Putting Down Roots in Uruguay


Early Latter-day Saints established a base of faith and service that still provides strength as the Church marks 50 years in this South American country.

Putting Down Roots in Uruguay

During colonial times, Uruguay was called “the East Bank” because of its location east of the river “Uruguay”—from the Guaraní word meaning “river of painted birds.” Newcomers to the land raised forts, built walled cities, forged cannons, and worked to create a strong, free nation on the South American continent.

Today many Uruguayans are building a new strength: the strength that comes from a testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Just 50 years after the opening of the Uruguay Mission, some 71,000 Uruguayans belong to the Church. Many of these Latter-day Saints can trace their membership to pioneers who embraced the gospel with the same courage demonstrated by their patriotic ancestors.

Avelino Juan and Maria Esther Rodriguez

Not long after President Frederick S. Williams opened the Uruguay Mission on 31 August 1947, he became acquainted with a young married couple, Avelino Juan and Maria Esther Rodriguez. The Rodriguezes were receptive to the gospel from the beginning. President Williams recorded in his history: “We had fellowshipped them for some time and [Avelino] had even accompanied me on interior trips where he would speak in Sacrament meeting with me” (Frederick Salem Williams and Frederick G. Williams, From Acorn to Oak Tree [1987], 253.) These sacrament meetings were attended by investigators and by North Americans living in the country.

On 4 November 1948, the Rodriguezes—along with Sister Diber Alba Preciozzi—were baptized in a small stream, becoming the first Uruguayan converts to the Church. Two days later, five more people entered the waters of baptism. From there, Church membership in Uruguay continued to grow.

Although not blessed with children, the Rodriguezes enjoyed all the blessings of the gospel. They were sealed in the Buenos Aires Argentina Temple and performed much family history work. In 1991, a short time before his death, Avelino said, “I can’t imagine what my life would be like without the Church. I feel so grateful for the Williams family, who taught my wife and me the gospel when we were young.”

Rafael and Sacramento Viñas

In 1935 Sacramento Serrano was living in Spain with her family. But with the dawn of Spain’s civil war in 1936, Sacramento’s family moved for safety to the Canary Islands, located 500 miles to the west in the Atlantic Ocean.

Not long after their arrival, the family received a letter from Sacramento’s boyfriend, Rafael Viñas. Recognizing the handwriting, Sacramento eagerly opened the envelope without noticing that it was addressed to her father. As she read the letter, her heart filled with anguish. Rafael, an army officer loyal to the government, had written to tell Sacramento’s father that he had been imprisoned by rebel forces, would be brought to trial, and would likely be sentenced to death. In the letter he asked that the family comfort Sacramento and give her his love. Great sadness gripped the young girl, who feared that Rafael had already been put to death.

Indeed, while a prisoner in Cádiz, Spain, Rafael did not know for several days whether he was going to live or die. Several of his companions had already been executed, and the brutal officer charged with overseeing the prisoners constantly reminded Rafael and his companions that he had the authority to take their lives.

Remarkably, Rafael’s life was spared when a change was made in the prison administration. Soon afterward, Rafael learned that he would not be executed. Instead, he was sent to Santa Catalina Castle in Cádiz, where he was imprisoned for four years.

Following the war’s end in 1939, the Serrano family left the Canary Islands and returned to Spain. After great effort and perseverance, Sacramento managed to receive authorization to speak with Rafael. The couple realized during their few moments together that their love for each other had grown.

Sacramento waited and prayed for Rafael’s liberty, which was granted following a pardon from General Francisco Franco. In 1940, shortly after Rafael’s release, Rafael Viñas and Sacramento Serrano were married. But life in Spain following the war was arduous. Facing persecution from the government, Rafael and Sacramento worked hard to provide for their growing family, which eventually included three sons: Rafael, José, and Francisco. They finally decided to look for new opportunities in South America.

“Having to leave our country, our city, and our house was truly a tragedy,” Sacramento says. “We left our families, our friends, everything.”

When the family headed for Paraguay in 1948, they took with them their scant resources, their three children, and their bright hopes for happiness in the New World. Rafael tried to establish a business in Asunción, but the instability of the country at the time led to economic failure. In 1950 the family moved to Montevideo, Uruguay, to search for better opportunities. But before leaving Paraguay, Rafael and Sacramento experienced something that helped them appreciate their struggles to make a new life in the Americas: they were introduced to the gospel by two missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Upon arriving in Uruguay, the family was greeted by President Frederick S. Williams. With the support of President Williams, his family, and the missionaries, Rafael and Sacramento prepared for baptism.

“How we have appreciated the many missionaries!” Sacramento recalls. “One of them was Elder Richard G. Scott [now of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles]. He prepared us for baptism and baptized my husband, and Elder Rulon G. Skinner baptized me.”

The Viñas family rejoiced in the fellowship they found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church came to be the center of their lives, and they became pillars of pioneer strength during the Church’s early days in Uruguay. Rafael was soon called as a branch president and later as a counselor in the district presidency. When stakes were organized in Uruguay, he served on the high council. Sacramento served as president of the Relief Society and MIA and as a teacher in several organizations. She and Rafael later served a full-time mission.

Looking back over their lives as Latter-day Saints, Brother and Sister Viñas are especially grateful for the gospel’s impact on their sons. All have remained active in a variety of Church callings. Francisco, for example, has served as a stake president, regional representative, mission president, and Area Authority. In 1996 he was called to the Second Quorum of the Seventy, the first Uruguayan to become a General Authority.

“After we found the Church and were baptized in Uruguay, and because we had to pass through so many difficulties, we learned the true value of many things,” Sacramento says. “We valued the fellowship of the Church members because it was all we had. It inspired a special love for the Church and a great desire to be active, to work, to progress. We were all alone, helpless—the Church was everything to us. It was our family.”

Juan Francisco and Blanca Esmeralda Santos

Missionaries in the small town of Maldonado had twice passed the home of Juan and Blanca Santos without stopping. Both times Juan had felt prompted to speak with the two young men, but even after running after them he was unable to attract their attention. Finally, several days later, the elders knocked on the Santoses’ door and invited them to learn about the gospel. Juan and Blanca accepted, and soon the missionaries were coming to the Santos home every night to teach them—a process that continued for eight months.

At the time of the missionaries’ arrival in Maldonado, Blanca had been agonizing over the fate of one of her children who had died at birth. The Christian religion in which she had been raised had done little to comfort her or answer the many questions that plagued her mind. As the earnest young missionaries presented the plan of salvation to Blanca and her husband, a feeling of peace entered her heart. She found joy in the knowledge that she could one day be reunited with her baby as well as with other family members who had died.

Juan was coming to a similar understanding of the gospel’s truthfulness. He relates, “I agreed with many of the things I was learning, but I wanted to make sure that this was the true Church. I asked my Heavenly Father in prayer, and he made the truth of the gospel known to me.”

The day before the scheduled baptism, however, Juan was troubled by doubts. “I talked with Elder Franklin D. Richards, one of the missionaries who was teaching us,” he says. “I told him I could not be baptized, and I explained that I needed the money I was supposed to pay for tithing to feed my children. Elder Richards, with great love, said to me, ‘Brother Santos, go home tonight and really pray about tithing. I promise you that if you do this, you will ask to be baptized.’ I followed the missionary’s instructions, and early the next day I went to his house and asked to be baptized.”

The Santoses were baptized on 28 January 1950. Since then, as their family has grown, so has their faith in the restored gospel. They have held many Church positions, and eight members of their family have served missions. Juan and Blanca themselves have served a mission as workers in the Buenos Aires Argentina Temple. Of this experience Juan relates, “My patriarchal blessing said that I would serve a mission in the temple before leaving this life. At that time there were still no temples in South America, and I had always felt that it was impossible for this promise to be fulfilled. I worked hard to support my family, but we never succeeded in getting enough to pay for a mission for my wife and me.

“Then a beloved returned missionary came to see us, one whom we had met at the time of our conversion. He learned of our desire to serve a mission and of our limitations, and he offered to supplement our savings so that we could go. So we were able to have the great blessing of serving in the Buenos Aires Temple.”

On 15 September 1996 the Uruguay Maldonado Stake was organized. At the meeting were Juan and Blanca Santos, surrounded by their children and grandchildren—witnesses to the principle that from small and simple things, great things are brought to pass. They, together with other valiant Uruguayan Saints, are modern soldiers in the Lord’s army, fighting for the cause of truth as they work to help establish his kingdom on the earth.

Nations are strengthened when their citizens are baptized into the Church, accept the challenge to live in accordance with the commandments, and adopt righteous traditions. Today, Uruguayan Latter-day Saints living in 15 stakes and 6 districts believe in the message of the restored gospel that came to Uruguay 50 years ago. Their lives, as well as their nation, are being blessed as a result.

[photos] Photography by Néstor Curbelo, except as noted.

[photos] Sister Rosalia Casals reflects the joy of many Latter-day Saints in Uruguay today. Background: Montevideo’s heritage is reflected in the architecture of many of its buildings such as the Palacio Salvo at Independence Square. (Background photo © FPG International/Luis Rosendo.)

[photos] Left: Elder Jorge W. Ventura, an Area Authority Seventy. Above: A fortress on Cerro de Montevideo overlooks Montevideo Bay. Right: Primary children attending meetings at the Malvin chapel in Montevideo enjoy an outdoor lesson. Far right: Sister Nelsa Nomar Cantti Martínez and her three sons all served missions.

Néstor Curbelo, an area director of public affairs, is a member of the Nuñez Ward, Buenos Aires Argentina Belgrano Stake.