Antarctica is losing its only Catholic priest

Catholic priests will no longer be stationed at the Chapel of the Snows.

The romantically-named Chapel of the Snows in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, has provided services and chaplaincy for research staff for more than 50 years. Now, though, staff cutbacks and declining attendance at services mean that Roman Catholics will no longer be part of it.

Radio New Zealand has reported that there is no longer a need for a Catholic priest at the remote outpost and that the National Science Foundation, which runs the research facility, has asked the New Zealand diocese to terminate its association with the project.

There will still be a military chaplain at the base. However, Fr Dan Doyle, co-ordinator of the Catholic Church in Antarctica, said: "There is a gradual decrease in religiosity, there is also a decrease in the number of people working at McMurdo Station and the South Pole and budget cuts, so all of these factors have led to the decision that only one chaplain is necessary."

The number working at the base in the summer months has dropped from around 2,000 10 years ago to only 1,200 today.

Father Doyle said when he first became a priest it was a dream of his to go to Antarctica.

"It was great experience providing the ministry to the end of the earth.

"We used to fly to the South Pole for a day or two and we would go to the out-stations, I got to look at glaciers and historic huts.

"When the divers were working I would be their spotter standing on the ice, there have been plenty of times I have had to count penguins."

It's not quite true to say that the Church has abandoned Antarctica, however. There are several chapels on sub-Antarctic islands, many research stations have a dedicated room – sometimes a converted shipping container – for religious purposes, and there are plans to build a Catholic chapel at the Italian Mario Zucchelli Station in Terra Nova Bay.

The southernmost chapel in the world is a Catholic chapel at the Argentine Belgrano II base in Coats Land. It is made entirely of ice.