Timaru priest reflects on Antarctic posting

19:33, Dec 10 2013
father brian fennessy
WHITE EXPANSE: Timaru Holy Family priest Father Brian Fennessy, who has returned from a five-week stay in Antarctica, checks out photos from the trip - including this one of him at explorer Robert Falcon Scott's memorial.

Though it was 17 degrees Celsius below zero outside at times, a Timaru priest performed mass, prayed and listened to confessions in Antarctica.

Father Brian Fennessy volunteered to spend five weeks at McMurdo Station as one of the five Catholic priests who work there on a roster over the summer season. He returned on Thursday.

The low temperatures were not so bad, it was the wind chill of minus 30 degrees Celsius which really bit, he said.

"By the time I left it had improved to -1C, with a wind chill of -15C."

He could walk from the United States research centre, McMurdo, over a saddle to Scott Base, which took about 45 minutes.

It was walking in the footsteps of the great explorers which really appealed to Father Brian during his time off. There were no penguins but he did see Weddell seals.


The well-travelled priest has visited Antarctica twice before, in 2005 and 2007.

"There were fewer people at McMurdo this year than last time because of the global financial situation. Last time there were 1000 people; this time there were 550 when I arrived [at the end of October] and 800 when I left," he said.

Science projects undertaken in Antarctica are marine, atmospheric, and geological. The infrastructure to support the scientists accounts for the majority of personnel, about 40 of whom are Kiwis.

Father Brian said he missed colour and greenery but the benefits were no flies or hayfever irritants on the huge white expanse of ice on Ross Island, where McMurdo is located, and its surrounds.

There is also no sound. With no landmarks and the earth flatter at that point, the horizon is further away than it looks.

Over the summer months it is light 24 hours a day.

"It's weird with the sun shining at 10.30pm," he said.

He was invited by the NZ Antarctic programme to say prayers at a memorial service to mark 34 years since the Mt Erebus plane crash, which killed all 257 on board, and said prayers at Armistice and Veterans' Day services.

As well as presiding over mass in the non-denominational chapel at McMurdo, Father Brian heard confessions and shared his faith in discussions at ecumenical sessions with Protestant ministers there.

He found ice core samples gathered by scientists, which contain preserved water from 2000 years ago, quite remarkable.

"People are drinking the water from snow that fell in the days of Jesus," Father Brian said.

The Timaru Herald