DEARBORN, Michigan — Over 300 parishioners and students gathered around an altar sculpted from ice and snow for a unique Mass at Divine Child Elementary School in Dearborn.
Temperatures dipped into the single digits for the Feb. 21 liturgy, but by shuffling side to side and listening attentively to Father David Pellican, associate pastor of Church of the Divine Child, pray the words of consecration, the faithful had the chance to thank God for all of creation, including the ice and snow that has come in abundance this winter.
The parish’s “chapel of divine chill” took its inspiration from a similar project at Michigan Tech University in Houghton, where students and clergy annually construct a chapel of ice and snow during the school’s winter carnival.
It was the afternoon of Feb. 15, with a snowstorm in the forecast, when Pellican began discussing the snow chapel with Father Bob McCabe, pastor.
“It was Monday night, right before the snowstorm, and Father Bob and I got in the work van and drove to Home Depot,” said Pellican, who happens to know Father Tom Merkel, associate pastor of St. Albert the Great University Parish in Houghton. “We built the forms on Tuesday, started work on the chapel itself Wednesday afternoon, and finished it Saturday.”
While getting the wood for the chapel’s frames, McCabe and Pellican instructed the grounds crew to plow all the Monday evening snow in the parking lot to a specific corner to serve as the chapel’s base.
Then came the daunting task of recruiting Divine Child High School and Elementary School students to build, pack and sculpt the snow into an altar, walls and inlets for statuary and sacred items.
“We had up to 200 students volunteer to make this happen. It really is all about the manpower,” Pellican told Detroit Catholic, the archdiocesan news outlet.
Ali Myers, a senior at the high school, spent hours working on the chapel. Like her classmates, she was inspired to build something people would remember for a while. Besides, who doesn’t love playing in the snow?
“One of the things that caught my eye when I saw them post this on the school update page is that it’s like what they did at Michigan Tech,” Myers said, adding that she thought “this was a really cool project and something I’d really love to be part of.”
The effort quickly grew into a community project as parishioners and others heard about the snow chapel and wanted to get involved.
Pellican said he was outside admiring the work on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, when a passerby offered 50 candles for the project, which were placed in niches carved into the snow.
“The reaction has been very positive; everyone in the neighborhood is talking about it,” McCabe said. “People drive by and feel inspired. Someone asked if we needed a large crucifix and that came (Sunday) morning. We were looking for statuary and had this one of St. Joseph. Someone overheard our conversation and said, ‘Oh, I have the Blessed Virgin Mother.’
“This project has been a combination of faith, prayer and teamwork. The creativity has been a lot of fun. It’s been a blessing,” he said.
Volunteers kept sculpting the altar with car brushes until just before the 6 p.m. Mass. Those working on the chapel weren’t sure what the final product would look like, but were taken aback with the result.
“This is even better than I expected,” Myers said. “I knew at the beginning it was going to be really cool. Every single day we worked on it, it kept getting better and better. This is one of the highlights of my senior year, I think. Who else can say in their high school senior year, they got to build a snow chapel?”
Pellican said the makeshift chapel is dedicated to St. Joseph the Worker and Our Lady of the Snows during a homily in which he promised the chilled assembly he “wouldn’t be saving his two-hour homily for this moment.”
He likened the dedication of the snow chapel volunteers to that of the immigrants who scraped what little money they had to build the gorgeous churches that adorn the Detroit Archdiocese. He also mentioned St. Francis of Assisi, tasked by Jesus to rebuild his church, both physically and spiritually, just as the ice chapel brought the Divine Child community together for one frigid night.
“One of the things we really saw in this project was it showed people, in no uncertain terms, that there is no opposition between being religious and having a good time,” Pellican said. “When you are following Jesus, it’s an adventure, and you can have a ton of fun doing it.”
Meloy is a staff writer for Detroit Catholic, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Detroit.