In preparing to come to Antarctica, I had been told this was the most secular continent in the world, filled with scientists on a mission for discovery. But for those who are looking for spirituality, there is a lot to be discovered here too.
I have spent three weeks at the South Pole Station with the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, which is looking to detect tiny particles called neutrinos which come from cosmic events in deep space and help us learn more about our universe!
The South Pole Station is like a larger International Space Station. There are only about 150 people here in a single, two-story building, which means you can get to know pretty much everyone and form an awesome community. The downside is that there is less infrastructure, such as organized religious gatherings. Holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah are celebrated with fancy dinners from the galley staff, but there aren’t religious services, unless you organize them yourself.
McMurdo Station, on the other hand, is more like a small town. Located on the Ross Sea, McMurdo, or “Mactown”, is the largest of the U.S. stations and hosts up to 1,000 people during the summer months. McMurdo Station boasts more “real-world” amenities like a coffee house, a recreation department, multiple bars, and yes, even a chapel. I got to spend about 10 days in McMurdo Station on my way to and from the South Pole and experience the religious offerings of the station.
On my first trip through McMurdo, the first thing I was struck by was the beauty of the continent, and the second was how every high point on station was designated with a cross. Each cross was a memorial to those who had died on the continent. The crosses were sobering reminders of the extreme conditions people have, and still face here, and how lucky I am to be here. But they were also comforting reminders of faith as I adjusted to my new life for the next month, thousands of miles away from home and anything familiar. Even from town, I can see the silhouette of crosses against the constantly lit sky and know that someone is looking out for me.
My absolute favorite place on Station is the Mary Shrine on the Hut Point Ridge Trail, affectionately nicknamed “Rollcage Mary” due to the roll cage that attempts to protect her from the harsh winds and weather that unexpectedly sweep across the peninsula she sits on. It was a beautiful place to chat and pray with my heavenly friends. One night, I felt overwhelmed and just needed to get away from the bustling McMurdo Station and my crammed isolation quarters. I walked up to Mary and just sat in her shelter, cocooned in my parka, watching the skuas float on the windy air streams.
he very first place I went after arriving at the station was the Chapel of the Snows. It sits prominently at the end of the road overlooking the Ross Sea, with the Royal Society Mountain Range peeking behind on a clear day. You can’t miss it. Anyone going to or from the dorms, galley, or science lab pass by the unique white and blue building.
The current Chapel of the Snows was dedicated in 1989 after the previous building burnt down. It is a non-denominational building that serves as a gathering and worship space for all residents of McMurdo Station, as well as the nearby New Zealand Scott Base. My favorite part of the chapel is the stained-glass window, which features the outline of the continent, a chalice, bread, and of course – a penguin! There are also two cute painted penguins saying goodbye as you exit. There are chairs, cushions, and lots of books for use by all faith groups residing on station.
Each summer season, the religious communities of McMurdo Station are supported by chaplains provided by the U.S. Navy, the U.S. National Air Guard, or the Diocese of Christchurch, New Zealand. Usually, the chaplains work out of the Chapel of the Snows, but when I was at the South Pole Station, we had a rare visit from Chaplain Donny Chamberlin. It was amazing to connect and talk faith over a meal, who had such a passion for connecting with people.
Each week, residents of McMurdo Station will organize religious gatherings. There’s Shabbat on Friday nights, an interfaith worship service on Sunday mornings, followed by a Catholic service afterwards. I got to spend one Sunday on station and I was thrilled to attend service. There were about ten of us gathered, including two volunteers who led us in a lay service, since there was not currently a priest on station. We said the prayers, read the readings, and were even able to have a communion service with hosts that had been consecrated by a visiting priest from earlier this season.
Mass has always been a tricky part of my Catholic faith. It was one of the things I was forced to do as a kid growing up, and it’s the main thing other Catholics will tell you you have to do to be a “good Catholic.” Mass often feels mundane, boring, and disconnected from my spirituality, and it is really the parish community that tends to drive my will to attend each Sunday. However, this time, it was AMAZING to reconnect with something so familiar in a place so far away and unfamiliar in every way. Ten strangers became an instant community in our shared bond of faith. Staring past the stained-glass window to the Royal Society Mountains behind the Ross Sea, I felt full of peace, I felt at home, on this distant continent. It was definitely one of the most meaningful services of my life and I was grateful for the experience.
Elaine Krebs is a Roman Catholic Christian currently living in Los Angeles. She graduated from the University of Southern California with a Master’s Degree in Marine and Environmental Biology, and now works as both a science teacher at a local museum, as well as Confirmation Coordinator at her local parish. Elaine was first introduced to interfaith work as a member of USC’s Interfaith Council, and continues to be involved, especially surrounding the intersection of science and religion. She also enjoys studying and experiencing diversity within religions, especially the different rites within Catholicism. In her free time, Elaine enjoys swing dancing, SCUBA diving, and traveling the world.