Dobri Dobrev, the Saint of Bailovo

When we see people asking for alms, we often overlook their personalities, viewing these individuals as a faceless mass of unfortunates unable to earn their living. The following story changes such a view on almsgiving quite radically. It is inconceivable that the largest private donor in the entire history of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia was a ninety-five-year-old person collecting alms. How is this possible? Let’s find out.

Dobri Dobrev (born 1914), also known as Grandpa Dobri (Bulgarian: Dyado Dobri), was a Bulgarian unmercenary and ascetic. Despite the fact that he was not a monk, his lifestyle was truly monastic. For years he walked 25 km every day, going from Bailovo to Sofia, where he spent the entire day asking for alms. As it turned out, he did not spend a single penny on himself and gave everything to Bulgarian churches. Only in his declining years did he start using public transport to get to Sofia. Knowing the elder’s good deeds, the local drivers never charged him for rides.

His total known donations to the church amount to around $ 50,000. Among them is a donation to Sts Cyril and Methodius parish in Bailovo ($ 6,000), a donation to the Eleshnitsa Monastery of the Theotokos in Gorno Kamartsi ($ 15,000) and a donation to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia ($ 21,500). According to the church council secretary of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the average annual amount of collected donations ranges between 2000-2500 US dollars. When asked about Dobri, the secretary said the following, “Together with the alms this man collects fruit for eternal life”.  Dobri’s donations made him so famous in Bulgaria that he no longer had to go to the streets to ask for alms. People began bringing him their donations, wishing to become witnesses of a real contemporary saint. People always noted Dobri’s kindness and his gratitude towards them. The elder could often be seen bowing before the givers and kissing their hands.

There is hardly any biographical information available about Dobri’s life. The elder did not remember anything from his childhood and youth, except being raised only by his mother after his father was killed on the battlefields of the First World War. Dobri got married in 1940 and had four children, two of whom he outlived. A shell explosion during an air bombing of Sofia in the days of the Second World War resulted in Dobri’s hearing being seriously impaired. That was roughly the time when Dobri began to distance himself from worldly life, making (in his own words) his wife unhappy. Over the years, he became more and more immersed in Orthodoxy, finally donating all his property to the Orthodox Church in 2000, thereby following the words of Christ, “…Sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor; and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21).

Since then, Dobri began to live in a small shack next to the church in his native Bailovo named after the Saints Cyril and Methodius. His only amenity was a simple wooden bed, which he seldom used, preferring to sleep on the wooden floor. He also had a very limited number of personal items and clothes. When asked why he would not spend some of the raised funds on himself, Dobri replied that he did not need anything other than what he already had. Dobri had a monthly pension of about 100 US dollars. Besides, the kind people, as he himself called them, brought him clothes, bread, vegetables and fruits. Despite his advanced age, Dobri could be seen doing hard physical work in the churchyard until the very last days of his life. It could easily be  something as difficult as a roof repair.  When asked why he had chosen such a way of life, the ascetic did not give a direct answer, only stating that he was doing it for his own repentance and humility.

The saint from Bailovo reposed in the Lord at the age of 103, on February 13, 2018. His body was buried in the courtyard of Sts Cyril and Methodius church in his native village. Hundreds of people attended his funeral, mourning the loss of their beloved elder. His Holiness, Patriarch Neofytos of Bulgaria, Metropolitan of Sofia, also attended the funeral, saying, “Examples like the Saint from Bailovo, as he is popularly christened, give us hope that strong people still remain in Bulgaria. His faithfulness to the Church and her commandments was truly righteous among the righteous, and “the memory of the righteous will be blessed” (Prov. 10: 7). Speaking about the canonization of Elder Dobri, Professor Deacon Ivan Ivanov, a representative of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, said that the Church would conduct a study of Dobri’s life in order to determine the evidence of his holiness, such as miracles, incorruptibility of his relics, etc. “If there is God’s will for that, confirmed by the will of the Church and the people, then a new holy unmercenary will shine forth in Bulgaria in the person of ‘Grandpa Dobri’” he concluded.

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