg Durabil –  TKD’s Sara Meaker and Douglas McFarlane succeeded in organising and implementing emergency repair work on the roof of the former Greek-Catholic – now Orthodox – church in Petrinzel/Kispetri.

We have, temporarily at least, stopped the continued ingress of water which was causing serious timber decay. The craftsman who completed this work considers it to be good enough to protect the church for around two years. Time enough, we hope, to secure funding for further repair works,” said the TKD representatives.

The church was built, incorporating an older wooden church from a nearby village, during the interwar period with the whole operation taking place between 1924-27. Kós Karoly, Transylvania’s most renowned architect, oversaw the whole operation and designed a new tower to house bells forged in Cluj. The old wooden church in Stana/Sztána was no longer required as a new stone church had been designed there by Kós Karoly so the old church was dismantled  and the beams were used to raise the walls of this ‘new’ church in Petrinzel in its current position. Kós added a prominent stone tower that gives the church its more modern appearance. In Stana the whole Greek-Catholic community had used the church  and in Petrinzel it continued to serve this role until the communist government in 1948 declared the Greek-Catholics to be an illegal organisation.

Photo: Denis Galoway, 1926, archive of the Museum of Ethnography of Transylvania, Cluj-Napoca, Stana Wooden Church


We were all fascinated to learn more from Bogdan Ilieș whose doctoral thesis was actually on the topic of Romanian churches in Salaj county. Bogdan has been studying, documenting and writing about wooden churches in Romania for more than 12 years. He has written a number of articles published in specialist magazines. Since 2015 he has been part of a team of specialists and enthusiasts involved in the repair and protection of  a number of wooden churches in Transylvania and the Banat which are on the  list of Historic Monuments.  He is vice-president of the NGO Arhaic which is involved with preserving historic structures in Salaj county and which is an affiliate of the larger Ambulanța pentru Monumente active across much of Romania,” the NGO further recounted.

They also said that Bogdan told them more about the old bells, and the paintings in the church. The oldest bell is dated 1872 and was most probably the bell housed in a small building next to the home of the Greek-Catholic curator where services were held before the present church was erected. The paintings on the walls are equally interesting, painted on metal by Huedin based master, Petru Crăciun, a well-known church painter active between the wars. He probably painted the pieces in his Huedin workshop and then transported them to Petrinzel.

: Photo: Bogdan Ilieș, The interior of the church in Petrinzel looking towards the iconostasis, 2011.

“Bogdan was impressed by how little the church has changed over the years. We don’t know when the church was last repaired, but it is clear that the walls and tower were plastered at the time of building.  That the building has remained relatively untouched is likely a consequence of the disappearance of the ethnic Romanian community in Petrinzel but the church having no congregation and no resident priest in the village has also left it vulnerable to storm damage”, the NGO said.

According to the NGO’s sources, the Greek-Catholics were once numerous in northern Transylvania, in many parts by far outnumbering Orthodox congregations from the 18th century until 1948. “We don’t know the numbers of Greek-Catholics in Petrinzel before WWII, but maps suggest they may well have been the second most numerous religion after the Calvinist Hungarian Reformed church. The Romanian community in Petrinzel was never substantial. A source on family histories speaks of  two Romanian families moving into the village after 1848. In 1947, 101 Greek-Catholic adherents were recorded in Petrinzel.  The repression under the communist regime followed quickly on the heels of this census and Greek-Catholics effectively disappeared until the Communist regime was overthrown in 1989. There is a history about this community in the Almas valley still to be written.”

Back at the end of June, TKD organised a meeting around the church. Debreczeni Pali invited the current priest for the church Nicolae-Ciprian Petrean and his wife Ancuța who live in Gălășeni/Tóttelke. TKD invited Bogdan Ilieș to advise us about the repairs needed.  Zsigmond András and the Reform church minister Bántó Tamás Csilla informed the local villagers about the meeting which was well attended.

“Following the advice of Bogdan, we set out to source roof tiles, wood and galvanised tin necessary for local craftsman Tibor to make the emergency repairs required to the roof. This proved to be no easy task as the roof tiles are old and rare in this area but finally András managed to find a stock of them, just waiting for us to reuse, at the nursery school of the  Kétágú Reformed Church in Cluj. András and Pali donated the wood and metal required while TKD paid for Tibor’s work and other costs incurred. The cost was very small thanks to these donations and the great organisational energy of the team of volunteers.”

This is not the first  historic building which TKD has saved or attempted to save. Previous to the church in Petrinzel TKD had focussed on simple peasant buildings which are disappearing at an alarming rate. There was Lőrincz Nefi Erzsi’s  house in Văleni/Magyarvalkó which we surveyed together with  carpenter Dan Marcu, but were unable to save: the owner was determined to demolish.

Then, in the same village there was Bálint Tatár Márton’s late nineteenth century grain store, a remnant standing in the courtyard of a modern house, inherited by Ionuț Both who gave it a 50:50 chance for five years when he allowed TKD to protect it, which was achieved with the help of talented friends and a donation of  tarpaulins. The grain store was kept up and protected until the house was sold. The new owner was not interested in keeping, repairing, or selling to TKD (we would have moved it) because he needed a garage. “Such a beautiful building could never be successfully converted. It is a very sad failure and we suffer every time we walk past it to the nearby Bagolyvár. Bagolyvár, which translates as Owl Castle in English, is a traditional house from the second half of the nineteenth century rescued from demolition by TKD. “

Bagolyvár is probably the oldest building with binding beam still standing in Văleni. It is thought by the previous owners, the Pandur family, that it was built around 1870. By the 1980s the house was unoccupied and the young people from the village were using it as a meeting place (traditionally a sewing, spinning, place to have fun) to rehearse Christmas carols and organise discos. It was during this time that the house was nicknamed Bagolyvár – a reference to all the various late night shenanigans going on, often accompanied by the call of the owls from the nearby wooded valley.

TKD bought the house in 2011 and have repaired it sustainably and traditionally.  It is constructed of rough cut timber beams with not very substantial stone foundations. The timber is plastered with clay mortar and finished with a limewash. The most obvious repair is the reshingling of the roof. Part of the house is organised as a sewing culture – village museum and we have held a few natural building repair workshops, and meetings in the house.

Bagolyvár was the 4th house to come into TKD’s care. The first was a one room house with  binding beam  in the centre of Domoșu/Kalotadámos,  built or at least substantially modified in 1921, but certainly containing wood from earlier structures. This building also served as a sewing, spinning, courting place of rituals in the 1950s for the young people of the village. It is the only building in TKD’s care that is off grid. The building is water tight and being brought back into use as a home.

At the same time as buying the Domoșu house, TKD bought a two room beamed house in Huedin/Bánffyhunyad  in the historic cobbled B N Antal/Nagy utca- since the 1950s the site for the 700 year old Huedin  market. Although repaired and modified using modern materials before TKD purchased it, it still retains much original material. TKD extended the house to include a toilet, pantry and also added a verandah/târnaț.  The modern roofing material was replaced with traditional tiles. We currently live in this building but are modifying it to function as a community hub. When we bought the house in 2006 there remained many older houses on the street.  The vast majority have disappeared and they continue to disappear today.

There are two other structures in our care, one in Alunișu/Magyarókereké and another, in Văleni. The former is water tight but the latter is a very vulnerable structure with only two thirds fully protected from water ingress.  The last of the famous Văleni pattern drawing women/íróasszony was born in this house.

“Something we have learned through experience is that it takes a long time to repair sustainably, and traditionally. Both skills and passion are essential. TKD’s constant workforce consists of two people, Sara and Douglas. Although we are occasionally joined by friends or volunteers we very much have to prioritise securing a building/making sure there is no water ingress/blocking  mouse holes, while we wait for  more people to  realise the importance of peasant structures and learn the skills necessary to repair them using compatible traditional or modern biodegradable materials.

The successful completion of these emergency repairs to the former Greek-Catholic, now Orthodox, church in Petrinzel is the first time we have been involved with a building of such unique historic importance.  This building now has a future and  we feel very grateful, impressed and encouraged by the team: András, Bogdan, Pali, Tibor with whom we shared the desire to act –  we cared enough to play our part and make these emergency repairs a reality.

It isn’t about money. Our happiness comes from knowing every time it rains it is not raining inside the church and that together we achieved this.  The Romanian community in Petrinzel is so small that it could not materially support the repairs to this church. This is why the association TKD, in collaboration with the neighbouring  parish of Gălășeni, wanted to revitalise this important building which is such a part of the history of the village and a largely unknown work of the renowned architect and  true renaissance man, Kós Károly.”

As the tiny Romanian community in Petrinzel does not have the financial resources to carry out full repairs, TKD says it will continue to work with the local Orthodox parish to revitalise the church, tell its story and that of the unheralded conservation work of  Kós Károly.

“We know that over one or two years serious repairs will have to be made which is why we have to start on a full rescue plan now.  Initially this will take the form of an awareness raising campaign including writing to newspapers in Romanian, Hungarian and English, making contact with the mayor’s office to update them about our recent activities, and to ask for their ideas, opinions, and the possibilities of help.  In good time we will need to make a detailed  survey of the building, quantify and plan the repairs and seek the necessary funds.”

There are other buildings in Petrinzel  that TKD is also interested in protecting, repairing, and bringing back into use. The 1903 Hungarian Reformed Church school building is certainly the most substantial of these. The school situated inside the church walls with its own well, is a rarity and it certainly deserves to be repaired and reinvigorated.

In fact, a team is already working on making this possible. “Together with Bogdan we investigated the roof, where we found  oak beams probably sourced from the forest in Almașu/Váralmás and which Bogdan felt  to be in good condition.  The alabaster walls (nearby Stana is a source of alabaster)  remain strong. Bogdan advised the Petrinzel community that any interventions should respect the building’s proportions and retain as much original material as possible. In the short term he advised providing emergency protection in order not to lose more original material. Tibor has partially covered the building using donated tarpaulins.  Many possibilities for future use are being discussed.  The building will be a central point for the community, certainly invoking its past and incorporating  a study centre to continue the theme of learning,” the NGO stated.

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