“‘Southern Cross’ Saints in Chile: On Top of the World,” Ensign, May 1993, 106–7
The region of Aysén in southern Chile is sparsely settled for good reason. The area is remote, and its harsh winters and rugged landscape pose formidable obstacles to even the most hardy souls. That fact gave rise to the saying among Latter-day Saints living there that “one must be two times Mormon to live here.”
Indeed, the one thousand members living in this austere but scenic region of glacial lakes and pristine forests are a pioneering generation. With pluck and prayers, they are helping turn a foothold of faith into a stronghold of Saints.
In 1978 Elder Gregory Aiken, a full-time missionary, and President Fernando Caballero of the Chile Osorno Mission traveled 350 difficult miles to Coyhaique, the regional capital with a present population of twenty-five thousand. The purpose of the visit was to explore the possibility of organizing a branch there. Their hopes became reality with the creation of the six-member Coyhaique District, with Juvenal Cárcamo Larenas, one of the first converts in the area, called as district president.
Five members of the Vidal family were other early converts. They and four others were baptized in late December 1978 in a river several miles from town. At church the next day, the family was surprised to be among thirty investigators.
Elders Muñoz and Callahan found the Vidal family while tracting. “They prayed, and ours was the first home they were inspired to visit,” daughter Adela happily recalls. “We accepted the gospel immediately.” She tells how her family helped the missionaries build a makeshift wooden baptismal font sealed with tar and straw. “It wasn’t of much use because water would leak out within ten minutes. But our intentions and efforts were still worth it.”
Luis Vidal, father of the family, was called to serve as a counselor in the branch presidency in 1979. Some ten years later, when the branch was divided, he became branch president. Today he is elders quorum president and is well respected in the community for his devotion to high principles.
The branch’s first meetings were held in an open-air shed so small that priesthood and Relief Society meetings were held jointly. The sanctuary was scoured every Saturday by the missionaries and the members in preparation for Sabbath meetings.
The first native branch president was Ricardo Burgos. Under his leadership, the members reaped a great blessing: joining hearts and hands, they built a new chapel. The majority of townspeople as well as some local dignitaries attended the dedication in late 1984.
Another memorable event took place a year later, when seven families from Coyhaique journeyed more than eight hundred miles at great personal sacrifice to be sealed in the Santiago Chile Temple.
Such faith and blessings are evident in the rising generation as well. Many youth have served missions, and more are being prepared. Adela Vidal recalls attending early-morning seminary with eight other enthusiastic youth, even on frigid days of subzero cold. “Because of the seminary program, we all have stayed faithful in the Church,” she says. She, too, is passing her faith on. She has taught seminary herself, instilling in her students the need to build strong testimonies.
The youth study in technical schools or hope to enroll at one of the expensive universities in faraway Santiago, Concepción, Temuco, or Valdivia. But economic realities are limiting factors. Aside from potatoes and oats, many vegetables and some fruits are cultivated primarily for exportation, driving up costs at local markets. Other industries such as mining, cattle ranching, and fishing continue to be developed.
Even so, “the Church has brought great blessings and satisfaction to my life,” says Gerardo Godoy, who joined the Church with his family in 1980. “With the gospel in our lives, our way of life changed.”
Blessings followed obedience and sacrifice: the family was sealed in the Santiago temple several years ago, and daughter Lilian has fulfilled a mission to Argentina. “What greater blessing can exist than to have a son or daughter serve in the mission field?” says Brother Godoy.
The Donoso family is similarly grateful for their membership in the Church. Their joy in the gospel eclipses any hardship that might befall them. “We have the opportunity to improve and progress in the church of Christ, and we are achieving it!” Brother Donoso says. “We can be in the service of others.”
The buoyant spirit of these southern Saints does not go unnoticed; this spirit encourages future growth of the Church in the area. “If all Latter-day Saints are like my [LDS] secretary in responsibility and human values,” says Ricardo Altamirano, a member of another faith who is employed at the ministry of education, “then it is sure that I would be one.”
Another nonmember, Miriam Lopez, is equally impressed with the Coyhaiquino Saints. “I see them with a solid doctrine and well-defined values. They practice tolerance and respect for their neighbor. The missionaries are very neat and impeccable. I would like to get to know them better.”
From six members in 1978, the area membership has grown to one thousand. The district president and two of the four branch presidents are returned missionaries. Twelve district missionaries, most of whom have served full-time missions, and many other members are laboring to fulfill their dream of a stake of Zion in their midst.
Though these “Southern Cross” Saints (so named because a stellar constellation, the Southern Cross, is visible in that hemisphere) are at the bottom of the world, in another sense they are on top of it—happy beyond expression to be numbered among the Lord’s flock.