By Megan Smith – Program Manager HealeyIRF
On the 9th of April 1996, at the peak of the brutal ten-year civil war that was ravaging Sierra Leone, Peter Alpha Leo Konteh was ordained a Catholic Priest. This year marks Fr. Peter’s Silver Year of Jubilee — 25 years in the service of God and the people of Sierra Leone. Happy Year of Jubilee!!
Father Peter is how he is known to the world. A name very much recognized and adored throughout Sierra Leone and here in America. I call Fr. Peter the “Mayor” of Sierra Leone, because everyone knows him, and he knows everyone by name. Traveling with Fr. Peter there’s always a hug or a handshake, a listening ear, guidance, support, love. He is a man that is truly adored and respected. There’s always a story of how he’s helped someone, or their family, or their friend. It seems there is always someone thanking him. It’s remarkable being in his presence, yet he carries humility throughout.
There is something unique about the man, the myth, the legend. As great a force that he is, you immediately feel like a part of his family. He is your friend and you are his. My first meeting with Fr. Peter I saw the love in his eyes and warmth in his smile. I was in awe and he became an instant friend and source of guidance. His smile, and contagious laughter lights up a room. But what elevates Fr. Peter is his heart, love and devotion to God and the people of Sierra Leone.
How it began
So here we are – all of us celebrating 25-years of Fr. Peter as a Priest. It seems like he’s been helping people all his life. And basically, he has. Fr. Peter grew up in a devoted Catholic household. He began his career in social work before deciding to enter the priesthood. The priestly formation led to academic degrees in Philosophy and Humanities and have been further enhanced with professional training and hands-on experience in various aspects of pastoral, humanitarian and relief work. He has always seamlessly blended his social and pastoral work.
Fr. Peter’s stories capture and enthrall any and all audiences. And he tells a great joke as well, even laughing before reaching the punchline and then repeating the punchline back to you at least three times, continuing to laugh like it’s the first time he’s heard the joke. But it’s his own life-story that could be a blockbuster movie. Each visit to Sierra Leone we learn more and more about our friend. His description of the ten-year civil war and what he personally endured was truly unbelievable. His life during that time, so very young and a brand-new priest facing harrowing circumstances was extraordinary. Fr. Peter doesn’t choose to relive the horrors, as is the way for most Sierra Leoneans, but he was a hero, risking his life multiple times to bring help to his homeland.
Telling the story of the war
During the days of the conflict, all journalists and media houses in the country were closed or destroyed by the rebel army. All other international medias fled in fear for their lives. It was extremely difficult to reach out internationally for help and let others know what was happening in Sierra Leone.
Fr. Peter served as a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) correspondent, providing updates and information about the conflict and the atrocities the people faced daily at the hands of the fighting forces. Being a young priest, he spent most of his time delivering the reality of the war to the wider world in hopes the international community would intervene and help find a permanent solution to the brutal and senseless fighting in Sierra Leone. He had to move from location to location frequently as rebel forces were seeking him out. They knew he was the BBC source and he was a wanted man.
It was an “edge of your seat” thriller that was real life for Fr. Peter. (My colleague Vicki and I have already decided that Idris Elba would play Fr. P.) And throughout his BBC reporting and escaping from the rebel army, Fr. Peter served those in need. He protected people, he helped whoever he came across in his travels and was a haven for so many children whose parents lost their lives. He put the lives of others ahead of his own. God called him into this vocation at this particular moment in his history, yet it was just the start of his priesthood.
Helping bring peace
He was a pioneering member of the Inter-Religious Council, formed during the war and an initiative that brought together all denominations of Christians and Muslims to design a plan and pray jointly for peace in his beloved country. This Council grew into an integral part of the peace architecture that facilitated the dialogue between the Government of Sierra Leone and the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). During the civil war, he also worked in the management of camps (for both refugees and internally displaced persons) and with the resettlement of refugees. His successes were duly acknowledged by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as an outstanding example of remarkable integrity in Camp Management.
As he grew in pastoral and social work, he did not lose sight of his passion for child protection, and established the St. Mary’s Children’s Home in 1997 in Bo, to care for war orphans whose parents were killed, maimed and disabled or unable to care for their children. St. Mary’s Children’s Home thrived over the years and produced university students among its alumni.
In 2014, when the Ebola Virus Epidemic spread in Sierra Leone, it was Father Peter who raised international awareness through his highly publicized presentation for the United States Senate and similar speech for the British House of Commons. Fr. Peter’s leadership in the Caritas organization helped to initiate a campaign to bring awareness and mobilization at the onset of this most deadly virus.
His hard work led to further direct Ebola response efforts like training, sanitation kits, in home education and respectful interments. At great risk to his own life, he traveled the country to personally assist families and to not only teach others about this virus but help in the healing process. He and his faithful team distributed food, water, clothing, blankets, hand sanitizers, medical supplies, personal protection equipment to health facilities and communities, set up wash stations and so much more. Fr. Peter worked around the clock for months on end. It was physical and emotional adversity that he never once complained about. He got up every morning and went out there to reach as many in need as he could.
The work continued and continues to this day for Fr. Peter and the Caritas Freetown team as they face natural disasters in the country from torrential rains and flooding, mudslides, COVID-19 and most recently devasting fires. Fr. Peter is a man who likes a good selfie but remains the humblest throughout all his great work. He will smile for the camera, but he doesn’t acknowledge his accomplishments. He just keeps going and never stops working for the people.
Amongst his many accomplishments, Fr. Peter served and still serves as the following:
- Founding Member of the Inter-Religious Council
- Archdiocesan Development Office Bo-Director
- Director and Founder of St. Mary’s Children’s Home Bo
- Director and Founder of St. Mary’s Fatima ICC at River No.2
- Caritas Freetown – Executive Director
- Vice-Chairperson for Caritas Africa Humanitarian Group
- Chair President of the Fraternity of Priests in Sierra Leone
- Chairman of the Advisory Board and Technical Advisor for the Healey International Relief Foundation
- Board Member and Technical Advisor to the Fig Tree Children Foundation, an Australian organization based in Brisbane for underprivileged children (especially orphaned and vulnerable children) in Sierra Leone.
- Member of the International Catholic Child Protection Committee based in Rome.
And on his downtime, in between his priestly duties, confessionals, masses and saving the world, he has completed studies in following areas:
- Development Studies at the University of Dar es Salam Tanzania
- Development Management in MDF (Management Development for the Future) at the Institute Arusha Tanzania
- Diploma in Child Protection from Rome
He attends seminars and workshops for continuing education and educational advancement classes, courses and trainings for Public Health in Humanitarian Crisis, Conflict and Disaster, Communication, Child Protection, Humanitarian Aid, Community Health and Social Activism.
Telling the story of Sierra Leone
Fr. Peter has traveled the globe to tell Sierra Leone’s story. He advocates for children, women, and young girls’ safety. He believes in the power of education and providing the tools to create sustainability. As a result, in April 2019 Fr. Peter Konteh was honored by the Sierra Ovation Awards as one of the 100 most outstanding Sierra Leoneans. The award recognizes inspiring and influential young leaders in Sierra Leone.
Before I sat down to write this, I thought to myself, how do you describe the life of a man like this through a blog? It’s easy. You try your best to tie in all his accomplishments and recognize that the eyes of the Lord shine through the eyes of Fr. Peter. In the way the children light up when he comes for a visit. Or a parishioner thanks him for taking time for their needs. Or through his service and dedication to his peers, advocates, partners and loved ones.
No one wears their heart on their sleeve more than Fr. P. No matter the origins of your faith, Fr. Peter is there to love and support those in need. He is a true friend, a great travel companion, music lover, master selfie taker, Cool P, great joke teller and a light for all in Sierra Leone and around the world. Fr. Peter listens to and guides you and a simple conversation can become enlightening.
One of a kind
Ordination means grace for Fr. Peter. He doesn’t care about the awards or use his educational knowledge as a pulpit. Nor does he try to stand higher than his brother or sister. He chooses to stand next to them, hand in hand, to walk together in this world. I’m very fortunate to have Fr. Peter in my life; as a friend, mentor and priest who oftentimes forgives me for my lack of mass attendance.
There really is no other like Fr. Peter. All of us at HealeyIRF are blessed to have him in our lives working together through the years. The love of God is seen when looking at Fr. Peter. That is a love that is unconditional, unshakable, unforgettable, and infinite. His world of knowledge, depth and understanding of the human soul is his gift.
Join us in congratulating Rev. Fr. Peter Konteh with a spirit of joy and gratitude for his priestly vocation on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. We love you Fr. Peter!