In a world torn with strife, displaced peoples and a growing underclass mired in poverty and despair, Madagascar—the eighth poorest nation in the world—is experiencing a modern-day miracle as tens of thousands of people are encountering the transformative power of the Gospel. All due in large part to the efforts of one man.
The oldest of eight children, Pedro Opeka was born in a suburb of Buenos Aires in 1948. His parents had immigrated to Argentina from Slovenia just a few months before in order to escape Tito’s brutal purge of those who resisted the communist take-over. Luis, Pedro’s father, instilled in the young boy a love of God, people, freedom and hard work, introducing him into the masonry trade at nine-years-of-age. By fourteen Pedro was a certified brick-layer—and by 17 had built his first home for the poor—in this case for the Mapuche Indians in the Andean mountains. Little did he know this was a foreshadowing of what would become, in large part, his life’s work.
Pious, academically-gifted, and also an excellent soccer player, as a young teen Pedro wondered whether to pursue professional sports or the priesthood. The latter won out and he entered seminary when he was fifteen. In 1968 he traveled to Europe, where he studied philosophy and theology in Slovenia and in France, and then spent two years as a missionary in Madagascar. He was ordained a priest in the Basilica of Luján in Argentina on September 25, 1975 and the next year was sent back to serve the people of Madagascar.
For nearly fifteen years the young priest ministered in a remote, southeast region of the island nation, teaching and pastoring, living among the people, cultivating rice to survive and playing soccer, eventually becoming a star on his home team. In all this, he very much became a man of the people.
In 1989, Father Opeka was sent to direct the Vincentian seminary located in the capital city of Antananarivo. Now in his 40s, it was there that God refocused his life and he found his ultimate mission. “When I arrived,” he later wrote, “I could not shut my eyes to utter destitution. I saw a 1,000 children struggling for survival among the animals in the garbage dump…I was dumbstruck. I said to myself, ‘Here I could not just talk. I had to act!'” He went to meet them and promised, “Together we are going to get out of this mess!”
With the help of some young people he had trained in his former parish, Father Opeka built a small home for children on the edge of a landfill. It was followed by second, and then another. Soon, a small village rose out of the debris. They named it Manantenasoa, Malagasy for “the hill of courage.”
Interested in improving the quality and permanence of the homes as well as creating jobs, Father Opeka next took advantage of the abundant stone and granite deposits around the villages. His team engineered several quarries as he began teaching the formerly unemployed how to lay brick, working alongside them as they built. Masonry took the place of wood and bright, beautiful homes began to dot the hillside. Next they fabricated a compost center near the dump, providing a source of fertilizer to grow crops as well as new jobs in the farming sector. Streets followed as paving became another trade developed by the community. Embroidery workshops for women were developed and light manufacturing began. Carpenters, cabinet makers and other vocations followed. Primary and secondary schools and medical clinics were built and staffed. And the Gospel was preached in both word and deed. Father Opeka would eventually preside over masses with as many as 10,000 people participating.
Through all this, beauty was birthed from ashes. What was once a landscape of garbage, crude huts and despair has been transformed into a sprawling cluster of 18 villages with homes, schools, gardens, flowers and paved, clean streets. Thirty thousand people live and work in these new villages of hope. Approximately 10,000 children attend the 37 schools that have been established. And the “hill of courage” has grown into a small city christened Akamasoa, meaning “Good Friends” in the Malagasy language.
And there is one man—an ambassador of the One who is closer to all of us than even the dearest brother (Proverbs 18:2)—who is the very best, earthly friend of them all.