Future at risk for historic chapel in Antarctica

Chapel of Snows Credit Alan Light via Flickr CC BY 20 CNA 8 3 15 Chapel of the Snows, McMurdo Station, Antarctica. | Alan Light via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The coronavirus pandemic has suspended efforts to save the Chapel of the Snows at McMurdo Station, the hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program. But one Catholic who regularly serves at the station has said he hopes the chapel has a permanent future at the station. 

“We had probably the only place in the world where you would go to Midnight Mass (for Christmas) and have to wear sunglasses inside the church, because the sun was so bright,” said Robert Mullenax, a Catholic meteorologist who works for a NASA contractor. 

“The Chapel of the Snows faces south and at midnight, with the sun not going down, the sun comes right through the window behind the altar. So if you really had sensitive eyes, people might actually wear sunglasses there.”

Mullenax has made eight trips to Antarctica for his job since 1993. The trips typically begin in mid-November and run through early or mid-January, so he has spent several Christmases there.

He said the first few Christmases were really difficult for him because his children back home in Texas were still young. But he found comfort in the fact that even though he was far from home he was still able to receive Communion at the Chapel of the Snows.

Until recently, priests from the Diocese of Christchurch would travel to McMurdo at the invitation of the US National Science Foundation to minister to Catholics there.  

McMurdo no longer hosts Catholic priests, so Mullenax has had to get creative when spending Christmas at the station. His last Christmas at McMurdo was in 2019. That year, he led a few other Catholics in a Liturgy of the Word. 

“Obviously, there’s no Eucharist, we're just doing Liturgy of the Word,” Mullenax said. “This last year, we also celebrated the Office of the Readings for the Liturgy of the Hours, in the early morning hours, and said some morning prayers.”

“We sang the Salve Regina at the end of our little service and actually the Protestant chaplain... joined us in the singing of that, which I thought was pretty cool.”

The Chapel of the Snows was not included in the original construction plans for McMurdo, back in the 1950s. The first Catholic chaplain at McMurdo built the first chapel during his free time, with the help of volunteers. That chapel was destroyed by a fire in 1978. Volunteers at McMurdo again constructed a makeshift chapel, until the current chapel was dedicated in 1989. The makeshift chapel was destroyed by a storm in 1991. 

Recent reconstruction plans for McMurdo Station include a new chapel that Mullenax has said would be too small for communal celebrations. 

“Just like an airport sort of chapel, or maybe a hospital chapel that has room for about three people,” he said. 

Mullenax was involved in a petition to keep the current chapel, but he said the petition and plans for demolition are suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. Still, he hopes and prays the Chapel of the Snows has a future on ‘the Ice’.

“That's really important for people going to ‘the Ice’ to be able to have communal celebrations and some place to appropriately celebrate,” he said.

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