During Communism he was an atheist and a police officer. Now he is a priest who cares for orphans and single mothers. Father Ioan is a rare example of grassroots charity in his native Bulgaria.
The 65-year-old Orthodox priest runs a home providing shelter to dozens of single mothers and some 70 children. They live at Sveta Troitsa (St. Trinity), in the village of Novi han near Sofia. Had it not been for Father Ioan, many of those would lead a precarious life on the verge of society.
Some of his establishment's residents were once homeless. Others were sent here by the social services or escaped domestic violence. Most do not like to talk about their past. The home, named "St. Nikolai," offers them better living conditions than they have ever had, and gives them the chance of a new start.
Father Ioan admits he was an atheist until his 40th year. Until then he worked in the administration of the dreaded Guard and Security Department, a government unit in charge of top Communist officials' security.
Ivan Ivanov (his lay name) turned to religion in the late 1970s, after suffering serious health problems. He started studying theology and was ordained in 1981, when he also received his clerical name, Ioan. A year later he was jailed for three years, and his family was evicted from the state-owned apartment they inhabited. Father Ioan was released in 1985 and moved to Novi han two years later, as the village priest.
His ambitions were bigger than preaching to the few local churchgoers. "In the name of God, I made a vow to build an orphanage and raise young children," says Ioan. "Here, in Novi han, I found a church with a completely empty and fenceless yard and decided that here I can fulfil my vow."
So the priest built a house in the large churchyard, and opened its doors to those who had nowhere else to go. Nowadays the home (http://www.svetinikolai.org) survives on donations and its own farm, with little support from either the Church or the Bulgarian state.
Discipline and work are among the requirements of living in "St. Nikolai." Many of the residents participate in putting food on the table. They keep 20 cows, 60 pigs, 80 sheep and 40 goats, and produce 150 litres of milk a day. The children, some of whom come from broken families or state-run orphanages, go to the local school.
Several of the residents have married and had their children here. All call Father Ioan "Grandpa."
The priest was celebrated as Bulgaria's Man of the Year in 2005. His charitable activities have featured in numerous media reports. Yet Father Ioan is cold-shouldered by many locals in the Novi han village. Sheltering single mothers has proved unacceptable for the patriarchal rural population. Some of them regard "St. Nikolai" residents as "prostitutes" and shun them. Local bureaucracy has repeatedly targeted the home with inspections on hygiene and the legality of construction.
Bulgaria, a country of 7.5 million, has often been criticized for the poor state of its orphanages and social services. Of 81,000 births in the country in 2009, more than 43,000 were from extramarital relations. Many poor and single mothers find in "St. Nikolai" what they lack elsewhere - acceptance, home and proper care for themselves and their children.
Eighty percent of Bulgarians are Orthodox Christians, but few of them regularly practice their religion. The Orthodox Church, which has suffered a deep and protracted schism between the followers and opponents of its leader, Patriarch Maxim, has often been accused of obsession with its internal power struggles and abdication from its charitable role.