Tue, Sep 03, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Madagascar quarry ‘cathedral,’ former student host pope


Catholic priest Pedro Opeka meets children who are housed by his aid organisation at the Akamasoa Community in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on Tuesday last week.

Photo: Reuters

Three times a year, Catholic priest Pedro Opeka celebrates Mass in a vast gray quarry in the hills above Madagascar’s capital. This week, he is to welcome his old teacher, Pope Francis, to see the chiseled granite altar from where he ministers.

Opeka studied theology under the future pope in their native Argentina before dedicating his life to building communities for the families of Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest nations.

“The pope is coming to tell people to keep fighting for those who are forgotten,” he said. “The pope will comfort them.”

Over the past 50 years, an organization founded by Opeka has built homes for 25,000 people, 100 schools, six clinics and two soccer stadiums. Next year they will build a college for paramedics.

Much of the stone for the buildings is quarried just outside the capital city, Antananarivo, from the huge granite pit where Opeka holds Mass for 10,000 people.

Opeka, the son of a mason, refers to the pit as his cathedral.

“In Europe a cathedral is built on the ground,” the 71-year-old missionary said. “Akamasoa cathedral was dug by hand.”

Pope Francis, the 82-year-old leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, is visiting Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius during his six-day trip to Africa this week.

On Sept. 8, he is to meet some of the families whose lives have been changed by Opeka, whose Slovenian parents fled to Argentina before he was born because the Communists tried to kill his father for being a Christian.

Opeka invited Francis to visit during a meeting at the Vatican last year, never dreaming that he would accept.

Ratsiory Fanomezanjanahary Tsiadino Fannie, a 13-year-old budding mathematician, lives in one of the homes that Opeka has carved from the hillside and is due to meet Francis.

Her pastel green house sits on one side of a leafy courtyard where she plays hopscotch with her six siblings, a stone’s throw from Opeka’s own house in the hillside neighborhood of Akamasoa.

Asked if she was looking forward to next week, she broke into a smile.

“There will be my exams,” Fannie said. “I’m ready.”

Following a prod from her mother, she gasped: “Oh yeah, the arrival of the pope as well? I’m also ready for the arrival of the pope. I’m really happy.”

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