MASS ADVENTURE: Leif Mage Helgesen leaves Earth-awakening experience as Svalbard Church’s priest, begins another with a pilgrimage throughout Asia

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Whether it’s about surviving in combat zones, a polar bear attack, or an avalanche that killed a close friend and inflicted trauma on the community, during the past 12 years Leif Magne Helgesen mastered the spiritual skill of keeping cool.

And his singing rowdy songs with the local miners’ choir, cavorting through satirical stage skits, presiding over Masses in spectacular outdoor settings, and writing books about heated topics like climate change and the West Bank (not to mention some nude photos of him showing up in publications) are just some of the blessed ways he can warm up a crowd.

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Congregants receive Communion from Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen and Deacon Torunn Sørensen during an outdoor Mass in March of 2016 on Hiorthfjellet. It is one of several outdoor services taking place annually during the colder and darker months. The Mass was filmed as part of a 10-episode reality show in which Helgesen was one of the “star” characters. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Helgesen, 58, presided over his final Mass at Svalbard Church on Sunday after 12 years as its priest. He is scheduled to depart Longyearbyen on Thursday as he prepares for his new mission as an ambulatory seaman’s priest throughout Asia.

“If I’m going to do something other than Svalbard it has to be now,” he said. “I have maybe ten more years (before retirement).”

He will get a quick immersion into his new job, as he is scheduled to visit several countries in the Middle East starting in mid-October, followed by a visit several countries in central and eastern Asia during the holidays.

“I think I will take a lot with me from my 12 years in Svalbard,” Helgesen said. “I’ve picked up a lot with handling emergency situations. I will now do the same, but I will do it in a wider perspective.”

The assignment called for a 140 days of travel a year, while the rest of the time he will work from an office in his mainland hometown of Stavanger.

“One of the differences now it I won’t have a church building, a staff or a musician,” he said.

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Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen and an Israeli soldier takes photos of each other during one of the priest’s visits to the West Bank. Photo courtesy of Norwegian Church Aid.

In addition to working through the Church of Norway, Helgesen said he will coordinate and meet with embassies, humanitarian organizations, companies and other entities at his destinations. He will also be ready to respond to immediate crises that require aid.

“If there’s a crisis I will go there and help any way I can help,” he said.

He has plenty of experience in Svalbard with various crises, most notably as one of Longyearbyen’s primary counselors and spokespeople during an avalanche in December of 2015 that killed two people, destroyed 11 homes and permanently shook up the community’s confidence in many homes previous considered safe. Among his work aboard are three years in the war-torn Balkans beginning in 2000 and two three-month visits to the West Bank between 2014 and 2015 to assist Palestinians facing the destruction of their villages by Israeli soldiers.

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Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen offers a Christmas blessing during a visit to the Bjørnøya Meteorological Station in December of 2017. Photo courtesy of the Bjørnøya Meteorological Station.

Helgesen spent the holiday seasons in Svalbard making visits to each of the settlements with other officials including Svalbard’s governor for a Mass, food and exchange of gifts. His upcoming holiday tour of Asia will be somewhat similar in character, but also a far cry from the icy and secluded gatherings at small research stations.

“All the Norwegians in the area will gather for Christmas celebrations or social events,” he said.

Also, unlike holiday trips here where he was among a largely-familiar group of folks, his new job will place him in the company of strangers – at least initially.

“It’s a challenge because you’re on your own when you travel,” he said. “It can be lonesome sitting in a hotel in Kathmandu and Kuala Lumpur, but after a while when you get to know because it can be a social environment.”

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Svalbard Church Deacon Torunn Sørensen, music leader Espen Rotevatn and Leif Magne Helgesen perform as the Svalbard Kirkes Trio during an outdoor Mass at Vindodden in the spring of 2014. Photo by Diana Snibsøer.

Helgesen encountered plenty of new social experiences in Svalbard, including blossoming as a musician when he joined the Store Norske Men’s Choir in 2007, his first participation with a performance group. His subsequent endeavors included forming the Svalbard Kirkes Trio in 2011 with church Deacon Torunn Sørensen then-music leader Espen Rotevatn, which released two albums and in 2013 was invited to perform in the Vatican.

Helgesen also flourished as an author. His first book detailing his time in the Balkans, released when he arrived in Svalbard in 2006, was followed by five more he authored or co-authored during his time here. A book about Svalbard Church was followed by two about the archipelago, one about climate change in the Arctic and one about his experiences in the West Bank. He is also the co-author of a soon-to-be published book about the global impacts of climate change.

He willingly confronted controversy associated with some of his subjects, whether in the pulpit or in print. His activism in climate change, for instance, included presiding over a climate Mass in June of 2015 that included a prayer to keep coal mining alive in Svalbard and his activities in the Middle East resulted in his being labeled “a full-fledged BDS warrior…venting his antisemitic fury and rage at a country that could not possibly be further removed from him than Israel.”

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Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen emerges from the ice after a polar dip the Hopen Meteorological Station in December of 2012. Photo by Line Nagell Ylvisåker.

Then there were those nude photos – which in the surreal spirit of Svalbard carried nary a whiff of scandal. One was him emerging from an ice hole after a polar dip at the Hopen Meteorological Station in December of 2012, while the other was a full rear shot of him getting a full exposure of Svalbard’s icy wilderness published in one of his books about the archipelago.

Of course, being a priest at the world’s northernmost church for more than a decade meant plenty of other bone-chilling moments and experiences. Several outdoor Masses are scheduled annually at various locations between November and May, some involving long snowmobile trips in frigid conditions, with the coldest being one in February some years ago on a plateau high on Hiorthfjellet where the temperature was about minus 30 degrees Celsius.

“Then the wind came so it was at least minus 35 or 37,” Helgesen said. “It’s like listening to a drunk person because you can’t vocabulate the words.  Then my nose turned white.”

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Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen, left, leads a climate Mass in June of 2015, which included prayers for both meaningful action to combat the problem and for coal mining to continue in Svalbard. Longyearbyen’s coal-fired power plant is emitting smoke in the background. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Helgesen departs with a crowd-pleasing polar bear story to tell after he and other visitors were attacked by one during a Christmas visit to Hopen in 2009. They had just finished the gathering and were walking to the helicopter for the return flight when a police officer with the governor’s office saw the bear at the edge of the darkness.

“Suddenly he screamed ‘polar bear!'” Helgesen said. “They measured and it was about 70 meters away. It went from 70 meters to 30 meters before the flare gun was fired.”

The bear jumped, but then kept advancing until another flare scared it off.

“It was a really scary moment,” Helgesen said. “I was not afraid, but I still have respect for the situation.”

Still, he rejects the notion he and others living in Svalbard are the overly-extreme dwellers sometimes portrayed in the media, including a ten-episode reality TV show he was a main “character” in in 2016.

“I tell the media the most dangerous animal is not the polar bear,” he said. “The most dangerous animal in Svalbard is the snowmobile. That where we have the most accidents, the most tragedies.”

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Haakon Sandvik, left, and Huglen E. Rakel meet with Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen after the couple’s daughter, Anna, is baptized during the priest’s final Mass at Svalbard Church on Sunday. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Helgesen is keeping his usually active schedule going during his final days in Svalbard, including celebrating the church’s 60th anniversary two weeks ago, presiding over a “farewell” Mass paying tribute to him a week ago and his actual final Mass on Sunday where he baptized one last infant. He is scheduled to visit Hopen early this week – one of three regular visits to the station each year – and conduct a memorial service on Thursday morning just a couple of hours before he gets on his departure flight.

The farewell won’t quite be final: he is scheduled to return to Longyearbyen on Nov. 8 for the launch of a book he co-authored with Anne Lise Klingseth Sandvik, featuring her skits and songs for an annual satirical revue that has been staged for more than 20 years, poetry and other writings.

Beyond that Helgesen said he plans to continue writing and engaging in plenty of other activities beyond the pulpit in Norway and abroad, but what those activities will be is largely being taken on faith.

“God knows the future,” he said. “I don’t.”

 

 

“I don’t like weapons, but it was still another use of a weapon here,” he said. “That was a good kind of experience.”

“I don’t like weapons, but it was still another use of a weapon here,” he said. “That was a good kind of experience.”

going to Hornsund as one of three regular trips

Christmas trip east and central Asia

“If there’s a crisis I will go there and help any way I can help,” he said.

“All the Norwegians in the area will gather for Christmas celebrations or social events,” he said.

visit embassies, humanitarian organizations and companies

travel 140 days a year and work from home office in Stavanger

“It’s a challenge because you’re on your own when you travel,” he said. “It can be lonesome sitting in a hotel in Kathmandu and Kuala Lumpur, but after a while when you get to know because it can be a social environment.”

Helgesen

“I don’t like weapons, but it was still another use of a weapon here,” he said. “That was a good kind of experience.”

“One of the differences now it I won’t have a church building, a staff or a musician,” he said.

music-started men’s choir in 2007

Will come back Nov. 8 for Anne Lise’s book

also book with Kim offering more global look at climate change being published.

first book 2006 about Balkins, but several since

most extreme mass Hiorthfjellet temperure around minus 30 degrees Celsuis

“Then the wind came so it was at least minus 35 or 37,” he said.

“It’s like listening to a drunk person because you can’t vocabulate the words,” he said. “Then my nose turned white.”

Christmas visit to Hopen in 2009 attacked by a polar bear

“Suddenly he screamed ‘polar bear!'” he said. “They measured and it was about 70 meters away. It went from 70 meters to 30 meters before the flare gun was fired.”

The bear jumped, but then kept advancing until another flare scared it off.

“It was a really scary moment,” Helgesen said. “I was not afraid, but I still have respect for the situation.”

“I tell the media the most dangerous animal is not the polar bear,” he said. “The most dangerous animal in Svalbard is the snowmobile.”

“I don’t like weapons, but it was still another use of a weapon here,” he said. “That was a good kind of experience.”

not a hunter, but an eater

 

“God knows the future,” he said. “I don’t.”

 

 

 

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