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 CNS Story:

ANTARCTICA Nov-1-2006 (710 words) With photos. xxxn

God's wonders, diverse community greet priest working in Antarctica

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As Father John Harrison prepared to make his fifth trip to the South Pole in late October, he couldn't help but think about his earlier visits.

"When you fly into the South Pole, you realize that nearly all you're looking at no human being has ever set foot on," the New Zealand priest said in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service from Antarctica. "It's a real reflective time, when you can't help but focus on God and creation."

Father Harrison, a priest of the Diocese of Dunedin, New Zealand, is in his fifth year as a chaplain at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, where 1,000 people or more work each year on National Science Foundation projects or in support services for the researchers.

Catholic priests and Protestant military chaplains -- each staying for four or five weeks -- serve at McMurdo during Antarctica's summer season from October to February. During the winter season, when it is impossible to fly in or out of the continent, specially trained lay ministers conduct services for the approximately 250 people who remain there.

At the Chapel of the Snows, the southernmost church building in the world, Father Harrison celebrates Mass daily for a congregation that comes from throughout the United States and from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances.

"They come here from a huge diversity of areas, from whole different cultural backgrounds and different styles of parishes," Father Harrison said. "But their unity comes in Christ."

Ranging in age from the early 20s to the late 60s, those at McMurdo also experience many of the same problems -- work pressures, loneliness, anxiety about family members left at home. When he is not celebrating Mass, Father Harrison spends a lot of time out in the workplace to ensure that people know he is available for counseling.

He also conducts Bible study classes and trains lay leaders to preside over the Liturgy of the Word each Sunday during the winter.

Father Harrison has not performed any baptisms in Antarctica but he said "some people start on that journey" while working at McMurdo and join classes for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults after their return to the United States.

Chaplains have been working in Antarctica since 1955, when U.S. Navy chaplains served there. Now the appointment of Catholic chaplains is coordinated by the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch, New Zealand, while the Protestant chaplains are appointed by the Air National Guard Chaplain Service.

This year Father Harrison worked with the Rev. Bill Yates, a Lutheran minister from Indiana and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air National Guard.

The current Chapel of the Snows was built in 1989 to replace a building destroyed by fire in 1978. During summer seasons since 1987, it has housed the historic Erebus chalice, which Lt. (later Admiral) Edward J. Bird carried on an 1841 expedition aboard the HMS Erebus to what is now called the Ross Sea.

In the winter, the chalice is on display at Christ Church Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand. Each summer following a special ceremony at the cathedral it is returned to "the Ice."

Father Harrison, ordained in 1971, said his service in Antarctica arose from an interest in aircraft, such as the ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules planes that bring people and cargo to McMurdo. He contacted the coordinator of the chaplains' program in the Diocese of Christchurch, and when a priest dropped out for the 2001-02 season, Father Harrison stepped in.

His younger brother, Father Tony Harrison, also is a priest of the Dunedin Diocese and has served as a chaplain in Antarctica, "but we've never been on the Ice at the same time," Father John Harrison said.

In addition to his service at McMurdo, each chaplain travels for one or two days during his tour to the South Pole, to bring the Eucharist and a listening ear to the small contingent stationed there.

But this year a weather glitch was delaying Father Harrison's visit.

"It's minus 55 degrees Celsius (minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit) at the Pole," the priest said, "and the aircraft need to operate at a minimum of 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit)."


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