From Snowy Foundations to Artistic Sculpting: The Process Behind the Ice Altar

While the wintery conditions may spell out a dreary day for some students, for others, the snow pileup breeds opportunity for creativity and religious expression. Pictured below is an altar made out of snow, ice and slush. The two architects behind this project, William Hurley (’25) and Andrew Hoeksema (’25), detailed how the “Ice Altar” built in front of Graves Hall is not just for looks – it’s also functional. 

Photo credit: Nico Kazlauskas

Hurley, the chief architect of this project, explained that the elements of the Ice Altar exist in traditional Catholic places of worship. “Behind the altar is the Reredos,” he told me, “it provides an altar step for the candles to be on, and has a dome over the crucifix. It also serves a functional purpose too: it shields the altar from the wind.”

To the left of the Altar is the Credence table, and to the right is the Missal table. Both of these tables serve their own unique purpose during a Catholic Mass. In front of the altar is an altar rail, which not only adds visual beauty, but it also gives people a place to kneel before receiving the Eucharist. Finally, the Lectern is positioned between the altar rail and the altar; this is where the text used for the service is read. Hoeksema, the assistant Architect, concluded this sentiment about the structural details quite well: “The artistic choices we made are not ones that are randomly selected, but also ones with symbolic meaning. Which adds a completely new element to this altar.” The anchor pictured below the altar, for example, not only symbolizes Hope College pride, but also the theological virtue of hope. 

The inspiration behind the Ice Altar is a story of unity all the way from the Upper Peninsula. Specifically, Michigan Technological University. Hurley and Hoeksema described how they drew inspiration from an ice chapel built on Michigan Tech’s campus last year. Hurley told me about his experience helping out with the Michigan Tech ice chapel project and noted how the student body came together in order to build it. The pair wanted to bring a similar tradition to Hope, so they began crafting an “Ice Altar” during the winter of last year. This year, they were sponsored by Hope Catholics, which equipped them with enough money to buy plywood, brackets, and PVC pipes. “This year we drew out our schematics,” Hurley told me. From there, a group of about fifteen students pitched in to make the Ice Altar vision a reality. The group used plywood to make a large box, which they then packed full of snow. This would be the foundation for the altar. Then, large containers were filled with a mixture of snow and water to make basic molds. From there, the builders used hammers to carve the pillars under the altar. “I took about an hour handcrafting the columns out of slush,” Hurley said. In total, the group spent around sixteen hours building the Ice Altar over the course of four days. 

I asked the two about how they dealt with the harsh weather conditions, and Hoeksema told me about the cold it gave him. Despite this, though, both of the boys agreed that the hard work was all worth it. “We didn’t delay any of the construction because of the weather.” Hurley clarified. However, one of the outside Mass services did have to be pushed back. I spoke to Lauren Diiulio, a Catholic Missionary here at Hope, who attended one of the outdoor services. “Celebrating Mass on the ice altar was a beautiful reminder for me,” she said, “. . .we, as God’s children, have the unique gift of taking any element of God’s creation and using it to give glory and praise back to Him – such a powerful witness to have in the middle of campus.” 

Even for non-Catholic students, the Ice Altar is a marvel to look at; Hurley and Hoeksema expressed the amount of positive feedback it’s receiving. “Every person who has passed has taken a picture,” Hurley reported. Rachel Jones (’27), a frequent passerby of Graves Hall, told me that she thinks the process, as well as the finished product, is “impressive.” 

Looking ahead, Hurley plans to pass the title of “Chief Architect” to Hoeksema next year. New details to the altar are already being imagined for the upcoming construction. The duo mentioned the possibility of new features like mosaics and more ornate decorations to come in the third edition of the Ice Altar. 

Looking back, Hoeksema noted that the construction of the Ice Altar has been, for him, “. . . a wonderful way to worship God through nature.” I asked the pair what message they wanted to send with the Ice Altar this year, and Hoeksema didn’t hesitate to tell me, “God is still alive. He’s still here on campus, and He’s not going away.” 

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