Antarctica: Faith in the Land of Eternal Snows
Where Mass Is Never Canceled on Account of Cold Weather
It’s hard to imagine that, 60 million years ago, Antarctica was teeming with dinosaurs languishing in the sweltering, subtropical heat typical of the “White Continent” at the time. Now, it’s home only to seals, penguins, walruses and humans who insist they don’t mind the frigid temperatures.
The first official nod to Christianity on Antarctica came from Capt. Aeneas Mackintosh, who erected a large memorial cross on Wind Vane Hill on Cape Evans in honor of three members of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition party who died in 1916.
Priests Down South
Father William Menster (1913-2007), a priest in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, and U.S. Navy chaplain, wrote in his 1949 book Strong Men South about his Antarctic expedition in 1946 and 1947, “The highlight of my life was the celebration of Mass at and blessing the Antarctic continent.” This first Mass on the continent was celebrated in a temporary tent on an altar oriented eastward — or what passes for eastward when you’re at the bottom of the planet.
The first Jesuit stationed in Antarctica was seismologist Jesuit Father Henry Birkenhauer, in 1957-58, earning him the nickname “The Polar Priest.” Jesuit Father Daniel Linehan was a scientist and explorer who made two expeditions to Antarctica in 1954-55 and 1955-56. The Linehan Glacier is named after him. Vatican astronomer Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno visited Antarctica in 1996 and discovered a number of meteorites. (The climate aside, it’s easy hunting for such rocks, as they stand in clear contrast to the continent’s snowy fields.) Jesuit geophysicists Edward Bradley and J. Joseph Lynch also did extensive research in Antarctica.
There are currently nearly 90 science stations in Antarctica, half of which are only used in summer months, when the days are long. Most research stations have a small multipurpose room that serves as an ad hoc chapel. However, several bases and settlements have their own dedicated chapels, including:
1. Notre-Dame des Vents (Port-aux-Français, Kerguelen Island)
Interestingly, Capt. James Cook discovered this uninhabited island on Christmas Day 1776, an auspiciously appropriate day for what would subsequently become the southernmost French-Catholic church in the world. French for Our Lady of the Winds, the chapel is located in Port-aux-Français, the capital settlement of the Kerguelen Islands, territory of the French Southern and Antarctic lands in the south Indian Ocean. The concrete chapel was built in the 1950s, and its proportions are based on the “Golden Ratio” — the ratio of the building’s dimensions is the same as the ratio of the sum of the larger of the chapel’s two quantities. This is a fancy mathematical way of saying the chapel is exquisitely beautiful and exceptionally pleasing mathematically, aesthetically and emotionally. This chapel serves as the parish church for the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the British Antarctic Territory.
A statue of Our Lady of the Winds stands vigil between the chapel and the Golfe du Morbihan, welcoming congregants while assuring them of her love and prayers.
2. The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (Punta Arenas)
The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (El Sagrado Corazón) in Punta Arenas, on the southern tip of South America, serves the Chilean Antarctic Territory. Punta Arenas is the southernmost diocese in the entire Catholic world. Its parish, Nuestra Señora del Carmen, in Puerto Williams on Navarino Island is the southernmost Catholic parish on the planet. Though not “technically” on Antarctica, it’s practically there; and the Vatican has given it its specific mission of serving the faithful who temporarily call Antarctica home.
3. The Ice Cave Catholic Chapel at Belgrano II Base (Coat’s Island)
Argentina’s Belgrano II Base at Coat’s Island is the southernmost house of worship — of any religion — and is entirely made of ice blocks. Built in 1955, it’s used year-round by the scientists, soldiers and staff of the Argentine military base and research station on the island. A wedding was conducted in the chapel on January 29, 2007, for two researchers, a Chilean and a Russian.
3. Notre Dame de l’Ocean (Amsterdam Island)
Our Lady of the Ocean Chapel serves the scientists of French-administered Amsterdam Island. This squarish, cozy chapel is immediately adjacent to the researcher’s quarters and hosts Mass every Sunday. The chapel offers a magnificent view of the Antarctic Ocean.
4. Chapel of the Snows (Ross Island)
The Chapel of the Snows is located at McMurdo Science Station on Ross Island and was constructed in 1956. The chapel was rebuilt after a fire in 1978 and was re-consecrated in 1989. It later opened its doors to Protestants, Mormons, Bahais and Buddhists so that they might conduct their own services. The chapel serves 200 researchers and support personnel, but it can host up to 1,000 visitors. It contains a stained-glass window depicting Antarctica.
5. Notre Dame des Oiseaux Chapel, Possession Island
This tiny French-administered island in the Crozet Archipelago has a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Birds. The chapel is located near Alfred Faure Base and was built in 1984.
6. Trinity Church (Bellingshausen, King George Island)
This Russian Orthodox chapel warmly, pun intended, welcomes Catholics to celebrate Mass there. The quaint structure is made of pressurized Siberian pine treated to withstand the subzero temperature of the southernmost continent. It can hold 30 worshippers at any given moment. Two Russian monks man this remote chapel, committing to a year’s service.
Defying the destructive power of the polar winds, the wooden structure with Russian carvings stands 15 meters (49 feet) tall, and Mass is generally celebrated in either Spanish or English.
7. San Francisco de Assisi Chapel (Hope Bay)
A chapel dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi is appropriately located at Esperanza (Spanish for “hope”) Station in Antarctica’s Hope Bay. This is one of Argentina’s 13 research bases in Antarctica. Catholic babies are routinely baptized here.
8. Chilean Chapel of Santa Maria Reina de la Paz (Villa Las Estrellas, South Shetland Islands)
This humble and utilitarian church is made out of repurposed shipping containers stacked side by side and can fit up to 36 congregants. The local population, aside from the penguins, can be up to 120 people, making it the largest civilian settlement in Antarctica. Located on the Chilean military base of King George’s Island, Villa las Estrellas (Spanish: “The Village of Stars”), it’s not uncommon for personnel to bring their families, with children, to live on the base for up to two years at a time, necessitating religious services and catechetical instruction.
9. Chapel of the Santisima Virgen de Lujan at Marambio Base
The Chapel of the Most Holy Virgin serves Argentina’s permanent, year-round base. On Jan. 3, 2013, during the 44th Overwintering Campaign, Father Marcelo Lopez and the team of researchers consecrated the entire base to the Virgin Mary.
10. St. Ivan Rilski Chapel, Livingston Island
This Orthodox church was built on Bulgaria’s St. Kliment Ohridski expeditionary base in 1988.
11. Stella Maris Chapel, Cape Horn Island
Next to the lighthouse on Cape Horn Island lies a tiny wooden chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It serves the sacramental needs of the researchers and staff at this station, which lies between South America’s Tierra de Fuego and the Antarctic continent. The first Catholic, let alone human being, to visit the area was Ferdinand Magellan on his round-the-world-trip across the straits that still bear his name.
Oddly, the 90 researchers and support staff of the Italian Mario Zucchelli Station at Terra Nova Bay don’t have a permanent chapel, despite lay Italian Catholics offering to build one for free. In fact, a German shipping company offered to transport the prefab chapel to Terra Nova Bay gratis. Despite this, the Italian government is dragging its feet, to the detriment of the devout scientists and staff on the base. The Worldwide Antarctic Program (WAP) is spearheading the construction of a Catholic chapel at the base. So far, the plan is on ice.
writes from New York.
Trinity Church in Bellingshausen, King George Island/Shutterstock
- Feb. 21-March 5, 2016