When Sister Ida Peterfy left Hungary in 1950, the newly installed Communist government was seizing church property and the nation's cardinal had been arrested and sentenced to life in prison.
Rather than risk arrest and the dissolution of the Roman Catholic religious order she had founded in 1940 at age 18, Peterfy fled the country under cover of darkness and brought the order first to Canada and later Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Tuesday morning, Peterfy, 68, and three other members of the Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart left John Wayne Airport, bound for Budapest. For the first time in 40 years, the nuns will teach religion in their native Hungary, where political reforms have brought increased personal and religious freedom.
Although members have been back to Hungary for family visits, "we never had the opportunity to go back and do something for God, to teach, to share," said Sister Eva Batta, head of Sacred Heart Convent in Santa Ana and one of the nuns returning to Hungary.
Originally, the sisters were returning simply for another short visit with relatives, Peterfy said. But after learning of their trip, several Hungarian bishops asked the sisters to speak before church groups and give advice on how to revive Catholicism after 41 years of suppression under Communist rule.
The sisters specialize in religious education and have developed videotapes geared to children. They also hold youth retreats and conduct evening and weekend religion classes for elementary and high school-age students.
In Orange County, the order is affiliated with St. Barbara's Church and Our Lady del Pilar Church in Santa Ana and St. John the Baptist Church in Costa Mesa.
Luggage for the nuns' six-week lecture tour includes not only clothing and personal effects, but also more than 50 pounds of teaching material, including the 30-part children's series called "Sacred Hearts Kid Club."
"What we know, we would like to share," said Batta, 64, one of the nuns boarding the flight Tuesday.
Batta remembers the night in 1950 when she fled Hungary. At age 23, Batta and another nun crossed through barbed wire that separated East and West and entered Austria.
"We left with smugglers who took us through the border at night, on foot," Batta said before boarding her flight. "I held onto a man's coat as he led us through the forest. It was so dark."
Leaving her homeland was not easy, but it was necessary if she was to pursue her vocation, she said.
"When the communists took over at the end of the war, the whole regime changed," Batta said. "The communist elements became the leading parties, and religious people were suppressed."
After reaching Austria, Canada agreed to accept them as displaced persons, and the order moved to Toronto, with the nuns agreeing to work for one year in that country, mostly as housekeepers, Batta said.
In 1956, the Los Angeles Archdiocese invited the order to open a convent. Today, the order has 47 members in 10 small convents, including three houses in Santa Ana. The order recently bought a home in Northridge to be its motherhouse.