Two missionaries talk to us about their mission at the Antarctic glaciers. White is made up of many colours.
“It can be as cold as 60° below zero here, but despite that, it has been a magnificent experience”, Father Dan Doyle tells Southworld. He is going to be the last among the New Zealand priests to serve at the Antarctic mission, America’s National Science Foundation; in fact, he has told Christchurch’s Catholic Diocese it no longer needs local priests to serve the scientists, and support staff and military personal at McMurdo Station, in Ross Island. The Catholic Diocese of Christchurch has provided priests as chaplains to the United States Antarctic programme for the summer season for more than 50 years.
“Things have changed after thirty years: as technologies have developed, the number of researchers has decreased, the introduction of skype and emails has fostered communication and modified requirements”, Father Doyle explains. The Catholic Diocese of Christchurch sent him to Antarctica for the first time in 2000, at the invitation of the US National Science Foundation. Since then, Father Doyle has travelled to the Mission on ice, a 4000 km journey, for 13 more times, always at the beginning of the austral summer; at this time of the year in fact, the number of scientists and engineers rises from 150 to 2000 at McMurdo Station.
Father Doyle has celebrated masses, provided chaplaincy services for scientists, and has supported staff and their relatives at the U.S. research base. Sometimes, he also officiated funeral rites, although no one can be buried in Antarctica because the continent does not belong to any State. Father Doyle says, “I have a sense of sadness about leaving this place, when I think back over the moments of my life spent here, over the feeling of isolation, the cold, but also the multiple shades of colour of glaciers, because white is made up of many colours”. He gladly recalls the trips from McMurdo Station to Amundsen-Scott Station, located 1360 km away, the hope for a ray of sunshine and warmer temperatures, and the masses celebrated at just a few meters from the South Pole flag, sharing, as a missionary, the gospel with the members of the community.
But who will celebrate masses at the Chapel of the Snows, after Father Doyle leaves? “A military chaplain will remain at the military base and research hub. He will serve both Catholics and Protestants”, answers Father Doyle. There will also be an Orthodox priest based at the Russian base on King George Island.
The Russian Antarctic base on King George Island
We talked with the 38-year-old Russian priest, Sophrony Kirilov, at the Trinity Church on King George Island, in the South Shetland Islands. This is the southernmost Eastern Orthodox church in the world.
The Russian priest is one of the 100 people who inhabit this area also in the winter months, when temperatures plunge to 25 degrees below zero; in the summer the place hosts 500 people. Russian priests here rotate in yearlong stints, primarily to celebrate mass for the workers on the Russian base. This is Father Kirilov’s fourth time on the white continent. “In the world there’s no tranquility and silence. But here, it’s quiet enough”, he explains to us.
The Trinity Church is a small wooden building perched precariously on a rocky hill close to the Russian Bellinghausen base. About 15-30 people live in this area: scientists and service workers. The church, which was consecrated in 2004, was first built in Russia from Siberian cedar planks treated to withstand the frosts and harsh wind and was then disassembled and shipped log-by-log to Antarctica.
In the summer, tourists and the staff of the international stations brave strong winds to hike up here. They marvel at the gold-leaf iconostasis screen of icons painted with bearded saints and winged angels in vivid colours, typical of the Russian tradition. At night the church is lit from below and becomes a beacon for ships crossing the South Sea.
On Sundays, Father Kirilov celebrates mass and reads from the Scriptures in Russian. “Thank God for this gift to us”, Kirilov says, adding that he wishes more than a handful of people would attend Sunday service. During the week the priest also works as a carpenter and mason. He painted the flowers of the door of the church to remind him of nature during the dark Antarctic winter months.
During his time off, Father Kirilov, turns into a real explorer. He uses a pair of skis to explore the island or rides around in a snowmobile. “Life is not easy in Antarctica, relatives are far away (Moscow is 16 thousand kilometers away)”, he acknowledges. However, Kirilov says, the moment he leaves, he knows he will be pining for this forbidding land. “Here, you can calmly pray to God in peace and quiet”, says the priest. “Sure, you can do it anywhere in Russia, but here, it’s special.” (T.L.)