“Easter Island Saints: Their Faith Is No Mystery,” Ensign, June 1993, 76–78
Twenty-three hundred miles west of Chile lies Easter Island, famed for the mysterious stone statues stationed along its coast. Rising as high as forty feet, the solemn sentinels have puzzled visitors since the island’s discovery by Dutch seamen on Easter Sunday, 1722.
It appears that the mute monoliths, which mark burial sites, were connected with ancestor worship. The work on the statues had ceased by the time of the great battle of 1680 between two groups of islanders. The statues were toppled by the victors and their descendants during the next 150 years. Later conquests by pirates, whalers, seal hunters, and slave traders, as well as a smallpox epidemic spread by Easter Islanders freed from slavery in Peru, greatly reduced the island population. In 1877 only 111 people lived on the island. Among the deceased were those who knew the ancient lore and traditions that have passed into obscurity.
Today the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is taking root among Easter Islanders, who since 1888 have enjoyed Chilean citizenship. Many Chileans have come to the island to work and have married native islanders. Much of the convert growth has taken place among the Spanish-speaking Chilean population.
Tourism has become the main industry on the island. In 1967 a runway was completed, and a jetliner now makes regular flights from Santiago, Chile, and from Papeete, Tahiti, 2,600 miles to the west. Hanga Roa is the only town on the triangular island; the island covers sixty-four square miles and has a population of nearly three thousand.
Easter Island was not specifically designated as part of the Chile Vina del Mar Mission, created in 1979, but mission president Gerald J. Day assumed it was, for the island pertained to Chile’s Fifth Region, which was in fact part of the mission.
In 1980 Dante Sanguinetti, a Church member who was moving his family to Easter Island for a few years, contacted President Day, who authorized Brother Sanguinetti to assist in organizing a branch on the island and to serve as branch president.
In 1985 Luis Gonzalez of Chile and his wife, Mara, a native islander, began taking the missionary discussions. Employed at the island’s department of public works, Luis oversaw the construction of a museum and a recreation center and became a respected member of the community. The Sanguinettis’ friendship and example had directed him to the missionaries.
In early 1986, Brother Sanguinetti returned to Easter Island and baptized his friend Luis. Mara was baptized later that year, and in 1988 the couple and their two children were sealed in the Santiago Chile Temple.
At the end of 1987, Brother Gonzalez was set apart as president of the Easter Island branch. Through him, the Church has gained a sure foothold on the island. He labors diligently to nurture the branch. The Spirit is his guide to a great degree because the island’s remoteness limits his contact with Church leaders in Chile. “I have been very blessed of my Heavenly Father,” he says, “and I hope to return to him a little of what he has given me.”
Among the members presently are native islanders Mario Tepano and Benjamin Rapu. Magaly Franco of Chile was the only Latter-day Saint in her family until a move to the island led to the conversion of other family members. Member Jorge Villanueva learned of the restored gospel from his boss, President Gonzalez. These five families of fishermen, artisans, construction workers, and public employees are the mainstay of the 25-member Isla de Pascua (Easter Island) Branch.
In July 1988, the island became part of the Chile Santiago North Mission, and missionaries have served on the island intermittently since then. Branch members always welcome the missionaries but have learned to be independent and to draw strength from one another.
Branch members work together on projects like refurbishing the house that serves as their chapel and giving Church magazines to nonmembers, whom they also invite to frequent outings and picnics.
“We do all we can to set a good example, because the gospel can change people,” says President Gonzalez.
The Easter Island Saints may be few in number, but their examples are as hard to ignore as the giant statues that command a different kind of awe and attention. Though much of the culture and history of the native islanders have been lost, those who are members, like their transplanted Chilean counterparts, delight in the words of the Lord in 2 Nephi 29:7: “I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea.” [2 Ne. 29:7]
Kerry Van Dyke, a member of the Logan (Utah) University Tenth Ward, served on Easter Island during his mission to the Chile Vina del Mar Mission from 1987 to 1989.