Octogenarian 'Aunty Ilonka' rings heavy church bells in Hungary

Published Dec 24, 2023


Following in the footsteps of her family's past five generations, Jozsefne Szedlak, or Aunty Ilonka as she is widely known, leaves her home to the nearby bell tower at least twice a day.

As one of the few remaining bell ringers in Hungary, she has taken on the responsibility of tolling the bells at the Catholic church in Tereny, a village of 350 residents around 60 kilometres north of Budapest.

The heaviest bell there weighs around 450 kilogrammes.

"As long as my hands and feet can handle it, there won't be an automatic system," says the 80-year-old grandmother of three.

"Because people say, and it's true, that bells die when they are automated, so a bell working by the press of a button does not chime the same."

"The bell summons the living, mourns the dead and breaks the storms."

Around Europe, bell ringers have become increasingly rare as motorisation has progressed steadily since the 20th century, said Ferenc Bajko, a campanologist who studies the history of church bells.

"In Hungary, usually Protestant churches have them, where the bells are only used on Sundays. It is really unique to have someone manually ring the bells several times every day," he told AFP.

Aunty Ilonka is a "great blessing", says Tereny mayor Andrasne Brozso.

Television crews and curious tourists regularly visit the village to meet her and even Hungarian President Katalin Novak visited her last June.

Usually Aunty Ilonka just uses one hand to chime a bell at noon or in the evening, saying a silent prayer to count the time.

But on important Christian holidays like Christmas, she has to manually chime all three bells of the medieval church.

So she sits down on a stool and uses both her hands and right foot to simultaneously toll them - Not an easy feat, given their weight.

"There is no need to go to the gym," she says with a hearty laugh.

Aunty Ilonka is also an active part of the local community.

Mayor Brozso notes that she helps preserve the regional Paloc heritage by carrying out all ecclesial duties, being part of the folk choir, and keeping a collection of antiques in a traditional peasant house.

In colourful Paloc clothing, she proudly shows visitors around her informal museum with traditional furniture, tools and dresses, some dating back to the 19th century.

She says she has always been fascinated by old things and proud to carry on with a family tradition started by her great-great-great-grandfather.

"I've been ringing bells for 60 years, but only about 10 years by myself, because before that I was just helping out my grandparents and parents," she says.