Father Peter Major is on a spiritual adventure

Syracuse Diocese native finds his calling in Sudan

By Connie Berry
SUN editor

majorstoryWhen a young man is considering a vocation to the priesthood, he may think of the ceremony, the tradition, the vestments, the celebration of Mass and yes, he would ideally consider serving his brothers and sisters by helping the poor and marginalized. When Father Peter Major, MHM, became a priest his first assignment was with the people of Borneo. At that time, you could still find a few of the pagan long houses with shrunken heads hanging from the roof like so much mistletoe.

Ordained a priest for the Mill Hill Missionaries in 1968, Father Peter has spent all of his vocation in service to others.    His first assignment was to the eastern Malaysian island of Borneo. The people there traveled almost exclusively by water, Father Peter said.

“They were the most peaceful people I’ve ever met,” he said. “This was in the old days. They made their own medicine and they were very hospitable. There were headhunters, but this was their culture.”

The Mill Hill bishop at the time, Bishop Anthony Galvin, was very interested in helping the people preserve their customs. He was an anthropologist who had studied at Cambridge University and his advice to Father Peter before going to Borneo was “you have to rough it for a while.”

“You eat from a common bowl there and he [the bishop] said to eat whatever they gave me and to ‘smile while you’re doing it,’” Father Peter said.

The natives, some of whom were Christian and others who were pagan, lived in long houses on stilts that accommodated about 40 small huts within them. Father Peter slept on a woven mat on the floor for the decade he lived there.

“And, oh, those dogs,” Father Peter said, “the hunting dogs would howl while the people sang at the Mass.”

Father Peter would go from home to home witnessing the hospitality of each family. He would be offered food and drink at each place. After living there among the people for 10 years, Father Peter said the government decided it was time for the foreign missionaries to leave and for the indigenous people to assume responsibility for their spiritual needs.

Father Peter was in Borneo from 1968 to 1979 and said if he went back today, it is likely everything would be changed.

“They tell me everything is changed due to the deforestation. The effects of that would change the peoples’ lives completely,” Father Peter said.

He said there were nomadic groups who followed the wild boar according to the seasons. “They would build a shelter at each place and follow the fruit seasons,” he said. The depletion of the forests would force them to move out of the area.

After leaving Borneo, Father Peter had a choice of going to Camaroon or Sudan. “I didn’t want to have to learn French so I picked Sudan and then I ended up studying Arabic,” Father Peter said.

He went to St. Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon to study the language but that was during very unsettled times. Fighting broke out and Father Peter was moved to Cairo, Egypt to complete his Arabic studies, finally arriving in southern Sudan in 1981.

“They had been fighting there [Sudan] since 1956 and there was a peace accord when I got there. But by 1982, they were fighting again,” Father Peter said.

His appointment was in Malakal, on the Nile River midway between the capitols of Khartoum in the north and Juba in southern Sudan. The northern region of Sudan is primarily Muslim and the south, primarily Christian. Oil was discovered in his parish before Father Peter arrived.

“Chevron came in and then the rebels attacked them. This is the beginning of 1984. Chevron pulled up and left in one day,” Father Peter said.

He explained the locals did not want armies from Khartoum coming in and taking the oil and natural resources from southern Sudan. Six months after the Chevron incident, other southern rebels trained in Ethopia arrived and they did not like Americans, Father Peter said.

The rebels attacked Bentiu killing people and burning down their houses.
“We got caught up in it and taken hostage by rebels in the south. Two other priests and I, along with some of the people of the town,” Father Peter said. “They came with guns and took everything, including our shoes and glasses. There was no time for anything.”

The people of the town were released shortly after their capture, but the three  priests were relocated constantly from one site to another by the rebels. The rebels tried to negotiate with the American Embassy, asking $9 million for their return. In the end, Father Peter said, it was the locals who pressured the rebels into letting them go after a month and a half.

Ironically, Father Peter said, he felt total freedom when he was a hostage.

“We were like birds in the air, completely in the hands of God,” he said.
Using his knowledge of the customs of the locals he had lived with, Father Peter used to sit down to eat with the rebels who were holding him hostage.

“I would sit with them figuring it’s harder to kill someone you eat with,” Father Peter explained. “This eating together built up community and culturally, it would have been wrong for them not to share food. They were not all bad. I told them I was Irish though, they didn’t like Americans.”

It would be 17 years before Father Peter would see Bentiu again. He was astonished to find six churches where there had been only one and dozens more church programs in the surrounding countryside.

“The lay people took it upon themselves to become catechist. They built their own churches. I couldn’t believe it. How could they have done all this without a priest? The people make the church, not the presence of the priest,” Father Peter said.

After his release, Father Peter ended up working in the north, in the area surrounding Khartoum. The bishop asked Father Peter to open a parish  for the displaced people in the outskirts of Khartoum. The diocese there set up emergency schools, 65 of them at one point. “Our students had better test results than the government schools,” Father Peter said. All the parishes for the displaced had emergency schools. Churches were not allowed so the people gathered in centers where the schools were. “It was a church of the people, not of bricks,” Father Peter said.

There was an underlying mistrust though, with security forces coming to listen at the Masses. Urban renewal was instituted which meant the breakdown of the schools that had been set up. Father Peter spent much of his time ministering to the people, with a particular interest in the incarcerated women who were caught making and selling beer.

“Islamic law is so very different,” Father Peter said. “There were many women who were left alone to fend for the themselves and their children. They would make homemade beer to support their children and then they would get arrested because this was against Muslim law.”

After working in the parish around Khartoum for nine years, Father Peter was appointed chaplain of five area prisons, one of them for women. Because most of them were widows, the women brought their children with them to prison.

“Everyone would look after the children, even the guards,” Father Peter said. “They would find a bit of happiness. It was a wonderful place to celebrate Mass, One could really feel the presence of God.”

One day after celebrating Mass at the central prison in Khartoum, he was stopped by security police and taken in for questioning. The catechist who worked with Father Peter set him up. The security police looked through his Mass kit and found an envelope containing photographs of five men who had their right hands and left feet cut off — a practice in Islamic law. The security police accused Father Peter of spying for the U.S. by carrying these photos with the intent to pass them to the West. The charge was unfounded and untrue but led to Father Peter moving on to a new ministry. After this incident, he was not issued a re-entry visa to return to Sudan. “Since I wasn’t allowed back to Sudan, I wanted to go to Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya where I knew there were many Sudanese refugees,” he said.

Father Peter served there until 2007. Coincedentally, he met some of the Lost Boys who would later be resettled in the Syracuse Diocese.

Gabriel Bol Deng is among the Lost Boys of Sudan who now lives in Syracuse. Gabriel graduated from both Onondaga Community College and Le Moyne College. He heads up the Hope for Ariang Foundation which works to raise funds to build schools in Ariang, his home village in southern Sudan. This month, Gabriel will help launch a documentary chronicling the story of three Lost Boys who return home to Sudan after fleeing civil war as children. He has many memories of Father Peter at Kakuma.

“Peter is most humble,” Gabriel said. “The conditions at the camp were unbearable. Every day he would go to the homes of the sick and dying. He would help with the physical and emotional needs of the people. He is a real shepherd. A shepherd goes where the flock is.”

Gabriel said that it was the spiritual food that sustained the people in the camp. The church within the camp was the only place to go for consolation, he said.

“There was Sunday school for the kids,” Gabriel said. “They fed them porridge and offered youth programs so they could come together. I would argue that without this spiritual nourishment, most would not have survived.”

Father Peter has a deep love for the people of Sudan. He has been there for more than 20 years now and when he travels to the U.S., usually once a year, he said it is the U.S. he worries about more than Africa. Now that he is older he sees himself as a missionary bridge between the U.S. and Sudan.

The people in Sudan, Father Peter said, are aware of God’s presence in all things.

“In my experience, the church here [U.S.] offers a quick fix for our young people. We’re not teaching them the love of prayer or the desire for the word of God, ” Father Peter said. “[Father] Richard Rohr says you have to pass on spiritual things in a spiritual way — not in  classroom. Churches here are perfume and flowers, there’s no real challenge. The Mormons have to leave to do service for two years. What are we doing? What are we passing on to our children?”

Father Peter said he didn’t really know America until he left.

“The accent, the customs … I have a better idea of what it is now,” he said.

Father Peter said he stops Heathrow Airport in London on the way to the U.S.

“It’s very intimidating there,” he said. “There is jewelry, perfume, dresses — everything in the world you don’t need. There is no scent of God anyplace. How do you manage to keep your faith in a secular society when God is pushed into a corner? You can’t even mention Jesus Christ here unless you are cursing someone. Who is winning the battle here?”

Father Peter is doing what he calls “street ministry” these days in Sudan.

“I wander about and if I see a need, that’s where I go. I’m like Father Schopfer here,” he joked.

Wherever Father Peter goes, including the many times he has visited churches in the Syracuse Diocese, he leaves a bit of himself and his stories of Borneo and Sudan. A Skaneateles native, Father Peter is cousin to Syracuse Diocesan priest Father Charlie Major, pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Church in Liverpool. His brother, also Charlie Major, has had a distinguished career as a lawyer and judge and lives with his family in Skaneateles.

Now 70 years old, Father Peter attended Skaneateles public schools and then Le Moyne College. He went to law school in Albany before deciding to become a priest. He then went to St. Philip Neri in Boston studying at what he describes as a lay vocational school. Next Father Peter studied Latin and philosophy with the Jesuits at St. Louis University in Missouri and then went to London for more studies at the Mill Hill seminary.

He discovered that the Mill Hill fathers came from all over the globe and that was what initially attracted him to that order. “It was something different,” Father Peter said.

These days, he comes back to Skaneateles every year and stays with his brother and his wife. He visits the grave of his parents and plays golf with priest friends from the diocese. And then, Father Peter goes back to his home in Sudan where Gabriel Bol Deng knows he plays an important role in the lives of the people.

“Peter is more Sudanese than he is American now,” Gabriel said. “When we were in the camp, Peter encouraged us to sing. He said when we sing, we pray twice. He told us we had to be hopeful. He said, ‘You are God’s people. You are suffering now but God will hear your prayers.’ And he was right.”

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