Meet the last Catholic priest in Antarctica

The Chapel of the Snow. Credit: Alan Light/Flickr.

For more than 50 years, Catholic priests from New Zealand have sailed thousands of miles to the frozen desolation of the Antarctic.

The US National Science Foundation invites New Zealand’s Catholic Church for the summer months. A select number of priests work at the whimiscally-titled Chapel of the Snows, at the US McMurdo Station on Ross Island. They provide the spiritual succour to research staff and scientists.

But budget cuts and reduced religiosity among staff means the New Zealand diocese ends its tenure in the Antarctic.

A military chaplaincy will continue to offer spiritual care and inter-denominational services.

Father Dan Doyle, co-ordinator of the Catholic Church in Antarctica, told the Catholic Herald: “Before this digital age people felt very isolated and lonely; they were always under so much pressure, so I did a lot of counselling and peer support”. Email and Skype later replaced a 2-minute call on a ham-radio once a month.

At peak summertime, Doyle (and four other priests) assisted up to 2,000 people. That number dropped to 1,200 in a decade. In the harsh winter months, the population drops to just 150 essential personnel.

Every few weeks, they travelled 1,360km (845 miles)  to the southernmost inhabited place on Earth. At the Amundsen-Scott Base they would conduct Mass and other religious duties.

Venture into the sub-Antarctic islands, and many research centres continue to offer prayer spaces.

The first priest from New Zealand to visit Antarctica was Father Ronald O’Gorman in 1957. O’Gorman, from Christchurch, reached the McMurdo Station in a U.S. Icebreaker. He helped Navy personnel, scientists and support staff celebrate Christmas midnight Mass.

In 1947, Father William Menster (1913-2007) of Dubuque, Iowa, was the first clergyman to visit the Antarctic. Menster accompanied the fourth Byrd expedition. On January 6 1947, Menster delivered the Antarctic’s first church service. Roughly 200 men attended as Fr Menster read a prayer and blessed the six million square mile area. The blue cross of the Navy’s church pennant fluttered outside their bivouac.

Further afield, at the Argentinian Belgrano II base, is the southernmost Catholic chapel in the world. It is also made of ice.