More than 300 people gathered together on September 2, 2023, in Tutrakan, Bulgaria, on the banks of Danube River, to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the establishment of the oldest Seventh-day Adventist congregation in the country. Many members of this congregation, now living in other towns of Bulgaria and abroad, came back especially for the festivities. It was a happy moment to see even some former Adventists joining the celebration.
Ups and downs mark the history of the oldest Bulgarian Adventist community. These were shared in an emotional presentation by the head elder, Lyuben Dimitrov. A certain man named Ivan Petculescu went to Tutrakan circa 1908. In addition to his reading of the Bible, he was also known as a cobbler by profession, repairing old shoes. He was the first Adventist in the town. This is a small, insignificant beginning, yet it far exceeds his professional accomplishments.
After only about four years, there were already seven followers of the Adventist movement in Tutrakan, and in 1913, ten people were baptized. Thus, the congregation grew to 17 people. The group in Tutrakan was visited by some foreign Adventist evangelists who worked there. These were Motzer and Thomas, who worked for two months at the Tutrakan Church. Thomas was held in confinement from the city. It is even recorded that he almost fell victim to a plot, without any known details of what that plot was. At that time, Tutrakan was part of Romania, but apparently, the Romanian authorities were not very kind to the Adventists either.
The first church building was in the house of one of the local brothers. He provided his home, which was not without risk, since some of the fellow citizens of the then-Adventist members apparently suffered from neophobia and did not look favorably on the church. The windows of the house were repeatedly smashed. Several moves to private homes followed, until finally, during Communism, the church was offered a courtyard with a long building. It consisted of a furnace, a barn, and a small house at the end.
On September 7, 1940, the Treaty of Craiova was signed. As a result of its implementation, around 88,000 Romanians had to leave the northeastern region of Bulgaria. Inversely, about 65,000 people moved from Romania to Bulgaria. This was a serious blow to the church, since at that time, the majority of its members were of Romanian origin. The Romanian influence was actually felt long after that. There was a Romanian group where the Sabbath School lesson was taught in Romanian up until the 1990s.
Nevertheless, this precise moment of crisis for the church had its own positive effect, although not within the borders of the country. Some of the Romanians who immigrated from Tutrakan settled in Oltenița, on the Romanian bank of the Danube River, where there was no Adventist presence at that time. An Adventist group was established, which had previously been part of the Tutrakan Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The newly established Bulgarian authorities did not have high regards for the Adventist Church either. In 1942, the place where the believers gathered was closed down by the authorities. The congregation had to split into two groups and meet in other places until, in 1943, members managed to regain the place that had been forbidden for worship.
The pastor who set the record for the longest tenure at the Tutrakan Church was Georgi Chakarov (serving there from 1970–1990). The church was viable, although it had many problems. At that time, the authorities forbade children from entering the church. Then the pastor was forbidden to go to the pulpit and deliver sermons. In schools, students were ridiculed for their faith. Other parents who had decided not to send them to school had to pay fines. Many people left the town due to their faithfulness in not sending their children to school on Sabbaths.
The prayer house was expropriated by the authorities. Two years of immense difficulties followed. Members met in small groups. After a while, the church was given a lot on which to build a new house of prayer. Another trouble followed: The building process was stopped, and for a long time, construction activities were not resumed.
Finally, construction of a house of prayer was allowed again, but in a different location. Building materials from one location had to be transported to the other. Large, long panels that were the walls of the church were placed on donkey wagons. One end was placed on the cart while the other end was moved manually. There were members of the Tutrakan Church who carried these heavy panels from one place to another. One of those who carried this weight by hand said, "Our souls were crying."
The construction began anew, and the advantage of the Tutrakan Church over all other churches became evident: the abundance of the construction workers. Much voluntary labor was dedicated to the building of this church.
The year 1990 came, and for the first time, political changes favored the church. By 1993, the church had grown to 141 people. At this moment, it was the largest church in Bulgaria, not so much in terms of raw numbers, but in member-to-population ratio.
In 1995, an evangelistic campaign conducted by Francois Huglie took place, which aroused the extraordinary interest of the public in Tutrakan. It was held in a former cinema hall, which was full every night during the campaign.
In 1997, a long, exhausting activity began: the construction of the house of worship currently in use. Once, the head elder, who was also the main constructor of the building, overheard two of the neighbors talking. One of them expressed his admiration for Adventists working on both hot and cold days tirelessly. The other one chuckled and added, “They keep guard even during the night. I went there once to get some free materials, but four people were guarding the construction area, so I dared not steal anything.” However, never during the whole process did Adventists use any guards. God was keeping a watchful eye on behalf of His faithful children.
Elder Milen Georgiev, president of Bulgarian Union, was among the pastors serving the Tutrakan Church over the years. He related Isaiah’s experience in his address to the church: “God asks, ‘Whom should I send?’ in a room full of heavenly beings and just one human person. But it is him who hastens to say, ‘Here I am, send me.’ This is actually the personal dedication: I will go! I will do my best to contribute to the growth of the church on Earth. God has extended numerous challenges to the church. But what He has done for it should assure us [of] His unstoppable leading. Continue inviting people aboard the Ship of Salvation!”
The afternoon program was filled with memories of the ministers serving in Tutrakan over the years and wonderful music by the nearby Silistra Seventh-day Adventist Church choir, as well as duets and solos.
Fireworks over the Danube River banks marked the end of this unforgettable day.