‘Inspiring’ eucharist held in Antarctica

31 May 2019

Chaplain to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition in 1914 arranged an altar

Gaze collection, Canterbury Museum

Spencer Smith’s communion table in the darkroom at Cape Evans, Antarctica

Spencer Smith’s communion table in the darkroom at Cape Evans, Antarctica

DETAILS of what is thought to be the most southerly BCP eucharist ever held have emerged, with details of services held at Cape Evans, in Antarctica, by the chaplain to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition in 1914.

The chaplain, the Revd Arnold Spencer-Smith, was, according to his epitaph, the first clergyman to land in Antarctica, the first to celebrate the eucharist there, and the first to die and be buried there.

Reports in the Church Times last year of a eucharist in a restored whalers’ church in South Georgia, close to Antarctica (News, 11 May 2018), reached the Vicar of All Saints’, Dunedin, New Zealand, Canon Michael Wallace. His church owns the chalice and paten used by Spencer-Smith, who was chaplain and also photographer for the Ross Sea party of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition from 1914 until his death in 1916.

Shackleton’s plan was to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. The Ross Sea party’s task was to lay supply depots from the Ross Sea to the South Pole.

Spencer-Smith joined the expedition just days after his ordination. He and the rest of his team suffered terrible conditions, but, Canon Wallace said, “Spencer-Smith established a chapel in the darkroom in Scott’s hut at Cape Evans, where he celebrated the eucharist.

“He arranged an altar with cross and candlesticks, a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and an aumbry — with a lamp he made from wire — where he reserved the Blessed Sacrament. In his diaries, Spencer-Smith records each time he celebrated the eucharist, and how many were present. He also records when he heard confession.”

He collapsed of scurvy and died in March 1916, aged 32.

“Spencer-Smith’s story is tragic, inspiring, and worthy of remembrance. He was a loving presence in the face of adversity who lived out his priesthood in terrible conditions,” Canon Wallace said.

On the 103rd anniversary of his death this year, a memorial service was held in All Saints’, Dunedin, which is now fund-raising to put in a stained-glass window as a permanent memorial to Spencer-Smith.

To contribute funds to the project, email vicar@allsaintsdn.org.nz.

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