Polar priest: the church in the world’s northernmost town – a photo essay

Located in the Svalbard archipelago in Norway, Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost settlement. Here, winter temperatures range from -13 to -20C and inhabitants are prepared for two and half months of complete darkness in winter, the constant danger of polar bears, and avalanches.

In this extreme environment, one priest has dedicated herself to assisting the local population with the huge changes they are facing.

For the past century, the existence of this town, including its construction, has been centred on coal mining. Its small church, built in 1921, always played an important role in the community as a meeting place and venue for religious services and cultural gatherings. However, coal production in Svalbard will cease entirely in 2023 (Gruve 7 is the last mine of the Norwegian state-owned company that still produces coal) in favour of more sustainable energy, completely reshaping the economic and social landscape of the town. As Longyearbyen makes the transition, its inhabitants have priest Siv Limstrand as their spiritual guide, and the church has become an even more essential part of this community.

As the central place for socialising in the town of just over 2,000 residents, Svalbard Church is open 24/7, both literally and spiritually. An inclusive space for the entire community regardless of nationality or denomination, it can, Limstrand believes, be a bridge-builder in a divided community. As she accompanies the town’s inhabitants through this time of transition, Limstrand thinks it is important that everyone is aware that the church is always open. As well as typical religious services, the church offers an open community space: the kitchen is used for offering coffee and tea, and other foods, and the space is also used for musical productions. It also hosts board-game nights and postnatal groups.

Siv S Limstrand, pastor in Svalbard since 2019, previously worked at the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva. She was a student priest at NTNU and HiST in Trondheim for several years, working with people living with HIV/Aids in central Norway. She also worked as a street priest for the Trondheim City Mission and has been in charge of Our Lady’s Church, the outreach church in Trondheim.

Her work has always been forward thinking, with an emphasis on compassion, which is even more important as she helps the inhabitants of Longyearbyen face a multitude of modern-day challenges. In addition to economic shifts, Longyearbyen is being confronted by climate change-relate challenges due to its extreme northern latitude. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as any other part of the planet, with ice melting rapidly on land and at sea.

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