by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Overview of Catholic life as Pope Francis visits


In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union. Bulgaria had just freed itself from two centuries of Byzantine domination and actively sought international recognition of its political and religious independence. Even by the standards of medieval communications Kaloyan was slow to respond. He wrote back to the pope three years later, when it emerged that the Byzantine emperor would not recognise him as king. In exchange for an union with Rome, Kaloyan demanded political recognition of Bulgaria and an independent patriarchate. In 1204, a papal envoy blessed and crowned him Bulgarian monarch. Rome and Bulgaria concluded an union.

Still, Bulgaria is not a Catholic state. Why?

The answer is in the turbulent history of the region at the time. Torn between the crusaders, the Bulgarians and the Byzantines, the region was a quicksand battlefield of changing alliances, sudden turnarounds and cloak-and-dagger betrayals. Following a series of events worthy of a Game of Thrones season, the eastern patriarchs did recognise the Bulgarian Patriarchate, in 1235.

Catholic influence in Bulgaria stopped at this point. However, the history of Catholicism in Bulgaria was yet to begin.

In the 14th century, Saxon miners settled in what is now the Bulgarian northwest. Catholic missionaries were quick to arrive.

During the first centuries of Ottoman rule the Catholic community maintained active links with Rome and western Europe. Local Catholic men went to study abroad, made professional careers in clerical matters and developed local religious structures. The number of Roman Catholics in Bulgaria got a boost with the conversion of the Paulicians, the followers of a heresy that had been persecuted in the Middle Ages. Then the community suffered a heavy blow. In 1688, encouraged by promises of help by Austria, the Bulgarians in the region of Chiprovtsi revolted against the Ottomans. No help came. The revolt was suppressed in a pool of blood. Many of the survivors emigrated.

Roman Catholicism survived. Some Catholics moved south where the Paulicians were in the conversion process. As the Orthodox Bulgarians went on with their struggle for religious independence from the Constantinople Patriarchate, in 1860 some of them decided to recognise the authority of the Vatican while retaining the Orthodox liturgy, hierarchy and schools. Thus the second Roman Catholic branch in Bulgaria was born. These were the so-called Uniates, or Catholics of the Eastern Rite.

After Bulgaria regained its independence in 1878 Roman Catholicism got a boost. Some heirs to the emigres from the Chiprovtsi Uprising returned. Many experts in all areas of social life arrived from Western Europe.

The arrival of Communism spelled hard times for the community. The Communists viewed the Roman Catholics as enemy agents. In 1950-1952 a highly manipulated court trial gave 57 Catholic priests, bishops and adherents various prison sentences and the death penalty. Catholic properties were confiscated. The links with the Vatican were severed. Relations deteriorated significantly in 1981 when Communist Bulgaria was implicated in the attempt to shoot the pope in St Peter's Square.

Post-1989 some of the Catholic assets in Bulgaria were returned. In 1998, the Catholic bishop, Evgeniy Bosilkov, who was a victim of the 1950s trial, was beatified. Pope John Paul II visited in 2002 and laid the founding stone of Sofia's new Catholic cathedral, St Joseph.


St Joseph Cathedral, Sofia

The largest Catholic church in Bulgaria, St Joseph, is the cathedral of the Diocese of Sofia and Plovdiv, together with the Cathedral of St Ludwig in Plovdiv. On the same site there used to be a smaller church of the same name, built in 1880. In 1944 an Allied bombing raid proved fatal for it. In the following decades, the local community held services in the former concert hall of the church.

The foundation stone of St Joseph Cathedral was laid during the visit of Pope John Paul II in 2002. Building ended in 2006. The cathedral can hold up to 1,000 people, it has an organ and a 33-metre bell tower.


St Ludwig Catholic Cathedral in Plovdiv

St Ludwig Catholic Cathedral in Plovdiv was built in 1858-1861 in the Baroque style. The church underwent extensive renovations after the devastating Chirpan earthquake in 1928, followed by a fire in 1931. It has retained its most moving feature, the beautiful sarcophagus for Bulgarian Queen Marie Louise, who died in 1899.


Rakovski catholics, Bulgaria

Rakovski is the only Bulgarian town that has an almost 100 percent majority of Catholics. The local community is the heir of three Paulician villages that converted following the 1688 Chiprovtsi Uprising. Rakovski was incorporated as a town by combining the three villages, in 1966. It has three parish churches, three chapels and three monasteries. The Holiest Heart of Jesus (above) and St Archangel Michael churches are twins: they were built according to the same plan on the site of earlier churches that were destroyed by the 1928 earthquake. Both have identical length, width and height and both can accommodate up to 2,000 people.

Jewish Saint

Rakovski catholics, Bulgaria

The Catholic saint with a Nazi-era Jewish star that adorns one of the stained glass windows of St Archangel Michael Church in Rakovski might look puzzling. But the story of St Teresa of the Cross is a reminder of one of the most gruesome events in history, the Holocaust.

Edith Stein (1891-1942) was a German-Jewish philosopher, who converted to Catholicism in 1922 and later became a Carmelite nun, changing her name to Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. When the Nazis took power in Germany her order transferred her and her sister, also a convert, to ostensible safety in the Netherlands. It did not last for long as it was only a matter of time for the Nazis to invade. When the Dutch Episcopal Conference officially condemned Nazi racism, in 1942, all Jewish converts were arrested. The Stein sisters perished in Auschwitz soon afterwards.

In 1987, Pope John Paul II beatified Teresa Benedicta as a martyr, and 11 years later canonised her as a saint. Today, she is one of the six patron saints of Europe.


Malko Tarnovo catholic church

The only town in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha has a vibrant community of Uniates that appeared as early as 1860. During the second half of the 19th century the local Uniates had a church and three schools. The modern Holy Trinity Church has sat on a hill in the middle of town since 1931. Its most famous icon, a miracle-working Mother of God known as the Protector of Christian Unity, was symbolically crowned by Pope John Paul II, in 2002. The church now keeps the icon together with the pope's white skullcap in a side chapel. ruse


St Paul of the Cross cathedral, RuseCatholics started coming in Ruse around the middle of the 19th century, especially after the 1853-1856 Crimean War, when traffic and trade along the lower reaches of the River Danube picked up. The St Paul of the Cross cathedral was built in 1892. Its belfry is 31 metres high and its stained-glass windows were produced in Budapest. Its organ, made in 1907, is the oldest still functioning one in Bulgaria.


Belene catholic church

At present, Belene is a nondescript town on the River Danube known mainly for its prison and for a failed nuclear power plant construction project. However, Belene is the location of Bulgaria's perhaps best well-known Catholic, Bishop Evgeniy Bosilkov, who was sentenced to death and executed by the Communists in a trumped-up trial, in 1952, and beatified by the pope.

The local Catholic community is the heir of Paulicans, who converted in the 17th century. Shortly after the conversion the town became the seat of the Nikopol diocese.

The present-day church in Belene, The Nativity of the Holiest Mother of God, was built in 1860. A small chapel next to it is dedicated to Evgeniy Bosilkov and preserves his blood-stained shirt.


Tsarev Brod catholic monastery

The Catholic mission in Tsarev Brod Village was established in 1900 to serve the local German Catholics, invited by the Bulgarian government at the time to boost farming in the region. Its church was erected in 1910. Several Benedictine nuns from Tutzing, Bavaria, arrived a couple of years later. They developed a network of schooling and charities, and set up branches in the villages of Bardarski Geran and Dragomirovo.

The German nuns were given a rough ride when the Communists arrived, but the nunnery continued to operate. The nunnery revived following the collapse of Communism. It now has an extensive schooling programme and is involved in various charities.


Bardarski Geran appeared after Bulgaria's liberation from the Ottomans. It was founded by the so-called Banat Bulgarians, the heirs of Catholic Bulgarians who escaped from the repression of the 1688 Chiprovtsi Uprising and emigrated to the Banat region, in today's Hungary, Romania and Serbia. In 1893, German settlers arrived.

Bardarski Geran catholic church

Murals of two of Bulgaria's most venerated saints, St Cyril (right) and St Methodius are still visible in the abandoned German Catholic church

The Bulgarians and the Germans in Bardarski Geran built their own churches, St Joseph and Holy Virgin Mary respectively. Everything changed in 1943. Hitler called on Germans living outside Germany to return to the Fatherland. The Germans of Bardarski Geran complied. When the war ended and the Communists seized power in Bulgaria, the abandoned Church of the Holy Virgin Mary began to decay, a poignant reminder of a small community swept away by a war that changed the whole world.


Varna catholic church

Roman Catholicism arrived in Varna in the 18th century probably brought by merchants from Dubrovnik. The Catholic community got a boost during the Crimean War as field hospitals for mainly French and Italian soldiers were dislocated in and around Varna. In the 19th century most of the Catholics in town were foreigners. Later, Catholicism spread to the locals, mainly through mixed marriages. Under Communism, the Catholic church was in a bad shape and the congregation met mainly in a chapel. The 1885 Neo-Gothic Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary church was restored in the 2000s.


Burgas catholic church

Catholics were quick to arrive in Burgas as early as Bulgaria regained its independence and the town was on its course of becoming a major Black Sea port. There are two Catholic churches in town. St Joseph belonged to the local Pension Française, which was operative until the Communist came to power and nationalised it. The other, Virgin Mary the Mother of God, is in the middle of town.


St Nicholas Monastery by Magzlizh

The St Nicholas Monastery by Magzlizh, on the southern slopes of the Stara Planina, is Eastern Orthodox. Why put it then with the Roman Catholics? The answer is a curiosity. The Magzlizh Monastery showcases the only image of a Roman Catholic saint in overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox Bulgaria. Come have a look at... St Patrick!

The St Patrick fresco was commissioned by an Irish philanthropist, Pierce O'Mahony, at the turn of the 19th century. O'Mahony established several orphanages in Bulgaria following the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and many of the children in them adopted his name as their own. Their descendants are alive today in all corners of Bulgaria – and abroad. O'Mahony was in love with the country and at one point wanted to convert to Orthodoxy. He died at his farm in Coolbalintaggert in Wicklow, in 1930.

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.


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