October 27, 2021

When Bulgarian Soldiers Tried to Steal the Relics of Saint Demetrius the New of Basarabov from the Cathedral of Bucharest During World War I

Saint Demetrius the New, commemorated on October 27th, was born in the village of Basarabov in northeastern Bulgaria. His relics came to Bucharest in the second half of the 18th century, in the context of the Russian-Turkish War of 1768-1774, brought by Russian general Pyotr Saltykov. According to tradition, the general intended to take the relics to Russia, but at the request of a Romanian, Hagi-Dimitri, the relics were given to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Bucharest. Thus, in the last decades of the 18th century, Saint Demetrius the New of Basarabov became the patron saint of Bucharest.

During World War I, on 17 February 1918, when Bucharest was occupied by the Germans, about 20 Bulgarian soldiers, allies of the Germans, broke down the entrance to the Cathedral of Saints Constantine and Helen and snatched the relic of the patron saint of Bucharest, Saint Demetrius the New of Basarabov, to transport it to their country. They hid it in a car and at night set off for the Danube River. But the Saint, not wanting to leave Romania, caused such confusion in the streets that the thieves could not find a way out, so they found themselves outside the Cathedral again. As soon as it dawned, they managed to find the public exit road, but on their way the car broke down several times and they were arrested by the German occupying forces. Thus the holy relic was returned to its place in the midst of a glorious reception by the Metropolitan himself and thousands of people.

Did the Germans know of the action planned by their Bulgarian allies? The reaction of the commander of the German troops, Field Marshal August von Mackensen, as well as the outcome of the incident, namely the capture of the thieves and the return of the stolen goods, indicate that the German troops were not involved.

Metropolitan Cathedral of Sts. Constantine and Helen in 1917

What actually happened in the night of 16 to 17 February, 1918? Information about this incident is provided in a letter sent by the Metropolitan-Primate of the Romanian Orthodox Church, Conon Arămescu-Donici, on February 17, to von Mackensen. By the means of this document, the Metropolitan informed the commander of the German troops regarding the theft and asked him to take measures for the recovery of the relics:

“[…] a well-armed troop of soldiers, appearing at 2 o’clock in the morning and operating until 3 to 4 o’clock in the morning, removed the courtyard sergeant from the premises, holding him aside and forcing the two entrances of the Metropolitan Cathedral and then, using powerful instruments, broke the windows by the entrance, rushed into the altar and took the precious coffin with the Holy Relics and with all that was there; after which they left the Church with all the loot and went to the car, which they hid at the back of the Metropolitan Cathedral, on a dark side street, and so the car disappeared, where it is not known. Through this magnificent and nocturnal plunder of our holy Metropolitan Cathedral, the most odious act was committed by some 20-armed soldiers (believed to be Bulgarians), which […] struck at our Orthodox Church’s interest and in the faith and interests of the Romanian people […]. We urgently ask you to order immediate measures in order to stop the Holy Relics along the way, wherever they may be, finding the guilty soldiers, and the return of the coffin with the Holy Relics […].”

The measures taken by Field Marshal von Mackensen led to the capture of the thieves shortly after the incident and to the recovery of the stolen goods. The outcome of the incident appears in the diary of the conservative leader Alexandru Marghiloman on February 18, 1918:

“The relics of St. Demetrius have been found. A car stop forced the thieves to put the coffin in a cart and so they were caught at Daia, near Călugăreni. Horstmann tells me that the Marshal [von Mackensen] was furious when he found out about the theft and that all day yesterday was very impatient. He will be harsh with the 18 or 20 bandits that were arrested.”

As a gesture of brotherly love, on October 27, 2005, Patriarch Teoctist of Romania gave at the request of Patriarch Maxim of Bulgaria an icon containing a particle of the Saint’s relic, which is to be found today in Basarbovo Monastery, which is dedicated to Saint Demetrius the New, in Basarabov near the city of Ruse in northeastern Bulgaria.