Come stormy weather or a global pandemic, reliance on God and religious community remains strong, as students at Michigan Technological University already know.
According to WLUC-TV, campus community members attended mass on Feb. 6 inside an ice chapel the students had constructed as part of a statue competition during the university’s annual Winter Carnival. The carnival is known for its snow sculptures as well as outdoor games and relationship-building activities.
The ice masses have been a Christian student tradition of the Winter Carnival and, for six consecutive years, have helped create a sense of togetherness on campus through a shared appreciation of worship.
To Father Ben Hasse, the director of the St. Albert the Great Catholic campus ministry at MTU, the sense of fellowship that comes from constructing the ice chapel is not limited to the students. The priest noted that the Catholic ice masses are also a “point of contact” with students’ parents, campus visitors and the broader community, serving as an excellent opportunity for evangelism.
In the end, however, the people who benefit the most from the snowy project are the students.
“The place where the impact on the students really happens is in the building of the chapel because, you know, when you’re working together side by side with somebody, it’s really easy to strike up a conversation,” Hasse told The Western Journal. “So typically there will be a bunch of students who maybe I don’t recognize, who I get to know as the pastor.
“But then I see the same thing happening, I see our students meeting each other and talking to each other. And our students who lead Bible studies, right? They’ll invite people they met during the builds to those Bible studies. Or, you know, sometimes we’ll even see, you know, folks maybe beginning to date, right? Who met and got to know each other better at the ice chapel.”
One of the student leaders behind the project, Meredith Grusnik, also attested to the teamwork required to build the structure. To Grusnik, the chapel is more than just the physical effort it takes to construct it, and it carries a far deeper significance.
“At the very end, my favorite part, personally, is the creative effort that goes into it,” Grusnik told The Western Journal. “Because it kind of takes the snow from everywhere and makes it into something creative.”
She added, “I think it is a great example of humanity and making the best out of what you’re given. That’s kind of always the joke, I think, at the Winter Carnival as a whole for Michigan Tech, is what engineers do with free time and a lot of snow. So the ice chapel is what the St. Al’s community does with free time, lots of snow and the desire to show their faith to the community.”
While the campus church had participated in the carnival’s statue competition, the ice chapel idea did not come about until Christmas break in 2016, after a student’s mom sent Hasse an article about ice churches in Europe.
Though Hasse said those in the ministry thought it sounded fun, they did not expect to see more than the usual number of attendees who came to their Friday Night Fireside Fellowship, a weekly worship event held inside the campus church.
Little did they know, what started as a mere idea would soon snowball into something larger.
Not long after the first MTU ice chapel’s construction started, Hasse heard from multiple students who wanted to participate or were planning to attend with their visiting parents. Students working on the project were also stopped in residence halls and asked about the event’s location and whether attendees could bring guests.
“It became apparent even before we had the mass in the ice chapel during Winter Carnival that this thing had legs, like, it had traction with people’s imagination,” Hasse said. “So we had 140 show up that first year and, you know, we were expecting 30, you know. And so then we went to 280 the following year.”
The campus ministry director said that the number of attendees has reached the “300 to 500 range.” Last year, Hasse said, three ice masses held at the end of the Winter Carnival drew between 400 and 500 people.
“So we kind of jokingly say that St. Al’s puts the Catholic in Winter Carnival. So it’s kind of a chance to express, you know, our Catholic faith in this kind of creative and fun way kind of in the midst of this bigger kind of community celebration,” Hasse said.
As the nation continues to cope with the ongoing pandemic and subsequent lockdown restrictions, many have turned to faithful gatherings like this to help weather the storm. People have struggled with isolation and mental health concerns across the country, but through it all, religious celebrations have been there to cultivate connections through rituals.
“I think it shows that, through God’s grace, we are able to have these events. … We can go outside the boundaries here to have mass outside and receive the Eucharist in a unique way and provide a sense of community,” student leader Tanner Sheahan told The Western Journal.
By safely continuing the tradition, fellow student leader Devon VanOrder said, both the mass and the chapel’s construction provided people with a “comforting piece of normalcy.”
“It is a great way to kind of, in a lot of ways, get that social contact, and like that high-quality social contact as well,” VanOrder told The Western Journal. “You know, you’re not just seeing people, but you’re out taking part in something together. It’s just, I think it’s a much deeper connection than certainly we’ve seen this year.”
Another student leader responsible for the ice chapel project, Abby Bevilacqua, expounded on this point, saying the ice chapel serves as a “shout” to the need people have for “religion and community.”
“We’re able to build with our own hands and our feet this beautiful, magnificent ice chapel that we’re able to worship in,” she said. “And as outsiders, maybe, to the Catholic Church or just to Christianity in general, it’s kind of a sign of, hey, like, this, religion is still here, right? Religion is still effective in our culture.”
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