Last year, the US National Science Foundation, which manages the US Antarctic Programme, ended its support for Catholic priests’ services through New Zealand’s Catholic Diocese of Christchurch’s Antarctic Chaplaincy Programme. This was due to a decline in church-going at US Antarctic stations and it ended to a 57-year relationship between the Diocese and the Programme. Fr Ron Bennett, recently appointed parish priest to Otari, has visited the Antarctic many times as a chaplain and recalls his experiences about ‘life on the ice’.
On board the early explorer ships to the ice there was often a chaplain to minister to the spiritual needs of the men based there. The chaplaincy programme developed with two American military chaplains from the States – one Catholic, one Protestant – firstly by ship, then later by plane. Christchurch was the final refuelling and setting off point before the trip to the ice.
In November 1957, Fr Ronald O’Gorman from Christchurch Diocese went to McMurdo Station in a United States Navy Icebreaker to assist the Navy Catholic Chaplain and to ensure Navy personal, scientists and support staff would have Mass for Christmas. He celebrated Christmas midnight Mass in the chapel at McMurdo Station.
There were many young priests in Christchurch at that time so the Diocese took up the call and offered to do the Catholic side from among their own priests. So began the situation of the Protestant chaplain coming from America for two months, and the Catholic chaplain coming from Christchurch Diocese usually for a month. This was between the opening of the season in October and the closing in early February, with five or six priests a season. As the number of available priests from Christchurch diminished, any priest in New Zealand was able to go.
My chaplaincy experience involved administering to the spiritual needs of as many as 1200 people at McMurdo and Scott Base at any one time. I was there in 2004, 2007, 2009, and 2010, including attending the 25-year (in 2004) and 30-year (in 2009) November 28 anniversaries of the aircraft disaster at Mt Erebus.
Chaplaincy service was about being available at all times – in the meal area, the coffee house, serving meals, washing dishes, sweeping the floor, emptying the garbage. People needed to see you, and see you involved and visiting the base in a structured way to meet everybody.
There is no ‘keeping to yourself’ and running away to be by yourself. If anything was on, I would go for it, whether walking up a high mountain, or going on a trek. There were opportunities for counselling, time for quite chats, a word of advice. For this you need to feel comfortable with yourself and with others.
Pastoral opportunities and needs there are huge, with people living in close quarters in a very isolated place. Often people are dealing with ‘unfinished business’, such as divorce or separation, the death of a loved one, and they think they can do nothing about it from a distance. Here the chaplain can help.
Then there are the dangers at the base itself, such as fire, injury, loss of life, weather changes. You need to carefully follow the rules. While you can walk to certain places alone, in most cases this is not possible or allowed. Care must be taken at all times.
I would celebrate Mass at 5.15pm in the chapel every weekday on Sundays and would have Morning Prayer with the other (Protestant) chaplain every day to which others sometimes came.
Although it is true the numbers were declining, those who did come often had a deep faith. Frequently people would ask advice about prayer forms, or passages in the scripture. Often there was the opportunity to introduce them to Lectio Divina (praying the Scriptures).
A chaplain in Antarctica needs to be a person who has a ready smile for all, and who can listen and engage people in conversation, and, sometimes, just to be still with people. We worked hard to bring the chaplaincy to people, sometimes taken up, often not.
People were impressed by the way Catholic-interdenominational ministers worked together. That was something new for many. During my time on the ice I worked with Episcopal (Anglican), Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Reformed Baptist Ministers. We prayed morning prayer together, did Bible study and discussions together, would often eat together, and generally enjoyed each other’s company. I think this was a good ecumenical witness.
The Catholic and inter-denominational services were not always well attended. I would average 20 to 25, the non-denomination service slightly more.
We tried hard at advertising our services, but we were in competition with many other activities during ‘non-work’ time. People there work 10-hour days, six days a week, so their non-work time is fairly limited and they tend to do other things, or just go to their rooms and watch a DVD. Often they are in bed by 8pm to be fresh for the next day. Their job is their primary responsibility. But we certainly tried to have a Christian presence in the ice, and I think that we did well.
The Catholic chapel was called ‘The Chapel of the Snows’ and it was an interdenominational chapel. There is also a beautiful grotto of Our Lady not far from it.
Like most things, one can get used to them and take them for granted. The first moment on landing is wonderful. It is like a winter paradise. A beautiful blue sky, snow-capped mountains, getting off the Globe Master aircraft in red jackets, and white ‘moon boots.’ Then someone yells out, ‘Hey, you people, this is an airport runway, get off the runway and onto the bus!’
I tried to get a ‘quiet time’ after lunch, and read a spiritual book or scripture, or just look around, and give thanks for such a beautiful place.
I had conversations with the late Sir Edmund Hillary at meal times when he came down. He was very humble. I asked him to sign a $5 note for me, which I treasure.
I am also immensely grateful that this opportunity for my time on the ice was given to me. It is a time I shall never forget.