“The Church in Uruguay and Paraguay,” Ensign, Feb. 1975, 30
To a people as fiercely sportsminded as the South Americans, it is only fitting that sports has been a way of introducing the gospel in many areas. The first recorded missionary work in Uruguay was in 1940 when Argentine missionary Rolf R. Larson represented the Church in the South American basketball championship in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, and, in repeated interviews, identified himself as a Mormon.
Three years later, Frederick S. Williams was stationed in Montevideo with his business. A former president of the Argentine Mission, he requested permission to establish a branch under the Argentine Mission. Uruguay was organized as a mission in August, 1947. Four months later there were four branches in Montevideo. (Ironically, the first baptism was not in Uruguay, but in Paraguay.)
By 1948 a Relief Society was functioning, and by year’s end, the 66 missionaries had baptized 54 members, and six small branches were flourishing in Montevideo, with eight more in other towns.
In 1949, the First Presidency authorized opening missionary work in Paraguay at Ascunción as part of the Uruguayan Mission, and work began in earnest in Paraguay in 1950.
In 1952 the Latter-day Saint Boy Scouts received their charter from the Uruguayan national council, the Church was legally recognized by the government, and the First Presidency authorized construction of the first complete chapel and recreational hall to be built in South America.
Over the next four years baptisms increased in the Uruguay Mission by 230 percent, with about 100 members joining the Church in Paraguay. Combined members from both countries now number over 25,800.
The first stake was organized in Montevideo in 1967 with 4,835 members in eight wards; a second stake followed in 1974. Ariel O. Fedrigotti of Montevideo recalls a busy life in the Church and summarizes the speed of the growth. He served as ward financial clerk, went on a mission to Peru in 1968–70, became public relations officer for the Montevideo Stake upon his return, and in 1973 was married and became bishop of the Montevideo Third Ward. Three months later, at the age of 25, he was called to be second counselor in the newly created Montevideo Uruguay West Stake.
He stresses that “this is not really unusual. In our stake 80 percent of our bishops are under the age of 30. The high council members average between 35 and 40 years of age. Many of their parents were among the first members of the Church in Uruguay, and they have the strength of second generation Mormons.”
Brother Fedrigotti’s father, after serving as Montevideo District president, was called to be stake president in the first stake, and now serves as president of the Montevideo Uruguay East Stake.
Young President Fedrigotti tells of the strength that comes to members of the Church as they obey the commandments. Uruguay’s economic instability and spiraling inflation have created challenges for the Saints, but “they have faith and know that they must depend on the Lord for everything.”
He shared the story of a terrible drought that racked the country in 1973, killing the cattle and crops, and creating such an energy shortage that there were restrictions against using electricity. The stake president and mission president called a nationwide fast beginning Saturday night. The members came in raincoats under sunny Sunday skies, fasted together, paid fast offerings, had special prayers, and went to sleep Sunday night waiting for the answer.
“On Monday it was cloudy. On Tuesday it began raining. It rained without stopping for four or five days—until we began to think we would have to fast again. The government lifted the electrical restrictions on Saturday. Many members have since expressed to me their strong testimonies of fasting and prayer.”
The members often work together in cooperatives; the men build their own homes, and the sisters sew clothes to sell.
About 300 young people participate in seminary, including many adults, hungry to know more about the gospel. Permission has been received to begin an institute program as well. In addition to the active Aaronic Priesthood and Young Women program, the stake presidencies meet with their young people every other month to discuss ways of getting along with nonmembers.
At this writing, 25 young Uruguayans are serving stake missions, two are on fulltime missions, and the last ten marriages were all between Church members.
The Church generally enjoys high prestige. A television series, later suspended because of the energy crisis, interviewed both members and nonmembers engaged in community service and ended with an inspirational message. Possibly the first regular Latter-day Saint television program in South America, it was a major tool in teaching the nation that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “a Uruguayan church, not an American church.”
The Church in Paraguay grew slowly for almost 20 years, but within the last three or four years it has blossomed into nine branches in two districts, with local leaders functioning in branch and district positions.
Richard G. Scott, former missionary to Uruguay and now Regional Representative of the Council of the Twelve, cites the last regional meeting he attended as an example of Church strength. “The entire meeting was presented by the local members, except for the priesthood meeting where mission officials assisted. Almost 90 percent of those invited came to the leadership sessions for the Melchizedek Priesthood MIA, the Relief Society, and the Primary. They had made their own visual aids and had adapted the outline to local circumstances.”
There are three chapels in Ascunción, the most recent one constructed in the Sajonia district. Brother Scott reports that the members there gave an extra measure of devotion to its construction. It is a two-phase building in which the cultural hall is built before the chapel, so that the steeple would not ordinarily be erected until the second phase. However, there were such strong desires for the steeple that when local leaders proposed it to the members, despite the heavy commitment in both labor and money, they received within the same day pledges and donations of enough work and money to complete it.
The Latter-day Saint Church school operated from the Moroni Chapel in Ascunción is so highly regarded by the national government that it has been granted permission to import some instructional materials duty-free.
Officially named “Républica Oriental del Uruguay,” Uruguay still is locally called the “Banda Oriental,” or eastern shore, of the Uruguay River. The smallest independent state in South America, it is slightly larger than Missouri. Explored by the Spanish in 1516, it was not settled immediately. When the Portuguese in Brazil established Novo Colonia de Sacramento opposite Buenos Aires, the Spanish countered it in 1726 with Montevideo. It was occupied briefly by the British; a gaucho leader led an uprising against the Spanish garrison in 1811. With Argentinian help, Uruguay repelled Brazil in 1827 and its independence was proclaimed and recognized in 1828.
During the late 1960s, a series of strikes, riots, and skyrocketing inflation created an unstable political situation. Universities were temporarily closed, Congress was dissolved, civil liberties were suspended, and radical parties (including the Communists) were banned.
About 82 percent of the 3 million population is urban; one-third of the people are in or around Montevideo. One-third of the workers are employed by the government.
The people are predominately white from Spanish and Italian ancestry. The Indian population has almost completely disappeared from Uruguay, since the indigenous Charrúa tribes moved north during the early period of Spanish colonization. There are about 10,000 blacks and 50,000 mulattoes.
A colorful part of Carnival every February is Llamadas, a kind of progressive dance that begins in one block of the black section of the city and goes to another until sometimes 200 groups are involved—singing, dancing, having water fights, tossing balloons, and parading in colorful costumes.
Another part of Carnival comes from the European tradition of murgas, almost like neighborhood roadshows. Each neighborhood makes platforms, then different groups perform satiric songs—about miniskirts, politics, soccer, or anything else that’s popular.
Uruguay’s main political challenge is coping with inflation. According to recent figures, the rate of inflation was 77.5 percent in 1972, 94.7 percent in 1973, and about 2 percent a week in 1974.
Paraguay lies halfway down the vast expanse of South America. On the map it looks small beside its neighbors, Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia, yet it is about as large as California.
It was visited in 1527 by Sebastian Cabot, exploring for the English, but it was settled as a Spanish possession in 1535. It gained its independence in 1811 but then had to wage a bitter defensive five-year war that killed over half its people against the Triple Alliance of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay from 1865–70. It adopted a democratic constitution in 1870.
Three rivers are the lifeblood of landlocked Paraguay: the Pilcomayo, the Paraguay, and the Pirana. Eastern Paraguay is laced with streams and springs, prodigal with fruits, vegetables, and flowering trees. Toward the east, the land rolls gently in low hills and fertile plains, until it meets the Alto Parano, part of the Brazilian highlands, rising from 1,000 to 2,000 feet above sea level. Although eastern Paraguay comprises only 40 percent of the land area, 19 out of 20 Paraguayans live there.
In contrast, the Chaco to the west is a vast, flat plain, dotted with scrub palms, thorn bushes, and occasional dense forests. Its white-clay land, cracked and dusty in dry spells, becomes a forbidding expanse of mud and standing water after rains. Thousands of birds inhabit the marshes: storks with black heads and white collars, many kinds of herons and cranes, ducks, and small black and white birds make this area a paradise for the ornithologist, the hunter, and the photographer.
Paraguay’s people are known as brave and hospitable, proud of their heritage and country. Nine out of ten are descendents of the mixture established 400 years ago between the Spanish colonists and the Guaraní Indians, although small numbers of emigrants came from Germany and Italy. Racially homogenous, they are almost completely bilingual, since both Spanish and Guaraní are official languages.
Of Paraguay’s two million people, six out of ten live within 50 miles of Ascunción.
The Ensign extends its deep appreciation to the following contributors to this section: O. Nelson Baker, Aledir P. Barbour, Joseph T. Bentley, Antonio C. de Camargo, Omar Canals, Ariel O. Fedrigotti, James M. Fisher, Royden J. Glade, Randall Hatch, Paul W. Hayes, Gordon I. Irving, Helen Jeppson, Dean Larsen, Larry Madsen, Francisco Maximo, Luis A. Ramírez, Juan Pablo Riboldi, Liliana E. R. de Riboldi, Edson Rodney Sacchi, Gustav Salik, Richard Scott, Humberto de Andrade Silveira, Asael T. Sorensen, Janet W. Sorensen, Lynn A. Sorensen, Manuel Sueldo, Jaime Villalobos Tapia, and Amy Valentine.