Dobri Dimitrov Dobrev
The Saint from Bailovo
July 20, 1914 ~ February 13, 2018
Вечная Памят ~ Memory Eternal
Bailovo is a village about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Over the course of many years, every morning, an old man looking like a Russian beggar from the 19th century set out for the city. If he missed the morning bus, he went on foot. He wore simple shoes—made from pigskin in the older photos, but rubber towards the end of his life. Often as he was going a car would pick him up. The people had grown to know him and where he was heading. Those giving him a ride for the first time would be amazed by the scent of herbs that always followed him.
Grandpa Dobri, as he came to be known, had a difficult way of life. He lived in a 2-room house in the church yard: in the floor of one room he dug a hole that functioned as a refrigerator, while in the other room he kept warm with a fireplace that had a copper cauldron. That room also contained the rest of his possessions: a table, a chair, and a notebook. That was it. He washed himself and his clothes at the public drinking fountain.
The notebook was especially important. In it he diligently kept a record of every single begged-for penny and the church to which he had donated it. The sums were significant enough for the ascetic to become famous, contrary to his wishes. It turns out that this weak old man was the single biggest donor to the St. Alexander Nevsky Patriarchal Cathedral, which had been at the centre of a dispute between the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the government over who was going to cover the immense costs of maintenance and repair for the biggest church in the Balkans.
This was discovered by journalists looking for something newsworthy in the published report of charitable donations to the cathedral necessitated by the aforementioned dispute. In that report there was a name: Dobri Dobrev, the beggar with the plastic cup who greeted everybody coming to the church with a bow. He could have afforded to purchase apartments, cars, villas, and more for his fifteen grandchildren; but instead, he gave all his belongings to the church in Bailovo and chose the life of a fool for Christ.
Over time the media began to publish sporadic reports of his donations: about 57,000 leva ($36,000 US) to the Dormition Monastery in Eleshnitsa, 28,000 leva ($17,600) to the Holy Trinity Monastery on Cross Mountain, and significant amounts of money to the Basarbovo Monastery. He also built the Holy Trinity Chapel in Bailovo, among others.
A man from the neighbouring town of Elin Pelin remembered how Grandpa Dobri helped:
We lacked about 2000 leva ($1260) for the Shroud of the Theotokos (used for the services of the Dormition), and we went with him to take some money from the bank. He withdrew 2800 leva ($1765), but I gave him back the 800 leva due to our calculations. Nonetheless he insisted, and finally he ended up being right. Exactly 800 leva more were needed to finish the chapel.
The legends surrounding him began to circulate. He spoke perfect German to a tourist. It is uncertain where he might have learned the language. What is known is that during the aerial raids over Sofia during WWII he almost lost his hearing. It is also known that at the age of 38 he left his home to follow Christ. Whether this was done with the approval of his wife, with whom he had four children, is not certain. One time he said about her: “She didn’t listen to me, but took in an orphan and now is with God.”
After the war things became very difficult for religious people: churches were closed, there was a persecution of priests, spies infiltrated the divine services. Dobri Dobrev was even worse off. For some time, he took care of the gardens and animals in a monastery; but afterwards, he left eastbound upon the advice of a priest.
Faithful to his “foolishness,” he never preached, nor did he educate or teach. He did not look for followers. When he came to be a bit more famous certain wealthy people donated larger sums of money. Business people and celebrities began to know him as somebody they could trust. In those cases he was incredibly careful with the distribution of funds.
The “benefits” of democracy also did not spare him. He was even robbed and beaten by drug addicts twice, but this changed nothing about the way he lived.
Penny by penny, bow after bow, he reached his 104th year. Enough time for us to stop for a moment and ask ourselves who it is that we have been passing by every day, and to wonder to what we have condemned our existence.
One “foolish” old man, with dirty clothes and messy hair, showed clearly that by humility, kindness, and deep faith he took the money for which all of us strive and he purified it, making it clean, showing that it is the way we treat money that is of utmost importance, not the money itself.
Tanya Shahova is a playwright and novelist who lives in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Theodor Avramov translated this tribute from the original Bulgarian after arranging for the author to write it exclusively for Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He is an MA student in Orthodox theology at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski,” and has written previously for us.
A number of short videos on the life and person of Dobri Dobrev are available on YouTube.