“Shoeshines—$1.00. Cowboys and Mormons—$2.00.”
This sign in the central plaza of Los Andes, Chile, a little town near the capital, proves that the relatively larger feet of American Mormon missionaries have truly left their tracks in Chilean history.
For its 30,000 members, Church history is now, even though the history of the Church in Chile began almost as soon as the Church history of Utah. Elder Parley P. Pratt, his wife, Phoebe, and Elder Rufus Allen arrived at the port of Valparaiso in 1851. After staying there for some time, the party traveled about forty miles inland to Quillota, which Elder Pratt described as “one of the most beautiful scenes I ever beheld in the old or new world.” (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, sixth ed., Deseret Book, 1964, p. 395.)
Though the land Elder Pratt described was fruitful and fertile, the missionary work at the time was not. His visit unfortunately coincided with one of Chile’s many wars and the party returned to the United States the same year. Aboard the ship to San Francisco, he wrote, “The civil wars, and my own pecuniary circumstances, but more particularly the want of language, prevented my travelling much in the country. … On the second day of March we embarked on this ship … without a sufficiency of the language to turn the keys of the Gospel as yet to these nations.” (Autobiography, p. 397.)
More than one hundred years later, in 1956, missionaries arrived for the second time in Chile as the result of an interesting series of events. In 1952, Brother William Fotheringham, a representative of the Eastman Kodak Company and an active member of the Church, moved with his family to Santiago. He corresponded with the General Authorities and, in 1953, President David O. McKay visited Chile on his tour of South America. Three years later, in 1956, President Henry D. Moyle also visited Chile; and upon his recommendation, Elders Joseph Bentley and Verle Allred crossed the Andes from Argentina and began proselyting. Soon Brother Fotheringham was presiding over the Nunoa Branch—thirteen North American members in Santiago.
On 2 November 1956 there were four baptisms, the first in Chile; and on 17 June 1957, five people organized the “Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” They included one of those first converts, Ricardo Garcia Silva, two missionaries, and Brother and Sister Fotheringham.
When Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then of the Council of the Twelve, came to Chile in 1959, it had about 450 members. In that same year, the first native Chilean missionaries were called. (Now 120 Chileans are serving full-time missions.)
In October 1959, Chile and Peru were brought together under the jurisdiction of the new Andes Mission. Elder Harold B. Lee presided over that change, witnessing a baptismal service in Chile that brought the Church membership to almost 500. The next day in Lima, he recalled this “thrilling service”: “We saw 45 new members baptized into the Church. That means that almost an additional ten percent of the total membership in Chile was added in one day.” He continued, “In my judgment there are no missions in the world which hold so much promise as the missions of South America. The work is going to continue to grow and we have not yet seen the number of missions that will be established and there are those here that will see that growth.”
The statement was prophetic. On 8 October 1961 the Chile Mission was organized. On 19 November 1972 the Santiago Chile Stake was formed. (Its president, Carlos Cifuentes, is now Regional Representative of the Twelve for Chile, Bolivia, and Peru.) Three more stakes have since been established, and a second mission is headquartered in Concepcion. The Church membership, organized in four stakes, nine districts, thirty-four wards, and fifty-three branches, has grown from the thirteen people of twenty years ago to nearly 30,000 today.
This rapid expansion has not been trouble-free. Congregations have literally grown right out of their meetinghouses despite a vigorous building program. Fourteen meetinghouses are in the design stage and five are under construction at this writing, but most members meet in homes or remodeled buildings.
One striking feature of the baptism pattern is that the great majority are complete families. Fifty-four complete families accounted for most of the 344 baptisms recorded in July 1976. Also, many professional people are entering the Church, giving it strength and enhancing its image.
One of the most recent developments is in genealogical work. During the past year, the Department of Justice granted the Church permission to microfilm Chile’s parish records, a formidable task and one that will bless the lives of thousands, both living and dead.
As always, the Latter-day Saints have emphasized the importance of good education; in Chile, the six Church-operated schools have won the admiration of the education department and the Chilean people. Another phase of the educational program, the seminary and institute program, represents great strength for the Saints with about 4,300 participants in 1975–76. Home study seminary goes into a branch almost with the first pair of missionaries; and since about one-fourth of the participants are nonmembers, it is a vital missionary tool.
Irma de McKenna of Quilpué speaks for many of her brothers and sisters in the gospel when she says, “I know what it means to live in darkness and to find the light. I know how wonderful it is to have the gospel and how happy and rich I feel with it.”
For her, the time of tribulation came after her baptism. A school teacher, she had two teenage children, a baby, a sick mother, and a husband who did not encourage her Church participation. “It had just been a short time since I had been baptized and I felt very joyful, as if there was a magic light inside of me which allowed me to bear all my tests with happiness.” Once, when she tried to explain the gospel to her mother, other family members denounced her faith, called Joseph Smith one of the false prophets warned against in the Bible, and rejected her tracts and copy of the Book of Mormon.
“I returned to my house crying, with my baby in my arms. The street was dark and there was a mist, but my heart was even darker. I served supper to my husband and older children, holding with difficulty the pain which tore my soul.
“Since my husband was not a member, he became angry if he saw me praying, so I waited until he was asleep, then sat up in bed with a pillow at my back, opened my soul, and cried mightily in silence. I asked my Heavenly Father’s forgiveness for having been too stupid to defend Him. I promised that I would study His gospel with full dedication so that in the future nobody would catch me unprepared.
“I don’t remember how long I was there or if I fell asleep, but what is certain is that in the darkness of my room, I saw a vision of a hand gently placed upon my head, white, luminous, perfect, beautiful. I could see the folds of the fingers, the fingernails, the wrist, and even a little bit of the arm. All the sadness left my heart. This was a sign to me that I am not alone and that although the whole world should contend against me, my beloved Lord will be there giving me comfort.
“I kept my promise to study the scriptures; and five years later, my mother was baptized.”
For Sister McKenna’s mother also, the test came after baptism. Two months later, she was suddenly stricken with paralysis of the right side. The doctor told Sister McKenna that her mother would be ill for a long time and recommended hospitalizing her.
“‘No,’ whispered my mother between her teeth.
“‘No,’ said her pleading eyes.
“‘No, doctor, somehow I will take care of her. If she doesn’t want to be taken to the hospital, I will keep her home.’
“‘Madam, it’s impossible for you to take care of her alone. You will have to move her to change her clothing. Remember, this is like handling a corpse. How can you do it alone?’
“‘Don’t worry, doctor. I have people who will help me.’ (I was thinking of my Relief Society sisters.)
“He left medicine and said he would return the third day. I called the missionaries and they gave her a blessing. That same day she began to move her hand; she recovered movement in the upper part of her body with amazing speed. When the doctor returned on the third day, he found her sitting up in bed eating lunch. He couldn’t believe it. ‘Maybe I was mistaken in my diagnosis,’ he said. ‘Perhaps it was only a spasm.’ But when he examined her he found in her feet the unmistakable signs of the paralysis.
“My mother recovered completely. Tears rolled down her cheeks when she testified, ‘The Lord sent me this test so that I would have faith in Him. Even though I was a member of His Church, in the bottom of my heart I still had certain doubts.’”
Another sister, Cora Bella Palomo, is isolated from other members, but her faith is unwavering. Alone with her nine children, she bought some farmland and with her own hands built their home. They all worked hard. When they felt discouraged, she would gather all her children and kneel with them in fervent prayer. She always told them, “Have courage! After the trials come the blessings.”
They began to raise animals—sheep, pigs, and chickens. In addition, they planted fruit trees and a garden, but they didn’t have any water. The tank truck from the city brought water to them every fifteen days and they would fill every jar they had, but it was always insufficient. With great sacrifice, she collected the necessary money and called some laborers to dig a well, but they ran into a rock cap, which they could not penetrate without an expensive special auger. The well and her dreams were abandoned.
On 28 March 1965, a violent earthquake shook that whole area. When they next passed the well, they were astonished to see it filled with water—crystal-clear, pure water! The earthquake had broken the rock and released a spring. It was truly a miracle. Sister Palomo says with deep emotion, “This is the love of God toward those who believe and confide in Him.”