History of the Church in Chile

David R. Crockett

The first Latter-Day Saints to visit Chile were those on the ship "Brooklyn" which sailed from New York to Yerba Buena (San Francisco) in 1846. After the ship rounded Cape Horn, it tried to reach the coast of Chile at Valparaiso, but were blown away by a storm. They had to land on Chile's Juan Fernandez Island to stock up on provisions. They spent several days visiting this famed island, also known as Robinson Crusoe's Island. [In 1997 there was a thriving branch of the Church on the Island of nearly 60 members.]

With the arrival of the pioneers in Utah and because the First Presidency was reorganized in December, 1847, this made it possible for members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles to again take the gospel to the nations of the earth. Parley P. Pratt provided supervision over the Pacific Mission and in August, 1851, he decided to open up missionary work in Chile. He started to study the Spanish language and felt confident that he would have it mastered in just a few months. Elder Pratt sold his toll-road in Parley's Canyon, Utah, to finance his journey to Chile.

Elder Pratt's wife, Phoebe, revealed in a letter that there was plans for Elders Amasa Lyman and Charles C. Rich to establish a settlement seven hundred miles to the south of San Francisco. "This settlement will be lands for the missionaries to leave their families while they go and make an opening and introduce the gospel among those nations where they are appointed." (Our Pioneer Heritage, Vol. 17, p.221).

Elder Pratt, his expectant wife Phoebe, and another missionary, Rufus Allen (a former member of the Mormon Battalion) sailed for Valparaiso, Chile on September 5, 1851. They had intentions of studying Spanish every day while onboard the ship Henry Kelsey, but constant sea-sickness became a barrier to these plans. Even though they were the only passengers on the ship, their captain treated them poorly. Instead of allowing them to eat wholesome food, he fed the "hard mouldy bread, full of bugs and worms, and on salt beef and pork -- the pork being rotten." After a "tedious and disagreeable passage" of sixty-four days, they arrived safely in Valparaiso, Chile, on November 8, 1851.

The Pratts and Elder Allen found room and board at a French hotel and were relieved to once again eat good food. They were disappointed to find that the country was in the midst of a revolution and civil war. On their first Sunday in the country, they attended a Catholic service and found it to be very curious to them. They observed the people "bow down on their knees and worship certain images and paintings with much apparent devotion." Elder Pratt wished that he could preach to the people, but still was a long way from being able to communicate effectively in Spanish.

Within a week, they rented a house in a nice neighborhood. The houses nearby were filled with widows and many orphan children. Elder Pratt wrote:

We divide our time between reading and studying our Spanish lessons, and chatting, visiting, reading Spanish, hearing them read, and playing with the little ones, etc., all of which pleases them much, and causes us to advance in the language with a rapidity which is almost astonishing to ourselves and to them. Truly Providence has ordered our footsteps and cast our lot in pleasant circumstances, when we were strangers in a strange land, and among a people of a strange tongue. (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, p. 392)
On November 30, 1851, Phoebe Pratt gave birth to a son, who they named Omner Pratt. Sadly, five weeks later on January 7, 1852, little Omner died of debility. He was laid to rest in a private cemetery for foreigners.

On January 25, 1852, the Pratts and Elder Allen departed from Valparaiso in an ox-cart, and traveled thirty-six miles to the interior to the city of Quillota. There, they rented a house from a widow and her family who spoke Spanish. The family was friendly and made efforts to teach the missionaries the language.

Elder Pratt observed: "The people in this town seem to be be a neat, plain, loving and sociable people; very friendly, frank, and easy to become acquainted with. They are mostly white, intelligent and good looking; very plain and simple in dress and manners." They enjoyed the surroundings. "The land of this valley is extremely fertile, and easily irrigated by small canals from the river. The whole taken in at one view from the summit of the center hill, presents one of the most beautiful scenes I ever beheld in the old or new world."

After staying in Quillota for one month, they returned to Valparaiso. They concluded that it was time to return home. No progress had been made. Government restrictions on proselyting and frustrations in communicating effectively had brought on discouragement. As they started to run out of money, it was clear that they would have to return to the States.

Elder Pratt wrote to Brigham Young:

We stayed till all our means were exhausted and sought and prayed diligently for our way to open; but we could neither speak the language sufficiently to preach the Gospel nor find any way to earn our living, so we found it necessary to return. . . . I hope I shall not be counted a slothful servant, for I assure you that I did all in my power, with all diligence, and with all prayer of faith I possess; and my earnest desire is to be counted worthy to labor for the restoration of Israel until it be accomplished.
During the voyage home, Elder Pratt continued to carefully study the Spanish Language. "I study the language all day and think of it, and even dream and talk it aloud in my sleep, in which I sometimes learn more than in the day. But it is no small work to become familiar with the entire grammar, words and style of a language."

The voyage was long and hard. Again, they were deprived of good food and lived on hard bread, beans, and some salted meat. They were able to pass the time sharing the gospel with a native Chilean who had been educated in the United States. After seventy-nine days, they arrived in California. Elder Pratt continued to study Spanish and organized classes in hopes to one day return to South America. However, his life was cut sort by his assassination in 1857 and he never was able to return to the continent. But his many descendants later fulfilled his dream and preached the gospel to thousands in South America. Elder Rufus Allen would later be called to lead the Southern Indian Mission in 1854. Several of his descendents would serve missions in Chile. A number of members of the Church worked in Chile during the first half of the twentieth century including Luther M. Winsor, who worked there in the early 1920s for for American Smelter and Refining Company. But formal missionary efforts did not return to Chile until a century after Parley P. Pratt's mission. In 1952, Brother William Fotheringham, an executive with the Eastman Kodak Company, moved to Santiago Chile. During President David O. McKay's South American tour in 1954, he visited the Fotheringham home on February 8, 1954. Brother Fotheringham desired to have missionaries sent to Chile. On May 26, 1956, Chile became part of the Argentine Mission. The first missionaries, Joseph Bentley and Verle Allred arrived in Chile on June 23, 1956. Two weeks later, on July 5, 1956, Elder Henry D. Moyle, of the Quorum of the Twelve arrived and organized the first branch in Santiago, the Nunoa Branch, with Brother Fotheringham as the president. There were thirteen North Americans in the branch when it was created.

Sister Perla Garcia was one of the early contacts found by Elders Bentley and Allred. Sister Garcia later recalled:

We had lived but a short time in Santiago. It was my custom to rise early in the morning and lock the gate. At the gate, I saw two young men in hats coming. I greeted them and they responded, 'Would you like to know more about being close to God?' I answered, 'Yes,' and the pair came into our home. I began to ask them questions that seemed to be without answers. When they answered those questions, I felt something very special inside and said to them, 'You think and believe as I do. I feel very happy; I have received many answers that I have never been able to receive before. I believe that you have the truth.

As they left that day, I felt the beginnings of an affinity and special feeling for the missionaries. Later, one of them asked if they could come and speak with my husband to see if he also would gain the certainty of the gospel that I felt. I told them he was not interested in religion but I gave them a time when he would be in the home. I didn't say anything to my husband, and the missionaries arrived exactly at the appointed hour. I introduced them to him, and they taught him. A short time later, I could feel by his excited conversation, his smiles and joy that he, too, had been converted. ("Faithful Families Sew Tapestry of Faith For Church in Chile" by Nestor Curbelo, Church News, July 13, 1996)

Brother Rocardo Garcia was the first person baptized in Chile, on November 2, 1956. His wife, Perla, and two others were also baptized at the service. [Brother Garcia died in 1994.] Sister Farcia later said: "Just imagine it: at first there were just four of us. I knew that this was the truth Church -- mine was not just faith, but a conviction. . . . I thought it would be impossible for the Church to succeed here. Now we attend conferences where there are hundreds and sometimes thousands of people." ("The Church in Chile." Ensign, February, 1975).

Six additional branches were created by 1959, with a total of 250 members of the Church in Chile. During that year, Elder Harold B. Lee visited Chile and witnessed the baptismal service for forty-five people. "In my judgment there are no missions in the world which hold so much promise as the missions of South America." He visited Santiago, Concepcion, Valparaiso, and Vina del Mar. On October 29, 1959, Elder Lee presided at a meeting in Santiago where the Andes Mission was organized which included Chile and Peru. He held an eight-hour training and testimony meeting with the missionaries. (Gibbons, Harold B. Lee: Man of Vision, Prophet of God, p. 382).

Hector Lopez was one of the first members in Talcahuano, Chile. He recalled: "At first we had no place to hold meetings. For a while we met in some vacant rooms of a local union building. The rooms were in terrible shape -- there weren't any window panes and the rain came straight in on us. When we held meetings, we had to put papers over our heads so that we didn't get soaking wet." ("The Church in Chile." Ensign, February, 1975).

In 1960 membership in Chile was 614. In 1961, the first mission in Chile was organized with A. Delbert Palmer as the president. At that time there were already 1,100 members of the Church in twelve branches. In 1961, the gospel was taken to the northern most city in Chile, Arica. Juan V. Benavidez was the first convert. He explained how he was first introduced to the Church: "One afternoon, a gust of wind blew some papers in my direction, papers that attracted my attention. These turned out to be pages of Reader's Digest Selections with an extensive article about 'The Mormons,' describing their lives and beliefs." He later visited Santiago and shook hands with Elder Ezra Taft Benson (Secretary of Agriculture) at a special conference. Elder Benson was touring South America on mostly government business. Brother Benavidez was baptized on July 1, 1961. The branch in Arica received strength from members from the Mormon colonies in Mexico working at the Toquepala Mine in Tacna, Peru. ("Blossoming in the Desert: Gospel Flourishes in North Chilean City." Church News, November 9, 1996).

In 1962, President Palmer sent a telegram to President David O. McKay: "We are pleased to report that the new Chilean Mission is progressing rapidly and the Spirit of the Lord is being poured out upon this land in great abundance. We do appreciate all of the wonderful help and inspiration you have given this mission." (See Conference Report, April 1962, p. 4)

In 1963, the First Presidency authorized the construction of five schools. President Hugh B. Brown also visited Chile that year. In 1964, the gospel was taken to southern Chile. The first missionaries to serve in Puerto Montt were Elder Noel J. Roundy and Alan B. Winder, who organized the first branch Dec 3, 1964. Four years earlier, after a terrible earthquake, President J. Vernon Sharp of the Andes Mission had sent missionaries to interpret for relief workers sent from the United States. These efforts resulted in a warm welcome for the missionaries in 1964. (Church News, March 22, 1997).

In 1967, the first missionaries arrived in the city of San Antonio. In 1970, there were 9,416 members in Chile.

On November 19, 1972, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley created the first stake in Chile, the Santiago Stake. Carlos A. Cifuentes was called as the stake president. He once said "The first thing that the Church taught me was that I was a child of God. This surprised me more than anything else. I was just a mechanic, more in contact with grease and gasoline and iron than with God. You can imagine how surprised I was to find myself teaching a priesthood class. I had never imagined that I would have an opportunity like this -- not in my entire life!" [President Cifuentes, died in 1983.]

In 1975, there were 22,500 members in Chile, in one stake, eight wards, nine districts, and 43 branches. President Royden J. Glade, of the Chile Santiago Mission said: "The Chilean people are more open to the message of the gospel now than ever before. They have more time to think about things of lasting importance such as their families and religion. A feeling of hope and optimism for the future pervades the country, and our message of the restored gospel of Christ is adding to that hope." ("The Church in Chile." Ensign, February, 1975). In 1977 at an area conference in Chile, Elder Bruce R. McConkie prophesied, "I foresee the day when the seven stakes in Chile will be seven times seven stakes, and then perhaps seven times seventy. I foresee the day when the 250 active Chilean missionaries will be increased by the thousands. I foresee the day when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be the most powerful influence in this nation. . . . The Lord will pour out blessings abundantly upon this nation because of the righteousness of the people who live here."

In 1980, Church membership swelled to 42,033;

Gregory E. Billikopf attended a Catholic school as a young boy on the site of the future Santiago Chile Temple. During the spring of 1970, his priest announced that they would be selling the school to the Mormons. The priest asked the students to write a report on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This simple class assignment resulted in a spiritual witness which later resulted in Gergory's conversion to the gospel. He later wrote: "How was I to know, as a youth in that religion class, that one day, on that very property, I would attend the house of the Lord--the Santiago Chile Temple?" (Ensign, January 1992, Billikopf, "On Sacred Ground.")

On May 30, 1981, ground was broken for the Santiago Chile Temple on this site by President Spencer W. Kimball. The ceremony was conducted in a cold rain attended by 6,000 members of the Church. As the ceremony began, President Kimball, seeing the miserable soaked condition of the Saints offered to shorten his address but the people wished him to continue. He said: "This is a stormy day but all days will not be stormy. Some days will be bright, shiny and beautiful. Those days we will look forward to - a marriage day. The day will come when you can have all the blessings of the temple. . . . Millions will be grateful that you have prepared this for them." ("Faithful Families Sew Tapestry of Faith For Church in Chile" by Nestor Curbelo, Church News, July 13, 1996)

On Sept 15-17, 1983, President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the Santiago Chile Temple. He prayed:

Bless thy work upon this great continent of South America which is part of the land of Zion. Bless they work in this nation of Chile. May all that has been done in the past be but a prologue to a far greater work in the future. May they people be recognized for the virtue of their lives. May there be an ever-growing number of wards and stakes. May Thy people be recognized for the virtue of their lives. Bless the land with peace and righteousness, and bless all who govern that Thy sons and daughters may rejoice in the nation of which they are a part. (Church News, September 25, 1983).
Eugene F. and Rae Stephens Jones Olsen were called as the president and matron of the temple.

In October, 1983 Conference, President Hinckley said:

Only a fortnight ago we were in Santiago, Chile, for the dedication of another beautiful temple. For me it was a miracle to be with more than 15,000 Latter-day Saints who assembled for these dedicatory services which extended over a period of three days. The nation of Chile is 2,700 miles long, and our faithful people gathered from such distant cities as Arica in the far north and Punta Arenas in the far south to rejoice over the marvelous blessing that had come to them in the erection and dedication of this sacred house of God. Among them were Brother and Sister Ricardo Garcia, the first to be baptized when missionaries were sent to Chile in 1956. Only twenty-seven years later, there are more than 140,000 members of the Church in that nation. (Conference Report, October, 1983)
In 1988 Elder John H. Groberg created the fiftieth Chilean stake, marking the third country outside the United States to reach that level. Elder Groberg said: "Today is an important day in the history of Chile. With satisfaction, we can say the first part of Elder McConkie's [1977] prophecy has been fulfilled. Today we can say that we have begun the journey to fulfill the secondpart of his prophecy as we create the 50th stake." At that time there were nearly 230,000 members in Chile. ("Chile's 50th Stake-A Milestone Capping 32 Years of Growth." Church News, November 12, 1988).

On March 31, 1990, Elder Eduardo Ayala, a former mission president in Uruguay, became the first native Chilean called as a General Authority. In that year there were 298,000 members in Chile.

On December 6, 1990, terrorists invaded a meetinghouse in Santiago. They ordered thirty people attending a Sunday service to leave the La Pincoya meetinghouse, then set fire, and destroyed the building. The attack was believed to be linked with a visit to Chile by United States President George Bush. An anit-U.S. movement claimed responsibility. The Church leaders expressed sorrow and stressed that the building was built by Chileans and used by Chileans. ("Leaders 'Saddened' by Attack." Church News, December 22, 1990).

In 1993, Elder Lynn A. Mickelsen presided at a meeting to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the dedication of the Santiago Chile Temple. Chilean pioneers, Ricardo and Perla Garcia shared their testimony at the meeting. Historian Rodolfo Acevedo noted that membership in Chile had doubled since the temple was dedicated. There were 346,788 members in 64 stakes.

In 1996 Chile reached eighty-nine stakes and 400,000 members.

On November 11, 1996, President Gordon B. Hinckley visited Santiago, Chile. About 48,000 people attended the conference at Punto Arenas. President Hinckley said: "What a great and inspirational thing it is to look into your faces. Thank you for the effort to come here. . . . We love the Saints of Chile. I have watched you grow in this land. I came here first when this was not a separate mission. There was a little handful of Saints. Now you have become a mighty people, nearly 50,000 of you in this conference today. How marvelously you have grown." In one stake, more people traveled by bus eight hours than normally attended sacrament meeting each week. ("Quiet Gratitude Greets Prophet in Chile, Argentina." Church News, November 23, 1996).

In March, 1997, the Chile Santiago East Mission was created, the eighth in Chile. Elder F. Melvin Hammond of the Seventy explained that Santiago is a city of between 6-7 million people: "There is a lot of apartment living in Santiago, a lot of apartments about four stories high. Missionaries often go into those small apartments where the people of two or three adjoining apartments come over and listen. Sister Hammond and I went visiting with newly converted members, and we got to one of those apartments, and within just minutes they had 35 people crowded into the little apartment to see us and meet us." ("Church to Create Eight New Missions." Church News, March 1, 1997).

Also in March 1997, with the creation of the Puerto Varas Stake, Chile became one of only four nations to have one hundred stakes. Elder Hammond commented: "This is an historic event for the Church in Chile, and a blessing for the Saints. Today is a day of celebration, where we congratulate those who received new callings of stake leadership, but tomorrow is a new day, a day of challenges." ("Chile 4th nation with 100 stakes." Church News, March 22, 1997).

In June 1997, more than four inches of rain fell in just one day causing terrible flooding. In some areas it rained for fifteen hours straight. Copiapo was hit the hardest. Overall, twenty-six meetinghouses were damaged. Seven people died as the result of flooding, but none were Church members. More than 63,000 people were driven from their homes because of the rains. Fifteen homes of members were destroyed and twenty-two others were severely damaged. Five meetinghouses were used as emergency shelters. On June 19, Elder F. Melvin Hammond of the Seventy met with 350 bishops, branch presidents and other members. They asked the Lord to end the rains and then organized to provide assistance to repair homes. ("Chile floods cause damage to 26 LDS meetinghouses." Church News, July 19, 1997).