NEW CALLING: Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen departing after 12 years; leaving a storied legacy as community counselor, ambassador and controversial crusader


Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen, who during the past 12 years has been one of Svalbard’s most prominent persons for his many roles ranging from lighthearted entertainer to controversial global political activist, is departing in October to become an ambulant seaman’s minister in Asia.


Leif Magne Helgesen conducts a brief and informal interview with Louie Sangalang in April during an evening paying tribute to local Filipino residents hosted by Svalbard Church. Helgesen has over the years hosted numerous longer sit-down chats at the church with prominent local leaders and historical persons. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“Thus, my base will become Stavanger and I will travel east and meet with Norwegians abroad,” he wrote in a post on his Facebook page Monday morning. “That means that my Svalbard era now has sand in the hourglass.”

Helgesen, 57, has been at the center of many of Longyearbyen’s lightest and darkest moments of the past decade.

On a local level he served as a round-the-clock counselor during major crises such as the mass shooting at Utøya in 2011 that killed a local teenager and critically wounded another, and the avalanche in December of 2015 that destroyed 11 homes and killed two people – one of whom was a close friend. On a brighter note, he’s a member of the Store Norske Men’s Choir, been a regular in an annual satirical revue of local events, and in 2011 co-founded the Svalbard Kirkes Trio, which has released two albums and performed in the Vatican in 2013.


Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen and Anne Lise Sandvik and administer Communion during a climate Mass in June of 2015 at a mining trestle uphill from the church. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

He presided over several outdoor Masses annually in Longyearbyen and outside town (frequently referring the mountain and sea backdrops as God’s ultimate cathedral), as well as Christmas services with the governor at all of the Svalbard’s settlements where a common companionship with differing peoples was celebrated. But his sermons could also challenge constituents to a calling, such as an Easter Mass this year denouncing the “terror” caused by anti-immigrant Norwegian politicians and deadly Israeli attacks against Palestinian protesters.

“Meeting with Svalbardians of all ages has always been inspiring,” he told Svalbardposten, which named him their person of the year in 2015. “We have stood together for both good and bad days. It has been demanding and rewarding.”

“I will bring my experiences from Svalbard into what is now becoming a global work. In particular, my work with emergency preparedness and crisis work will be important in the new job.”


Leif Magne Helgesen visited the Middle East during the last three months of 2014 and the summer of 2015 trying to help prevent Israeli soldiers from demolishing Palestinian village in the West Bank. Photo courtesy of Leif Magne Helgesen.

At the global level he’s been highly involved in climate change awareness as an activist and author, co-authoring the book “The Ice is Melting” and presiding over high-profile activities such as a climate mass during the months before the UN climate summit in Paris in 2015. He’s also attracted considerable attention – and controversy – with his lengthy visits to Palestinian villages in the West Bank to protest their destruction by Israeli troops and repeated calls for a boycott of all Israeli products.

Helgesen, who was born in Madagaskar, was general manager of the Church of Vestfold from 1994 to 2000, deputy representative for Norwegian Church Aid in the Balkans from 2000 to 2003, and in 2004 had a leading role in Norway’s Passion gathering in Stavanger before his appointment as priest at Svalbard Church in 2006.

In recent years he’s been among the first people sought out by visiting journalists and others working on various projects, appearing in countless TV and movie documentaries, news publications and books.


Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen, in the foreground at left, delivers a musical “Svalbardmesse” at the church in February of 2015 as part of the annual Polarjazz festival. The suite later became the foundation for an album released by the Svalbard Kirkes Trio. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople

The announcement of his departure on Monday attracted several dozen responses within a couple of hours from locals and outsiders offering warm wishes and sharing memories.

“Congratulations on the exciting new job,” wrote Tom Ramberg, a retiree and fellow choir performer. “You’ll definitely be missed. The men’s choir must now recruit a new second bass.”

“You will be really missed in Svalbard, but the world is getting an incredibly important person with you,” wrote Patricia Battig, a former Svalbard Museum employee now living in Hønefoss.