Father Ladislas K. Parker, a Catholic priest whose harrowing escape from communist Hungary in 1950 led him to Orange County and the founding of St. Michael’s Abbey, died Sunday after a lengthy illness. He was 94.
Parker was among seven Norbertine monks from Csorna, Hungary, who dodged soldiers and land mines, crawled under barbed-wire fences and swam across a river to freedom in Austria.
They eventually came to the United States and took jobs as teachers at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana. Saving their money and pooling resources, they purchased a 34-acre former cow pasture in the then largely undeveloped Trabuco Canyon area and opened a monastery in 1961.
"He influenced thousands of priests," said the Right Rev. Eugene J. Hayes, who took over from Parker as St. Michael's abbot when he retired in 1995. "He was the driving force that brought the group of seven from Hungary to here. And he was the driving force that reunited them as a religious community. He was larger than life."
Today, 51 priests and 18 seminarians live at St. Michael's Abbey and follow a strict, monastic life of traditional Catholicism that includes Mass in Latin and Gregorian chants. Members serve churches throughout Southern California, teach at schools and colleges and assist Catholic organizations nationwide.
Meanwhile, St. Michael's Preparatory School, one of the nation's top-ranked Catholic high schools for boys, boasts of sending all of its graduates on to college.
"There is a story from the classics about a Roman mother who is visited by a friend who keeps bragging about all her new jewels," Parker told the Orange County Register in 1995. "She then asked to see the mother's jewels. The mother brought out her children.
"These," Parker said of the abbey's seminary students, "are the precious jewels of my life."
Parker was born Francis Pürker in German-speaking Hungary on Dec. 19, 1915. His father was killed in World War I, and Parker was raised by his mother and grandfather, who wanted him to run the family's farm.
But Parker found his calling early, telling a reporter how at the age of 5 he would turn a kitchen stool upside down and pretend it was a pulpit.
He entered the abbey in Csorna as a novitiate and was given the name Ladislas. He later earned a doctorate in theology at Gregorian University in Rome. He was fluent in no fewer than seven languages.
In 1984, the Vatican elevated St. Michael's from a priory to an abbey and Parker was named its first abbot.
Parker's experience with religious persecution in Soviet-controlled Hungary led to relationships with members of Orange County's John Birch Society, who helped raise money for St. Michael's in the late 1960s, Hayes said.
But more so, Parker's journey -- his escape and what he helped build in Orange County's foothills -- served to strengthen his religious faith and were proof of God's power, Hayes said.
"It deepened his dependence on God for all things natural and supernatural," Hayes said. "It showed that God's will will be done."