Statistics show an explosion of Latter-day Saint growth during this past half century. Members like the Ernesto Muñoz family of Chile give faces to those numbers.
Blossoming as the Rose in Latin America99910_000_019
The year was 1967. Two missionaries recently assigned to the coastal city of San Antonio, Chile, stopped at one more in a series of houses they’d tracted out that day. This time the señora expressed interest and invited them back to visit when her husband was home. “I had been searching spiritually for years—since I was a child,” says Inés Muñoz. “I had looked for the Lord in many places but never found Him.”
A week later the missionaries sat down and began teaching the family. “We had a very special meeting. I noted these young people’s way of behaving, speaking, and expressing themselves,” says her husband, Ernesto. “I considered them to be upright in every sense of the word.”
Yet the two investigators had doubts. “I would think of many questions and write them down during the day,” explains Inés. “Each night the elders had answers for every concern. I began to feel a good spirit.”
Ernesto could see that his wife was leaning toward joining the Church and that she wanted their three children, Vivian, Patricio, and Valeria, all then under four years of age, to go along with her. “I didn’t want to be the only one in the family left out, so I agreed to baptism.”
The family traveled down the coast to the beach in Santo Domingo for the baptismal service. Besides Ernesto and Inés, a woman named Inés Doddis was also baptized that day. “It was a little after 8 A.M., and a thick fog had rolled in,” says Ernesto. “We began with a prayer and hymn, and as we entered the water, the fog lifted. Even though the ocean was freezing, I can honestly say I wasn’t even cold.”
Still, nagging doubts persisted. One Sunday Ernesto decided to experiment. “‘You go to the Mormon Church, and I’ll go to our former church,’ I told Inés. I had gone to church but never with any particular desire to find out if it was true. That day I sat in the church of my childhood and had a cold, empty feeling. It was in such stark contrast to the warm feelings I’d had with the missionaries that I knew I had made the right decision to be baptized.” Ernesto’s last doubts were resolved, and he never looked back.
Their baptism marked the beginning of a branch in San Antonio, located about 65 miles west of the capital city of Santiago. Missionaries had first entered Chile in 1956, when the country was assigned to the Argentine Mission. At that time about a third of Chile’s population lived in or near Santiago, where missionary work was largely concentrated. In 1961 the Chilean Mission was formed, the first of eight missions that today are organized in the country.
The first meeting of the San Antonio Branch was held in October 1967 with only eight members in attendance—four of them missionaries. “We got together in the bedroom where the missionaries lived,” recalls Ernesto. “The elders moved the bed to make room for chairs. That was our first chapel. It was all so new to us, so totally different. We were used to a big church with paintings and statues all over, and suddenly we were in a small, ordinary room holding a meeting.”
Yet “it was one of the most spiritual meetings I’ve ever attended,” says Inés Muñoz. “Although the room wasn’t fancy, the four elders brought a strong spirit with them, and we sang the hymns with joy while shedding tears.”
The first weeks saw an increasing number of new members and investigators attend, swelling their numbers until it became necessary to rent a hall. At first the missionaries did everything: directed the music, gave the lessons, blessed and passed the sacrament. Then one day the missionaries who served as the branch leaders spoke with Ernesto. “Brother Muñoz, we are calling you as president of the Sunday School.”
Ernesto was stunned. “I was scared to death. It was my first responsibility. I conducted the Sunday School meeting, which was held in those days in the morning. I also attended priesthood meeting. At first there were only two of us in the class—me and another new member—and he gave the lesson.”
A few weeks later, at the age of 33, Ernesto was ordained to the office of deacon. Two or three months later he was advanced to the office of teacher and later became a priest. About a year after his baptism he was ordained an elder. It was then that Carlos Cifuentes, a counselor in the mission presidency, called him to become president of the San Antonio Branch. “Two missionaries stopped by my home a few hours later with a stack of books, manuals, and instructions and put them on the table. ‘This explains everything a branch president has to do,’ they told me before leaving. The next day I began to feel an enormous weight about what I had been called to do, but little by little it got better.”
Inés, meantime, was called as a counselor in the presidency of the Relief Society, held on weekdays then. Five sisters anxious to learn and full of enthusiasm attended those first meetings. Inés was also called as coordinator of the Junior Sunday School. “We spent Sunday mornings with the children, welcoming them, teaching them, preparing them so the missionaries could come and pass the sacrament to them. It was a very special time,” she recalls. “I was always busy.”
Raising Children in a Gospel Setting
During the years when the family lived in San Antonio, Ernesto worked for a petroleum company, and he and Inés had their fourth and last child, Kathy—called Kati by family members. The branch continued to grow, and so did the children. Each Sunday the family walked 20 minutes to attend meetings. As the children entered their teen years, Vivian and Valeria began attending early-morning seminary in the home of Rodolfo Acevedo, another pioneer in the San Antonio Branch who lived a 40-minute walk from the Muñoz home. Twelve students attended. Vivian taught the class, and afterward Margarita Acevedo prepared breakfast for the young people and sent them on to school.
The emphasis on holding family prayer and family home evenings presented a constant challenge to the Muñoz family. “It was hard to meet regularly for family home evening, but we kept at it,” says Ernesto. “We did better with scripture reading. We worked with the children individually because one would want to read longer than another.”
In November 1972 the first stake in Chile was organized in Santiago. Church membership had climbed to 20,000 members in just 16 years.
Five years later, in 1977, President Spencer W. Kimball and other General Authorities visited Chile to hold an area conference. Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke of the future of the Church in that country: “The day will come when there will be a temple in Chile,” he said. “I do not say when, but it surely will be.
“I foresee the day when the seven stakes in Chile will be seven times 70. I foresee the day when the 250 native 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.” 1
This startling and inspiring statement, along with the spiritual uplift from meeting with the prophet, spurred leaders and missionaries to ever greater efforts, and the Church saw rapid growth. In San Antonio, the branch was split, and the Muñoz family attended the Llo Lleo Branch. Less than four years later a temple was announced for Santiago.
“They talked to us a lot about the importance of preparing for a temple,” says Inés. “Because Ernesto had to work, I attended the groundbreaking ceremony with a few members of the Llo Lleo Branch. We rented a minivan, which was a great blessing because it rained that day. Once we got to Santiago, we were huddled under umbrellas for hours. Yet it was a tremendous occasion.”
The service stirred many hearts. “This is a stormy day,” said President Kimball. “But all days will not be stormy. Some days will be bright, shiny, and beautiful,” he said, referring to the sealing of families. 2
“We were excited about the temple,” says Inés. “We had to make sacrifices. Many challenges seemed to fill our lives at the time. Ernesto’s father passed away, and his mother, who was very ill, came to live with us. We had very little money, but we set goals to prepare ourselves.”
“About that time our son Patricio was going through a rebellious stage,” explains Ernesto. “We had many concerns about him, but the Church was a great help to us. We wanted Patricio to feel the same desire the rest of the family felt about getting sealed, but he was very distant from us. He had a friend who strongly influenced him to do things that were not right. We fasted and prayed for him as a family, and this friend began staying away more often. Patricio had a special experience one day and realized for himself that this friend was a bad influence on him. He finally began to feel that he needed to go with us to be sealed.”
The family made preparations to travel to Santiago to attend the dedication. “I decided that even though we had little money, Patricio would have his first suit, white shirt, and tie,” says Inés. “The pants were too long, so I sewed and pressed them until 1 A.M. The girls were shampooing their hair and preparing to wake up at 5 A.M. to get to Santiago on time. When we reached the outskirts of Santiago, we got lost, and then we had a flat tire. But it was worth it.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley, then Second Counselor in the First Presidency, dedicated the temple on 15 September 1983. At the time there were 140,400 members in Chile living in 27 stakes. 3 “We expected the dedication to be special, but we never could have imagined how beautiful it was,” recalls Ernesto. The family returned to Santiago a month later and were sealed 8 October 1983. It marked another turning point for Patricio, and some time later he announced out of the blue, “Papá, I want to serve a mission.”
“From that point on our relationship was totally different,” says Ernesto.
In time Patricio was called to serve in the Chile Concepción Mission, one of an increasing number of Chilean youth to serve. When Patricio returned from his mission, he met a young woman, also a returned missionary, and married her in the temple.
In 1984 the family moved to Santiago so the children, now reaching young adulthood, could continue their studies. There Ernesto was called to serve in the bishopric of his new ward. Here the ward had many more members, and he felt even more responsibility for their well-being.
Two years later the family moved again to the outskirts of Santiago, and Ernesto was called to be president of the large Vitacura Branch. “This was probably my most intensive calling yet. It was really the first time I’d had to counsel with members, listening to their life’s trials. I worked closely with the youth and had regular interviews with them. Many of them came to me and told me things they were afraid to tell their parents. I felt a great responsibility toward them.”
The pressures on the family to earn a living and keep up with branch responsibilities kept Ernesto gone from early morning until late at night. “I believe that everything I was able to accomplish is due to the help I received from my wife,” says Ernesto. “It was hard, but we understood that sacrifice had a purpose.”
As the children grew up, another challenge faced the family. “Our daughter Kati decided to leave home to live on her own,” explains Inés. “This was very difficult for me. I took it personally, and I asked her why she couldn’t be like other young women in our culture who traditionally lived at home until they married.”
Kati, however, insisted she was capable of taking care of herself. During the four years she spent on her own, she became distant from the Church, causing her parents much heartache. “We fasted and prayed often for her,” recalls Inés. “Then an interesting series of events changed Kati’s mind. Her apartment was robbed, which scared her, so she decided to go to live with her sister Vivian, mother of six children. There she was introduced to a returned missionary. The two began to date, and now they’re married and living in Canada.” Kati has invited her parents to visit them in Canada and attend their temple sealing later this year after the new Edmonton Alberta Temple is dedicated.
With Kati’s sealing, Inés and Ernesto will have seen all four of their children married in the temple. “This makes me feel like ‘mission accomplished,’” says Inés. Now she and Ernesto take joy in watching their children establish gospel-centered homes. “We see our children having family prayer and family home evening and doing things with their children like we did with them,” says Inés.
Today the Muñoz children serve as teachers and leaders in their wards and stakes. Their grandchildren—so far there are 10—are being reared in the knowledge of the Lord. “Many of them already stand during fast and testimony meeting and share their testimonies,” says Inés. “It’s another generation—a product of many years’ efforts.”
By the end of 1995 the Church in Chile had grown to nearly 400,000 members in 89 stakes. “When we started, there were only a few of us holding meetings in homes,” recalls Ernesto. “Today chapels dot the country. I often think about what would have become of our lives if the missionaries hadn’t stopped at our door. Sure, we’ve had hard times, but the gospel has helped us so much.”
In 1997 Ernesto was called to serve as patriarch in the Santiago Chile Las Condes Stake. He and Inés also have been called to work with less-active couples, and Inés is again serving in the ward Relief Society, this time as president. Even though their children have left to establish their own homes, Ernesto and Inés carry on traditions of gospel living begun over 30 years ago.