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Sydney’s link to Nobel Peace Prize nominee

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Fr Jan Chrzczonowicz, left, with Jeannette Beaudoin and Sinisita Filitoga belong to Sydney French Roman Catholic Charities. It has partnered with Catholic Mission to support Fr Pedro Opeka’s work in Madacascar. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

Locals say mate in Madagascar deserves Peace prize

It might be 10,000km from the Madagascan capital of Antananarivo, but one Sydney community has a special connection to its saint of the slums, Fr Pedro Opeka. The Catholic missionary priest has dedicated his life to building communities for the poorest families in one of the world’s poorest nations.

A friend of Pope Francis, who once studied theology under the then-future pope in their native Argentina, Fr Opeka has been nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Sydney priest Jan Chrzczonowicz knows him well.

“This is the fourth time Fr Pedro has been nominated, maybe fourth time will be lucky,” he chuckles.

Fr Jan is the chair of a local charitable organisation – Sydney French Roman Catholic Charities – which partners with Catholic Mission to support the priest’s work. Each year since 2011 the hard-working community has fundraised to help Fr Pedro with his endeavours for the people living on landfill on the outskirts of Antananarivo. 

Fr Pedro moves mountains with a little help from friends

In total, since it was established in the late 1980s to help support health and education projects in Mauritius, SFRCC has raised more than $1.3 million through a charity dinner held each October in the Liverpool parish hall.

Since 20011 all of the money it raises goes to Fr Pedro’s association, Akamosoa, which transformed the garbage dump into a town, building homes, schools and providing education for children.

Akamasoa means ‘Good Friends’, and with the help of thousands of teachers, health and social workers and volunteers, Fr Pedro provides for about 25000 people, the majority of them children under 15 including orphans and those abandoned by their parents through the provision of employment, welfare, and educational opportunities.

Vincentian Fr Pedro Opeka greets children who are housed in the Akamasoa community in Madagascar in 2019. PHOTO: CNS/Baz Ratner courtesy of Reuters

While it is a valuable contribution it is just a drop in the ocean of the need, says SFRCC committee member Jeannette Beaudoin, who was the first to meet Fr Pedro in 2010 and last visited Antananarivo in 2016. “We are very proud of him and so pleased that he has been nominated,” she said.

When SFRCC secretary Sinisita Filitoga went with Jeannette to Magadascar in 2013 she was “astounded” by the work Fr Pedro was doing. It was extraordinary and very beautiful,” she said.  “While it is work to raise money in Sydney to send it is much easier than what he faces there every day. He is in my opinion the Mother Teresa of today. He is the voice of the poor.”

Fr Jan agrees that there is “something extraordinary” about the missionary priest. “He never begs for help, but with just a few words makes you understand deep in your heart that it is your obligation before God to share with the poor”.

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Support from Catholic Mission is invaluable

“We are very grateful to Catholic Mission who only charge 10 per cent administration fee and tax deductibility for our very generous donors,” he added. It’s a very important and noble thing to remember, that even when we are undergoing trials and hardship, there are always people in more precarious situations than ours.

Fr Jan Chrzczonowicz knows the work of Fr Pedro among some of the world’s poorest people very well. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

Through our generosity, we express our gratitude to God for His presence in our life and show our solidarity with Jesus suffering in the poor.” 

Catholic Mission national director Fr Brian Lucas said that his organisation is “proud to work in cooperation with Fr Jan and the French community to raise funds in support of the work of Fr Pedro”.

Fr Pedro holds a Legion of Honour, France’s highest award, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, environmental activist Greta Thunberg, former president of the US Donald Trump and news website, the Hong Kong Free Press and others. 
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