„Below 40 degrees south there is no law; below 50 degrees south there is no God”, but even in the icy barren landscape of Antarctica, the explorers and scientists of past and present have found time for prayer and religion. With at least seven churches used for religious practice in Antarctica, these are the southernmost places in the world to worship.

The Christ Church Cathedral in Stanley, Falkland Islands, is considered as the southernmost cathedral in the world. Picture: Michael Wenger
The Christ Church Cathedral in Stanley, Falkland Islands, is considered as the southernmost cathedral in the world. Picture: Michael Wenger

Antarctica has various places of worship and a constant demand for religious services and construction of sacred architecture on the continent. In spite of the famous saying "below 40 degrees south there is no law; below 50 degrees south there is no God" the exploration of the continent was in fact closely connected to religious activities with contributions from many adherents (e.g. Jesuit geophysicists). Some of the early religious buildings are now protected as important historical monuments.

The first official nod to Christianity in Antarctica came from Captain Aeneas Mackintosh, who erected a large memorial cross on Wind Vane Hill on Cape Evans in honour of three members of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition party who died in 1916. There are currently nearly 90 science stations in Antarctica, half of which are only used in summer months, when the days are long. Most research stations have a small multipurpose room that serves as an ad hoc chapel. However, several bases and settlements have their own dedicated chapels

1. Chapel of the Snows (Ross Island, Ross Sea)

The Chapel of the Snows is located at McMurdo Science Station on Ross Island and was constructed in 1956. The chapel was rebuilt after a fire in 1978 and was re-consecrated in 1989. It later opened its doors to Protestants, Mormons, Bahais and Buddhists so that they might conduct their own services. The chapel serves 200 researchers and support personnel on the American base, but it can host up to 1,000 visitors. It contains a stained-glass window depicting Antarctica.

The interior of the Chapel of the Snows on Ross Island with the stained glass window featuring Antarctica (Photo: Tsy1980, wikipedia)
The interior of the Chapel of the Snows on Ross Island with the stained glass window featuring Antarctica (Photo: Tsy1980, wikipedia)

2. Trinity Church (Bellingshausen, King George Island)

This Russian Orthodox chapel warmly at the Russian base Bellinghausen also welcomes Catholics to celebrate Mass there. The quaint structure is made of pressurized Siberian pine treated to withstand the sub-zero temperatures of the Antarctic continent. There is room for 30 worshippers. Two Russian monks man this remote chapel, committing to a year’s service. Defying the destructive power of the polar winds, the wooden structure with Russian carvings stands 15 meters tall, and Mass is generally celebrated in either Spanish or English.

Picture by Katja Riedel
Picture by Katja Riedel

3. San Francisco de Assisi Chapel (Hope Bay, Antarctic Peninsula)

A chapel dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi is appropriately located at Esperanza (Spanish for “hope”) Station in Antarctica’s Hope Bay. This is one of Argentina’s 13 research bases in Antarctica. Catholic babies are routinely baptized here.

Picture by Katja Riedel
Picture by Katja Riedel

4. Chilean Chapel of Santa Maria Reina de la Paz (Villa Las Estrellas, South Shetland Islands)

This humble and utilitarian church was originally made out of repurposed shipping containers stacked side by side which could fit up to 36 congregants. The local population, aside from the penguins, can be up to 120 people. In the settlement Villa las Estrellas (Spanish: “The Village of Stars”), it’s not uncommon for personnel of the Chilean military base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva, to bring their families, with children, to live on the base on King George Island for up to two years at a time, necessitating religious services and catechetical instruction.

The renovated chapel of the Chilenean Base Antartica President Eduardo Frei Montalva on King George Island. (Photo: Carlos78chile, Wikipedia)
The renovated chapel of the Chilenean Base Antartica President Eduardo Frei Montalva on King George Island. (Photo: Carlos78chile, Wikipedia)

5. Chapel of the Santisima Virgen de Lujan (Marambio Base, Seymour Island)

The Chapel of the Most Holy Virgin is a Roman Catholic chapel and serves Argentina’s permanent, year-round base Marambio on Seymour-Marambio Island. The permanent steel-structured chapel features a bell tower and cross.

6. The Ice Cave Catholic Chapel (Belgrano II Base, Coats Land)

This cave church with walls made of ice is the southernmost place of worship of any religion in the world. It is the permanent Catholic church for the all-year round Argentinian base and scientific research station founded in 1955 on Coats Island. As a result of its latitude, both day and night here are four months long and the night sky often displays the aurora australis.

Inside the ice cave chapel at Belgrano stations of the cross are encrusted with ice crystals (Photo: histarmar.com.ar)
Inside the ice cave chapel at Belgrano stations of the cross are encrusted with ice crystals (Photo: histarmar.com.ar)

7. St. Ivan Rilski Chapel (Livingston Island, South Shetland Islands)

Hugged by the surrounding wall of snow, this is the Orthodox church of the Bulgarian base St. Kliment Ohridski, founded in 1988 by a four-member Bulgarian team. Despite looking pretty basic, it comes complete with a chapel bell that was donated by the ex-Vice Premier of Bulgaria who worked as a doctor at the Bulgarian base in the 1993/94 season.

8. St Volodymyr (Vernadsky Base, Antarctic Peninsula)

In 2010/11 a small orthodox chapel St Volodymyr (Vladimir the Great) was erected at Ukrainian Vernadsky Research Base. The chapel was named the Grand Prince St. Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles and contains an icon of the Saint Nicholas.

9. Norwegian Lutheran Church (Grytviken, South Georgia)

This Neo-Gothic church was built in 1913 for the whaling station in Grytviken, a settlement in South Georgia. Erected by the whalers themselves and nicknamed “Whaler’s church”, it is the only building in Grytviken which has retained its original purpose since the now abandoned station closed in 1966. After years of abandonment it was renovated in 1996–1998 and now serves for occasional church services and marriage ceremonies.

The interior of the whaler’s church in Grytviken South Georgia (Photo: Katja Riedel)
The interior of the whaler’s church in Grytviken South Georgia (Photo: Katja Riedel)

An interesting point is the involvement of Muslims—while the Pakistan program at Jinnah Antarctic Station brought Muslims to Antarctica, there are no mosques on the continent or on any of the outlying islands. Muslims within the Antarctic Circle have to come up with new rules, for example during Ramadan. According to Islamic law the keeping and breaking of a fast is related to times of sunrise and sunset which do not occur during polar day and night. Source: Angelo Stagnaro, National Catholic Register