Ministering on the Ice

Chapel of the Snows, McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Chapel of the Snows, McMurdo Station, Antarctica

I was saddened reading this story, “Catholic priests to leave Antarctica because of decline in church-going,” from The Press of Christchurch, New Zealand.

To be clear, the U.S. Antarctic Program will continue sending a Protestant chaplain (who is willing and able to minister to all faiths) during the summer months; it’s not abandoning the faithful on the Ice, just narrowing the program for reasons given in the article.

Why am I sad? For one, it’s simply because I have a deep appreciation for what the chaplains do there. (I wrote a story about them, “Chaplains unite to service Ice community,” which you’ll find on page 3 of the issue linked to here. Coincidentally, the Roman Catholic priest there at the time was the Rev. Dan Doyle, the same priest quoted in the above article.)

Secondly, it’s regretful that church-going is in decline, though there are special reasons for that in Antarctica, I believe.

During my summer on the Ice, October 2006-February 2007, I attended the Protestant services almost regularly and thoroughly enjoyed the time in the beautiful Chapel of the Snows, shown above, including the view through the window behind the pulpit. Unexpectedly, however, I found myself in need of a minister one morning.

When I got to work Monday morning and checked e-mail, I had a message from my wife that my mother was no longer swallowing and probably had only two or three days to live. Now, this was not a surprise. When I last saw her in late September, we all suspected she would not be there when I returned. Indeed, she wasn’t “there” when I saw her.

Since I had a day-sleeping roommate, my co-worker Peter gave me the key to his room so I could call home with some privacy. It was Sunday back home. I called my brother, who was helping our father take care of things. I called Leah, who stepped up to fill the gap left by my absence. I then steeled myself to talk to Daddy.

My mother and I got along fine but had not been very close in decades. My dad, though, well I wanted to be there for him and I couldn’t. There wouldn’t be another plane leaving Antarctica until Thursday, meaning I probably wouldn’t get home until Saturday. The program would get me home as quickly as possible, but might not send me back to the Ice.

Complicating things on a personal, perhaps selfish, level was the fact I was to leave in 24 hours for a long-awaited and highly desired three-day trip to the South Pole to work on the key assignment for my summer. Trips like that were difficult to schedule and I might not get a second chance even if I returned.

Daddy, though, would hear nothing of the idea of me coming back. We knew this when you left, he told me. He was OK and wanted me to continue with my work.

The phone calls alleviated the physical concerns but left me dealing with feelings I did not feel equipped to handle. Leaving Peter’s dorm, instead of crossing to return to the office, I turned right and wandered into the Chapel of the Snows, slipping by a few Ice residents using the open area at the chapel’s entrance for a yoga class.

I walked to the front right corner, sat on a pew and started sobbing. I sat there a while and decided I needed to talk. The Rev. Bill Yates, the other chaplain in my article, had recently completed his rotation and had been replaced by the Rev. Rafael Marquez, whom I had not yet gotten to know, but I found him in the chapel office.

I don’t remember a lot of what he said, exactly, but he helped me deal with the emotions troubling me and I left there with a new and deeper appreciation of his position.

My mother did die while I was at the South Pole and was buried before I could have possibly returned home. The next Sunday morning, during a prayer in the service, Rafael obliquely mentioned me. I trust it was not the first time he had remembered me in prayer and that, too, comforted me.

All of this is to illustrate the chaplains do much more than preach sermons.

My second point, about the decline in attendance, is that the temptations to not make it to church services are incredibly attractive on the Ice.

Consider that a high percentage of the program participants are young, an age where even steady church-goers often drift away for a little self-discovery or whatever, but there are also certain realities of life on the Ice that get in the way.

Everyone works six days a week and most are off on Sundays. That’s when they sleep late, go hiking or cross-country skiing or party. Even those who really want to attend regularly will have an opportunity for a special activity that will get in the way. Plus, everyone is there for a short time; they’ll get back into normal church activities when they return home.

Saddened, yes, but I’m confident the chaplains from the U.S. will pick up the slack and provide help whenever it’s needed. I’m certain, as well, the priests of New Zealand are prepared to respond when needed.

2 thoughts on “Ministering on the Ice”

  1. This brought many emotions to the surface. My mother was in a nursing home with dementia when we moved to Alaska. I flew back to visit every year and even though it appeared she didn’t know me I said goodby knowing this could be the last. When she would have an organ failure and be hospitalized the nursing home would call me but then she would rally and go on. Some of my co-workers would be angry that I didn’t go back each time but I had made a decision. The last time I went to visit her a curtain lifted. She knew me and remembered my children and we talked for a long time. It was a gift. I wasn’t there when she died but I was able to go back for the funeral. That is all I have, now I’m going to stop and finish my cry.


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