Our Lady of the Snows’ annual ice chapel project of St. Albert the Great University Parish at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan, can be seen during an evening Mass. The Diocese of Superior’s Fr. Patrick McConnell, pastor in Medford, visited to concelebrate Mass with former seminary classmate Fr. Ben Hasse, St. Albert’s pastor. More photos can be viewed on the St. Albert the Great Catholic Campus Ministry Facebook page and their website at mtucatholic.org. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

When Jay Czerniak, a 2018 graduate of Medford High School, decided on Michigan Tech as his university of choice, spending all night chipping away at frozen snow to build an ice chapel was not among his top 10 reasons for heading to Houghton in Upper Michigan’s Keewenaw Peninsula.

It was more of a career-oriented move, knowing that a diploma from such a “great engineering school” would be a financial asset for the future. Czerniak was also cognizant of feeling drawn to the familiar feels of a smaller community surrounded by natural beauty and an abundance of outdoor activity.

The new college student did attend Mass regularly on Sundays, but it was some “awakening moments” that brought him into direct contact with Fr. Ben Hasse, pastor of the university’s Catholic parish, St. Albert the Great.

Unlike many university campus ministry programs, Catholic students at Michigan Technological University belong to an actual parish. What originally started as a Newman Club in the 1940s and transitioned to a Newman Center later became a canonical parish, with St. Albert’s Church being consecrated in 1964.

Fr. Ben Hasse, a U.P. native from the Iron Mountain area, was appointed to St. Albert’s in 2013. He noted the university parish is actually a common structure nationwide.

His parish is not geographic or territorial; rather, it’s a personal parish. Historically, personal parishes would have served specific ethnic groups in a region, but in his case, Fr. Hasse’s pastoral charge, along with his associate pastor Fr. Tom Merkel and other staff, is the care of the students, faculty and staff of Michigan Tech.

From Czerniak’s first encounter with his university pastor, he learned about one program he values beyond its financial benefit – the chapel rats. After an application and acceptance process, he became one of six young men who live on the church campus. In exchange for 12 hours of work around the building and grounds weekly, the students get free room and board.

“An awesome program,” Czerniak exclaimed, and one that ties in with another aspect of university life he didn’t know existed on secular campuses – intentional living communities.

These small groups of students commit to regular prayer and meals together in mutual support and encouragement in the living of their faith. Czerniak estimated there were approximately 50 students engaged in either men’s or women’s intentional living communities.

Beyond this greater level of involvement, he said that on a campus of 7,000 – 5,000 undergraduate and 2,000 graduate students – there are more than 100 participating in regular Bible studies and just as many gathering for Friday Night Fireside Fellowship.

The parish sponsors a variety of faith formation and spiritual enrichment opportunities with the natural environment often as a backdrop for encountering God and healthy activities.

Czerniak hears people bemoaning the loss of faith among those in college.

“Quite frankly,” he said, “I really don’t see that.”

What he sees are people searching. He admits it might not be expected on the campus of a technological school known for its rigorous academics, where science is king.

“Dealing with a bunch of engineers, trained to look at the world in a certain way – very analytical and fact-based,” Czerniak commented, he sees that “it leads to only one conclusion. That God exists.”

For the fourth-year student, Michigan Tech and the Houghton area are the ideal location to see God’s intentional design all around, and he is not the only one drawn closer to God while attending the school.

He noted that Michigan Tech has also made a name for itself as a seedbed for vocations. There are nine students he knows of who are actively discerning and in early formation for religious orders or the seminary.

Czerniak himself, invited by one of St. Albert’s priests to start a Knights of Columbus college council, put the school on the map by winning the outstanding college council award from the KCs in 2019. Even more notable was that it was the council’s first year of existence.

The annual ice chapel undertaking, held in conjunction with the school’s Winter Carnival, has now brought international attention to the Catholic parish and students of the Michigan Tech community.

While the early February festival will celebrate its centennial in 2022, Fr. Hasse’s first Winter Carnival was in 2014. There are a variety of events and activities, but the snow sculpture competitions are highlights.

Fr. Hasse said a lot of the student organizations get started right after Christmas break on the month-long competition. There is also an all-nighter snow sculpture contest.

In 2015, St. Albert’s participated in the all-nighter snow sculpture competition and took a surprising first place for their replica of St. Peter’s Basilica titled “There’s Snow Place like Rome.”

“Everyone was very excited,” the university pastor said and acknowledged it was an opportunity for publicity for the parish and their student outreach. The win provided the occasion to seriously consider an idea that had been presented to Fr. Hasse based on ice chapels built in Northern Europe.

Using the sculpting skills and adapting techniques used for the all-nighter sculptures, St. Albert’s members started building their ice chapel in the month leading up with carnival.

“It was a lot of fun and hard work,” Fr. Hasse said, and he recounted how students were mentioning that their parents were planning to come see the work and interest was growing among non-Catholic students on campus as well.
“Students were tracking down the Catholics for an invitation to the ice Mass,” Fr. Hasse added.

He realized they had something to work with, although he admits not having any “clear vision” about what it would turn into. He remembers about 140 attendees the first year, the number doubling the second and then having close to 500 persons at the more recent ice Masses.

“After that first year, it became apparent that this was capturing people’s imagination and it was a great way to do something unique and very, very Catholic in the midst of Winter Carnival,” he said.

To work with coronavirus restrictions for 2021, ice benches were added to space people out and more Masses were added. Even with the freezing below-zero temperatures, upwards of 250 people showed up.

Medford pastor Fr. Patrick McConnell, a former classmate of Fr. Hasse’s at Mundelein Seminary and now good friend of Jay Czerniak, made the trip to Houghton with his warmest hat and coat to concelebrate one of the ice Masses.

This year’s ice chapel also featured an altar constructed with three very large slabs of ice cut out of Lake Superior, a raised, covered pulpit from which readings were read, and stained ice windows lit from behind by candles.

“There are a lot of hopes on campus,” Czerniak concluded, referring to the comeback and solidification of the Catholic faith among students.

“Having to stand up for your faith in an antagonistic environment helps you make it your own,” he added.

The Medford native will graduate with his bachelor’s degree in December, but he will return to campus as a graduate student in the business administration program.