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Catholicism at the bottom of the planet

A priest remembers his time ministering to those living and working in one of the world’s harshest environments.

The Chapel of the Snows, McMurdo Station, on Ross Island, Antarctica. (Image via Wikipedia)

Reaching the end of the earth seems to inspire religious feeling.

“Wonder and awe seems to sum up the reaction of anyone who has the opportunity to visit Antarctica,” says Father Dan Doyle, a parish priest in suburban Christchurch, New Zealand. “The sun glinting on the ice, the many, many colors of white, and the grandeur of crawling around in the caves inside the face of a mighty glacier, make one marvel at the wonders of creation.”

For many years, Father Doyle was in charge of New Zealand’s Antarctic Ministry. He recalls that even persons with no previous spiritual experience “would say that [Antarctica] awakened something ‘spiritual’ in them.”

For nearly 50 years, the Diocese of Christchurch, New Zealand oversaw priestly ministerial care of Antarctica; today that role is filled by the US Archdiocese for the Military Services. Doyle and other New Zealand priests were stationed at the Chapel of the Snows at McMurdo Station, one of three major permanent US bases on Antarctica. Other sites of Antarctic Catholicism include the Ice Cave Catholic Chapel, which is the world’s southernmost place of worship.

Though it’s larger than Europe, people didn’t even know Antarctica existed until the 19th century. The following century saw various countries make claims on its territory. Effective 1961, the Antarctic Treaty neither recognizes nor disputes any territorial claims made south of the 60th parallel. About 30 nations have established camps, mainly for purposes of scientific research. Among these researchers have been Jesuits, including seismologist Henry Birkenhauer, a.k.a. the “Polar Priest.” More recent decades have “very occasionally” seen a priest-scientist on Antarctica, says Doyle. “But they were there as scientists rather than as priests…and were primarily occupied in their scientific role.”

Father Doyle’s involvement with Antarctica began in 1984. The following year, he became responsible for arranging for other priests to serve periods of one month on the world’s coldest continent.

According to the CIA World Factbook, 98 percent of Antarctica consists of ice and the other 2 percent of rock. Antarctica’s population ranges from about 4,400 in the summer to a little more than 1,000 in the winter, when darkness covers both day and night. Since there is no arable land and no indigenous human population, people in Antarctica tend to have a serious reason for being there. Doyle says he was careful to choose “suitable priests” for this unique ministry; he describes such candidates as having an “explorer personality,” adding that they “needed to be physically and mentally robust.” They also needed to “like the outdoors” and “be able to deal with sudden changes of schedules.”

Father Doyle recalls how at the beginning of his Antarctic tenure, “living conditions were quite difficult at times. Many people slept in canvas tents [and] toilet facilities were primitive, but the food was great.” By 2014, the end of his tenure, he says that “living conditions were great but the food had deteriorated.”

Another significant change was communication.

“In the earlier days when there was little direct communication with the outside world, Antarcticans felt very isolated,” he says. “There was a once-a-month, three-minute, ham-radio call patched through to a phone in America or New Zealand, or else mail, which came in on the plane but was up to a month old by the time it arrived.”

Under such circumstances, people would seek out a priest “for a chat or for sacramental confession,” says Father Doyle, adding, “Sometimes they came just to sit quietly in the chapel.”

By contrast, “Nowadays there are readily available phones throughout McMurdo Station, where people can call anywhere in the world. Everybody has Internet and email access, so there is very little feeling of isolation.” Amid this decreased sense of isolation, he observed that people felt “less and less need for that one-to-one personal encounter.”

Father Doyle says toward the end of his time there, Antarctic denizens had “definitely become more secular.” He says the Chapel of the Snows was used as a venue for “spiritual yoga,” though “there was nothing spiritual about it at all.”

At the start of his Antarctic tenure, Doyle says that Sunday Mass attracted up to 60 attendees. But that number eventually declined to about 10 to 15. He says that Mass attendees typically consisted of cooks, cleaners, drivers, and office workers, with “a few military people and aviation people.” He adds, “Occasionally a couple of scientists would attend, but they are not known for their belief in the intangible.”

Antarctica does receive tourists, but they don’t attend Mass, as they “were usually on shore for only a couple of hours and were quickly whisked back to their nice warm ships.”

Father Doyle typically said Mass at the Chapel of the Snows, but the “occasional visiting icebreaker [ship] captain” would invite a priest on board to hold a service for the crew.

Despite reports of Antarctic marriages, Doyle clarifies that no official nuptials take place in Antarctica and that any “purported weddings are an exchange of vows or a renewal of vows, but not a legal wedding. The wedding license always comes from elsewhere.”

He adds that memorial services are conducted on occasion, but there are no funerals or burials, as regulations stipulate the removal of human remains from Antarctica. To Doyle’s knowledge, there were no children at McMurdo Station, but some adult baptisms were conducted. More often, though, baptismal candidates underwent preparation for the sacrament before returning to their homeland for the actual baptisms. Doyle adds that confession was always available.

Interaction with clergy of other faiths generally came through the US military, which had reserve officer-chaplains from several Protestant denominations.

New Zealand’s Antarctic Ministry was discontinued in 2015. Today, Father Doyle admits that he misses the coldest continent. Moreover, he misses the “opportunity for ministry at the ends of the earth, and the unique people that are attracted to work there.”

About Ray Cavanaugh 6 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your devotion to your flock on the ice, Father Doyle. From one of your military parishioners.

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