Antarctic Chaplaincy



I’ve often wondered about ministry in Antarctica. Do the various bases have chaplains? How are they staffed? Who’s responsible? Nancy Frazier O’Brien’s CNS feature story profiles Father John Harrison of the New Zealand diocese of Dunedin, who recently flew to McMurdo Station for his fifth tour as chaplain. The outpost on Ross Island, seen here on the left, houses more than a thousand researchers and support staff each Antarctic summer from October to February.
Father Harrison reflects:

“When you fly into the South Pole, you realize that nearly all you’re looking at no human being has ever set foot on.It’s a real reflective time, when you can’t help but focus on God and creation.”


The southernmost known church on the planet, the Chapel of the Snows, has an interesting history.

Here’s a photo of the 1956 edition of the chapel. Military personnel setting up the American outpost for the International Geophysical Year had not included it in the original plans. Religious services were slated to be held in the mess hall.

Admiral George Dufek, in the Antarctic Journal, December 1978 recalls the tale of the labors of Navy chaplain John Condit and his volunteers:

“As the construction of the buildings at McMurdo progressed, a mysterious pile of lumber, planks, nails, Quonset hut sections, and assorted materials began to accumulate on a knoll overlooking the camp. Before the main camp was finished a tidy neat church with a steeple was to stand on a ridge overlooking the camp. Later it even had a bell, procured from a small gasoline tanker.”

A real bell: that’s a plus.

Fire claimed the building in 1978, and it was more than ten years before McMurdo folks had a new Chapel of the Snows, built on a knoll overlooking McMurdo Sound and the nearby mountains and glaciers.

US Navy chaplains began serving Antarctic personnel in 1955. Today Catholic chaplaincy is coordinated by the Diocese of Christchurch, New Zealand. Catholic chaplains are assigned for about a month each during that October to February stretch. A small contingent of personnel remains to winter at McMurdo. These folks are served by lay ministers trained by the chaplains to lead celebrations of the Liturgy of the Word.

While Harrison is on duty, he will preside at daily Mass for a mostly American congregation. “They come here from a huge diversity
of areas, from whole different cultural backgrounds and different styles of parishes,” Harrison says. “But their unity comes in Christ.” He also leads Bible studies and counsels people who sometimes struggle to live and work far from family and home in this remote place. Some people have begun a journey of initiation with Harrison and continue in RCIA once they return home.


Here’s the chapel interior, if you’re curious.

McMurdo chaplains each take a flight of 840 miles to the South Pole Station to check in on the much smaller base set up there.

One historic artifact of interest is the Erebus Chalice, carried on the HMS Erebus’ 1841 expedition to the continent. Each summer, it is returned to McMurdo for display, returning to spend New Zealand winters on display in the Christ Church Cathedral in Christchurch.

Did you notice that penguin in the stained glass at the top of the post?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Antarctic Chaplaincy

  1. bill fisher says:

    BEAUTIFUL ARTICLE. DURING IGY 1957-58.I WINTERED OVER AT MC MURDO. I WAS 20 YEARS OLD.(USN RADIOMABN 3RD CLASS) WE WERE SUPPOSED TO HAVE HAD 3 CHAPLAINS BUT DUE TO ACCIDENT INVOLVING TWO OF THEM WE ENDED UP WITH JUST ONE. THAT WAS CATHOLIC PRIEST WHOSE NAME I WAS PRETTY SURE FATHER HEANEY..
    EVEN THOUGH HE WOKE ME UP EVERY SUNDAY TO ASSIST HIM AT MASS I REALLY APPRECIATED HIS HELP AS DID SO MANY OTHERS, BE THEY CATHOLIC, PROTESTANT OR JEWISH. HE WAS ALL WE HAD. HE WORRIED ABOUT WHAT HIS BISHOP WOULD HAVE TO SAY ABOUT HIS PERFORMING NON-CATHOLIC SERVICES BUT THIS DID NOT DETER HIM. IF ANYONE CAN CLEAR MY MEMORY AS TO HIS FULL NAME I WILL BE VERY GRATEFUL.

    .

  2. Todd says:

    Thanks, Bill, for commenting. I admire the spirit of adventure of you folks. Very inspirational.

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