Close to the poor

The witness of the Orthodox parish priest Fr Ivan Ivanov

Novi han is a town 40km from Sofia. It became famous over the past years thanks to one of his inhabitants. In fact, Orthodox parish priest Ivan Ivanov built a large foster-home for abandoned children, families and individuals in difficult situations. In Bulgaria Fr Ivan, whom everyone calls by his first name, is seen as a man of God who is near the poor every day. With his project, launched 25 years ago, over 1300 people have found a home and a shelter. The vow. For Father Ivan vocation to the priesthood came late, he was already married, father of three. Nonetheless, his passion for the priesthood was noted by the Communist police. “One day I received a phone-call by the police, it was back in 1981 – the priest told SIR Europe – I was asked how many friends I had abroad, but I had none”. So Father Ivan ended up in a small and humid jail cell, without lavatory, for seven months. “It was hard – the priest said -. I didn’t know why I had been imprisoned nor for how long, which was the cause of great anguish”. He added: “Only prayer and my faith in the Lord have saved me, otherwise I would have gone mad”. He pledged a vow to God that if he had gotten out of prison he would have built a home for orphan children. Family homes. The promise of father Ivan was fulfilled in the parish, where he was invited to serve as a priest. “The Most Holy Trinity” of di Novi han. “It was 1987, the eleventh-century church risked falling into ruins while the courtyard seemed a jungle”, the priest said. After having presented his plan to the parish council the members said the project was a “mission impossible”. But Father Ivan wasn’t discouraged and started to build with the little he had. The tenants. Despite difficulties – “at the beginning the municipality wanted to prevent the building of the project” – the church shaped as an Orthodox monastery soon grew packed with faithful. “Today we hosti many abandoned children – mothers, families in difficulty, old men and women – a total of some 100 people”, said Fr Ivan. With the worsening of the economic crisis the numbers of those in need of support are increasing. “Unfortunately it can host a limited number of people”, remarked the priest, who added that he regrets sending back people in difficulty. Unlike government social aid bodies, in the home of Fr Ivan people can stay as much as they want, provided they respect the rules. “Here everybody gives a helping hand – he said – men in the building works and in the farm and women in household work”. To provide for self maintenance they have some crops and animal breeding”. The family of Galia and Nicolaj. In the home are also born new families. One of the first ones was that of Galia and Nicolaj Simovi, married by Fr Ivan nine years ago, who now have two children: a nine and a two-year old. “I was raised in an orphanage – Galia said – but when I turned 18 they sent me away, as they do when a child is of age. I hopelessly looked for a job and since I had nowhere else to go I slept on benches in public parks”. Until someone told her about Fr Ivan’s home and she went to Novi han. “Here not only was I given a bed and warm meals but also the warmth and the support of a family who sheltered me”, added the young woman who is now the vice-chef of the home. Also her husband Nicolaj remained an orphan after the death of his mother, while her father abandoned him when he was seven. He now works as a driver. The village of Jakimovo. In order to give people the opportunity of integration Father Ivan, with the help of many benefactors (only on Facebook the project was supported by 36 thousand people), managed to buy some 60 houses in the village of Jakimovo, in north Bulgaria. “I wanted to provide to these people in need the possibility of a new life, their own home, and a small vegetable garden of their own”, he said. “We have also opened our own bakery and every day the inhabitants of the village buy fresh bread at price cost”. They would like to set up a small farm to give a job to unemployed persons but it requires a large amount of initial capital. “But nothing is impossible to God”, the seventy-year-old priest said with a smile, who despite several obstacles is convinced that his place is “among the poor”. People in difficulty. Father Ivan believes that the “Church should first of all take care of people in difficult situations”, adding that he appreciates “the commitment of Pope Francis to this regard”. “The Gospel clearly tells us what we should do. It would be good if every diocese in Bulgaria had a family-home”. During Easter also Bulgarian patriarch Neofit came to visit the house in Novi han. With his blessing Fr Ivan and his staff bring back a smile on the faces of many children.

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