Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., saying Mass for personnel of the South Pole Station in Antarctica,
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives

Memorable Masses

Father Hesburgh believed celebrating Mass to be the most important part of his priestly duties, and the greatest gift he could offer. As a result of this commitment, through the course of his life, Father Hesburgh offered Mass in a number of interesting and unusual places. He once mentioned that he could write a book about all of the places he had said Mass. The following are a few stories he shared in God, Country, Notre Dame.

In Transit

As a young priest, in the summer of 1948, Father Hesburgh was given the opportunity to spend six weeks on a naval ship (R.O.T.C. aviation cruise) in the Pacific, where he would study and report on the naval aviation education of midshipmen, and assist as a chaplain. While traveling across country on the Southern Pacific Railroad, to board a ship in Alameda, California, Father Hesburgh had to brainstorm about how to say Mass, because he had a seat on the train's lower level with very little room. A Catholic couple came up to him while he was sitting in the train's club car and introduced themselves. They were traveling to Arizona with their two children and were staying in a state room. Before long, Father Hesburgh was set to celebrate Mass with them the next morning in their (relatively) spacious accommodations.

After Mass and breakfast, and seeing the family off, Father Hesburgh began to plan for the next day. He asked a conductor, who happened to be Catholic, if he could use the club car before it opened at six o'clock the next morning. The conductor woke him up early the next day and attended Mass in the empty car. As Father Hesburgh turned to give the final blessing, another conductor opened the door. Father Hesburgh recalled, "He looked at me as I gave the sign of the cross over him, and I thought he was going to drop right in his tracks. He didn't even come and challenge me, he just turned around and made a retreat out of the club car. And I quickly put my stuff back in the box and got out of there too."

During a layover in Rome, while on his way to Jerusalem, Father Hesburgh had about thirty minutes to spare. Unable to get to a church nearby, he raced to the service desk of a hotel in the airport. After explaining his situation, he received a key from the woman at the desk and quickly offered Mass. When he returned the key and asked how much he owed, the woman replied that he didn't owe anything. She added, "'You have sanctified my hotel.'" Father Hesburgh recalled, "I told her that I hoped one Mass would do it, thanked her, and hurried off to catch my plane."

In July of 1959, Father Hesburgh was traveling with his friend C. R. Smith and had a stop in Dallas, Texas, at 4:30 a.m. Father Hesburgh remembered asking an American Airlines employee for an empty office to say Mass. Father Hesburgh recounted an exchange with another airport employee while offering Mass there.

Just as I finished the ceremony, still dressed in my white robe, with my altar candles flickering in the dark, I was startled to see a bewildered baggage handler staring at me from the other side of the huge picture window.

"What are you doing there?" he called out.

"I'm offering Mass."

"Who for?"

"For the whole world."

That seemed to satisfy him, and he got back on his baggage tractor and left.

"Trying Circumstances"

One March day in Baltimore, Maryland, Father Hesburgh gave two lectures at Johns Hopkins University. That evening, he had dinner with Milton Eisenhower, then president of Johns Hopkins. An unexpected snowstorm hit the city, so Father Hesburgh couldn't make his flight that evening and was stuck at his friend's house for the night. He recalled in an interview, "You wouldn't believe it, but in an hour there was no way to get out of his house."

In this circumstance, since it was supposed to be a short trip to Baltimore, Father Hesburgh was unprepared to offer Mass the next morning. Milton lent him his tall fishing boots and long stadium coat, along with directions to a nearby chapel at Loyola University Maryland. After trudging a mile and a half through deep snow, Father Hesburgh arrived at the chapel at 7:00 in the morning, offered Mass, and then, made his way back to his friend's house.

In 1963, when Father Hesburgh was on the National Science Board, he traveled to Antarctica with a group of scientists and explorers who were fellow board members. The morning after arriving at the U.S. research center, McMurdo Station, he bundled up in thick layers and a parka and flew in a helicopter to an icebreaker 60 miles out at sea. The ship's captain refused to slow his operations for a priest to board, so the pilot had to carefully land on a moving icebreaker, which was charging at full speed to cut through ice that was 16 feet thick. When aboard, Father Hesburgh heard confessions, offered Mass, and had breakfast with the crew before taking off again by helicopter.

Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., saying Mass for personnel of the South Pole Station in Antarctica,
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.


Shortly after returning to the station, he was flown to the South Pole. While landing, the plane hit an icy spike on the runway and nearly crashed, but thankfully the pilot was able to regain control. After walking a mile to the South Pole, Father Hesburgh returned to the station to hear confessions in a closet and offer Mass on a surgical table, which functioned as a makeshift altar in the tight quarters. After a few hours of sleep, Father Hesburgh said a blessing back at the South Pole in 34 degrees below zero. He recalled, "I pushed back the hood of my parka and said what must have been the shortest prayer on record. Most of the others present wisely left their hoods on." He then flew 800 miles to Byrd Station, to say Mass for the third time in 24 hours. He considered it a "record for the most Masses said in the shortest period of time, and under the most trying circumstances."

Father Hesburgh celebrated Mass in numerous places all over the world, with people of various backgrounds. He reflected in his autobiography, "Increasingly as the years have gone by, the more Masses I offer, the more evidence I see that this ancient rite has the power to change people, to change the world." Over the course of his seventy-two years as a priest, he undoubtedly had many more stories to share. To Father Hesburgh, though, this commitment was less about being able to tell fascinating tales, and more about serving God and allowing others to experience the Holy Spirit and the graces of the sacrament.

Mass in Antarctica

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh's Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about his trip to Antarctica, during which he offered three Masses in one day


This particular Sunday morning, I could put it in the Guinness Book of Records, as the most religious activity of a priest on Sunday on record-although somebody is bound to come up and beat it, I'm sure. But this would be a little unusual. Sunday morning I get up about seven-six. It takes a good time to dress, because you have all these different kinds of clothing to get on. I took my Mass kit and ran down the helio pad and got in a copter and flew sixty miles across Ross Island and Mount Arabis and the other mount with smoky volcanoes past Crozier Point where all the penguins are, the big penguin colony, also over the hut where Scott lived back in 1910, way out to sea, where we finally came to the Glacier, which was the largest icebreaker of the U.S. Navy, which was breaking a hole through the ice and behind it two tankers, supply ships, bringing in our oil for the next year. The captain was sore because I was coming out to say Mass and he thought it was interfering with his routine, so he didn't even slow down the ship. We had to come in and land while he was roaring down this passageway to run the ship right up on the ice. And on the way the ship would break off a few feet of ice, and we'd back up a thousand feet and do it again. These big chunks of ice sixteen feet thick were rolling around, and the ship was rolling around, and if we missed that deck we were dead, because we'd go in the water, which is very, very cold.

Well, we landed okay in the helicopter, and I was met by a young officer who had called me saying they hadn't had a priest aboard in six weeks, since they left Quonset Point, Rhode Island, with supplies. It's very rough on an ice breaker. It rolls like an egg shell. Anyway, I went to his cabin and sat there for an hour hearing confessions, then went down to the ward room and had Mass, gave them a sermon, and handed out some rosaries I had and some Notre Dame medals that I luckily was carrying in my Mass kit, then had a quick breakfast and went back on the helicopter. And again the captain wouldn't stop the ship, so we had to take up full flight, and flew sixty miles again back to McMurdo Sound to the helio pad there, and went in and had a dinner there with these Japanese scientists who were talking about building a research station on the other end of the Antarctic.


Larry and I were flying to the pole together this afternoon. He never had been there. He had been to the Antarctic four times and had never been to the pole. So he was in high spirits when we took off about three o'clock in a C-130. We were up in the cockpit where we could see everything. First we flew over to the opening of the Beardmore Glacier, and then we went up the Beardmore Glacier, a spectacular sight, knowing that that's the one Scott had to go. Then we went over twenty miles or so to the Shackleton Glacier and took a quick look around it, because we had a geology party that hadn't checked in in twenty days, and they were supposed to check in every day. Their radio was probably out, but they were worried about them. But we couldn't see anything on the ground. It's pretty hard, because everything is so bright and shiny and icy. Then we turned around and went to the pole.

At the pole they had a ten-thousand-foot runway with oil drums every 100 yards or so-you could pick them up on radar-and you land between them. And they go out occasionally with a bulldozer and try to cut down the sastrugi. Sastrugi is a Russian word for these kind of spikes, so when the wind blows it blows up what looks like swords almost coming out of the ground. When we came in to land we hit one of those and it threw us in the air sideways, and I thought we were going to crash-land sideways, but our very cool Commander, Everett, who was flying our airplane, had his hand on the four throttles, and as the plane veered to the left and almost all the way around he poured it on the right, cut to the left with the left hand engines with his hand on the whole four throttles, cut with the same motion put the power on the left hand throttles, which forced us right around to face down that runway straight again. Then he cut it there, stabilized all four engines and dropped it in, and we didn't crash land and spin over. I was standing right behind him when all this was happening-it was a beautiful feat of airmanship. And when we finally rolled to a stop alongside of a big rubber bladder full of fuel-because they don't ever shut the engines off; they'd never get them started again-he had to fly right back and was coming back for us the next day. I went back to see what was coming off the airplane, and the first thing that came off was a ton and a half of T.N.T. that they were bringing up there for seismic ... . And if we had winged over, that would have been the end of Hesburgh-and everybody else-we had two admirals aboard.

We were still on the same Sunday. Larry, as we got off the plane, said, "Gee, I've never seen the pole, and it's almost like a religious pilgrimage for me. Let's you and I walk to the pole. I know where it is; it's about a mile away." So he and I trudged off into the whiteness together. They had one flagpole there with guide wires on it. We did what everybody does: we walked around the world in one minute by going around the guide wires, going through 360 degrees. He took my picture at the pole, and I took his picture at the pole. Then we walked back. We had a moment of prayer and walked back. Then when I got to the hut-it was at that point, they have a new one now, but at that point it was underground. What they had literally was three great big ice boxes-mammoth, like we have in the dining hall. What they did, they lived in the ice boxes, because they were well insulated and they were underground twenty to thirty feet, and they kept the cold out. You opened up this big ice-box door and stepped into this place. They had three of them, and they were very tight. One was for sleeping, one was for eating and cooking, and they had one toilet in the whole place and that was in one of them. The third one was for laboratories and other kinds of things-operating room, radio room. So I asked the commander there-well, actually he was a full lieutenant, Navy, doctor. And I said, "Do you have a P.A. kind of thing?" And he said, "Yeah." And I said, "Why don't you put it while I'm here and I'll ... since it's Sunday, I'll have Mass, for anybody who wants to go to Mass. But I have to find a place." He said, "Well, look around and you can have any place you want."

Well, you couldn't have it in the dining room because that was operating twenty-four hours a day. It's light outside all the time, so people are coming and going at all hours picking up a meal. There was a short-order chef on duty. It was a very noisy place, so it was kind of a recreation room too. So I looked over all the places. The middle place everybody was sleeping. There was a little library attached, and I was going to sleep there that night. You only got four hours sleep. You had four hours on then you had to get out of bed, because they only had enough beds to turn over. You slept with all your clothes on. You took off the big heavy outside stuff. But on the operating table I found was the only place I could say Mass. I heard confessions first, in a little storeroom, which was about the size of a small closet. The first guy came in and started saying, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." I said, "Look, right next door they're broadcasting, so unless you want to confess to the world, you'd better calm it down a bit to a whisper." Because literally the guy was right through a cardboard partition between us broadcasting on a short-wave radio. So I heard the confessions and I went out and said Mass. Larry came to Mass. I gave them a little sermon. We went in and had a bite to eat. The Antarctic is the only place in the world the Navy can give you a drink, so the admiral invited us in for a drink. And then we got our four hours sleep.

Then the next morning, which is hard to tell because it's light all the time, anyway, we marched out to the pole, and there we had the change of command from Admiral Tyree to Admiral Reedy. I said the shortest prayer on record. When I put my parka back, I really separated the men from the boys, because not many people uncovered, since it was thirty-four below zero and really a high wind. I gave a very short prayer, and then we marched back. Then we got on the plane, it was still Sunday I think, although it's hard to tell what time is what or what day is what, because at the pole if you walk to the other side of the pole, it's another day, technically.

So, here was Sunday, and I already had the first Mass sixty miles out to sea on an icebreaker, the second Mass at the pole; then we immediately got on this plane and went to the Byrd station, which was eight-hundred miles in another direction, and I had a third Mass there for the crew. One of them just brought in news that he had a new child, so we had a big celebration. And we had a third Mass there. Larry said, "For a Lutheran I'm doing pretty well: two Masses so far this Sunday, and I'd [have] had three if I had gone to the Glacier with you," you know, on that icebreaker."

Then when we finished that, the plane had to keep turning its engines over, so we picked up some fuel and went back to McMurdo Sound and back to the logistics station at Williams Field. I thought to myself, that's a pretty full Sunday, almost twenty-four hours with four hours sleep, with three Masses-one out at sea, one at the pole, and one at the other end of the Antarctic on this Byrd Station-three sermons, a lot of confessions and everything else. But I thought, there, probably that might make the Guinness book of the busiest Sunday for Masses at different geographical spots.




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