SABAOANI, Romania — In the valley of the mountains of Eastern Romania between the land of Dracula and the fringes of Slavic Russia lives a small but tightly bounded Catholic community whose faith has often been compared to the world's first Christians.

Moldavia has overflowing churches. In the village of Sabaoani, the church accommodates 1,000 people, yet Sunday Mass fills so quickly that crowds are forced outside into freezing temperatures.

“The faith here is so strong you can feel God,” a visitor commented during morning Mass.

There are 260,000 Catholics in Eastern Romania, a predominantly Orthodox country of 22 million. Moldavia produces 100% of the country's clergy.

Clergymen suggest a strong faith always existed in Eastern Romania, though they will admit that after decades of suffocating communist persecution, new life has been breathed into the Church during the last 10 years.

Communism placed heavy controls on the Church, limiting its movement within its own four walls. Father Cornel Cadar of the Diocese of Iasi describes the policy as “obey or be destroyed.”

Those who resisted ended up in chains, such as Bishop Anton Durcovici of Iasi, who ultimately succumbed to torture inside the “Black Room” at Sighetu political prison. Sighetu became the coliseum for many of Romania's holy men, whose bodies have still not been recovered.

The apostle Andrew is believed to have brought Christianity to Romania by in the first century.

Though the schism of 1054 split the Church between East and West, many in Romania remained faithful to the pope.

Centuries of Tartar invasions killed off or hauled away into slavery much of the Catholic population. But beginning in the 18th century, a huge wave of Catholics escaping their own persecutions in Transylvania on the western side of the Carpathian Mountains began seeping in and repopulating Moldavia.

Insulting Term

These immigrants, who possessed their own dialect and traditions, were quickly referred to as Csángó (pronounced chango). The term is not always welcomed.

“I prefer not to be called that,” said Silva Domoc from Sabaoani, the largest Catholic settlement. “We don't call ourselves this. We are Romanian Catholics.”

To Catholics, the term Csángó is an insulting one that labels them “foreigners.” The word, of Hungarian origin, was applied to the new immigrants from the fallacious logic that since Hungarians are Catholic, these Romanian Catholics were Hungarian, too.

A story in a Bucharest newspaper sums it up: “Seeing a group of black students coming out of a Roman Catholic church, a woman exclaimed in bewilderment, ‘What, now the black people are Hungarians, too?’“

Today, as modernization slowly dissolves the old traditions, with it goes the Csángó identity.

Veronica Tanaru, 64, remembers that when she was growing up everyone in the area spoke the Csángó dialect. Today the language is comprehended by only a small and dwindling elderly population.

Tanaru still believes in the traditions and has been conducting a personal crusade to preserve some of the old ways. She has collected traditional hand-woven clothing and artifacts, some dating back 200 years. Her plan of creating a performing-arts program dissolved after she realized the old traditions just couldn't compete with the excitement of television and hip-hop.

Even the most basic traditions, which survived centuries of war and famine, are fading. Tanaru recalls how Csángós used to preserve a traditional gown that was never used until their burial day — a custom dating back to ancient times based on the belief that the dead will wear the garments in which they were buried on the day of their resurrection.

“My grandmother was a very modern women,” Tanaru said. “When she died we dressed her in her traditional gown with a modern set of clothes over it. She loved her modern clothes and we thought to give her the opportunity to choose which she would prefer to wear in the afterlife.”

Modern Problems

But today the biggest concern of the Catholic Church in Moldavia is less about saving dusty old traditions than addressing the region's crippling poverty and rising unemployment.

Officially, the average net income stands at $150 per month, but people in the streets laugh at this exaggeration.

The majority of people in the 200 Catholic localities in Moldavia work in agriculture, which Sabaoani mayor Valeria Dascalu says earns them only enough for food.

This poverty has created a vast exodus of young people such as Eugene Robu, who spent five years working in Israel. Only after a suicide bomber took the life of a friend did Robu return home.

Such young men and women, returning with foreign currency and new ideas, are changing the face of Moldavia's traditional Catholic villages.

Twenty years ago Sabaoani was a simple village of single-level homes with wood-carved porches and straw roofs, but that face is all but gone, replaced by a juxtaposition of old and new Western-style architecture.

Another innovation is specifically American — baseball. The girls at Sabaoani High School were so thrilled with the new game that between their studies, daily church services and caring for their younger siblings, they started a team.

Though their equipment is second-hand, their spirit is strong: Last season, the hardworking young girls from the little Catholic village shocked the entire nation by taking home the Romanian championship.

Chuck Todaro is based in Bucharest, Romania.

Cause Started for Moldavian Martyr

NISIPORESTI, Romania — Bishop Petru Gherghel of Iasi on Nov. 25 opened the cause for sainthood for a young Moldavian woman, Veronica Antal.

At 16, Antal wished to become a nun and help children, but such simple dreams of religious service were impossible in the early 1950s under Romania's communist rule.

But while her dream of a religious vocation was denied, she became a secular Franciscan tertiary and demonstrated her faith by walking five miles every day to receive holy Communion.

On Aug. 24, 1958, the 24-year-old was returning from Mass to her village of Nisiporesti when a young man tried to rape her.

Antal resisted and was stabbed 42 times. All the while, she never let go of her rosary, which was found after her death clasped tightly inside her palm.

Antal's deep faith and humility made her an immediate heroine to the impoverished and oppressed Moldavian Catholics.

And today, nearly 50 years after her death, people still lay flowers regularly along the side of the road where she died and local Catholics make pilgrimages there every Aug. 24.

— Chuck Todaro