SANTIAGO, Chile The first baptism of a convert in Chile occurred in a country club swimming pool in Chile's capital, Santiago, on Nov. 24, 1956. Fifty years later, as more than a half-million members throughout the country mark that event, one man is campaigning to make the history of the Church in Chile better known.
"We have a beautiful history of the Church in Chile that people don't know yet," said Rodolfo Acevedo, a historian whose work on a master's thesis at a Catholic University in the late 1980s was on that topic. Only 500 copies were printed, all for library use, none for sale. Copies of the history were placed in major libraries around the world, including the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and Harvard University in Boston, Mass., as well as Brigham Young University and the Church's Historical Department.
Brother Acevedo was surprised at the invitation of one of his professors to write about the Church when he began working on his master's thesis in 1986. "When I was studying at the Catholic University, they told me we (Latter-day Saints) lived inside ourselves, like an oyster," he explained. "I wanted to change that perception and help open up the oyster." He showed the film "Christ in America" to his professors and colleagues and gave them copies of the Book of Mormon and pamphlets about the Church, even though they were not allowed to teach about it. Fernando Silva, a professor and historian, offered to guide his three-year project.
As Brother Acevedo visited Church headquarters in Salt Lake City that October, Gordon Irving of the Church's Historical Department shared information, which Brother Acevedo copied in pencil. His hand-written notes on 3-by-5 cards were filed in shoe boxes as the research piled up. Going page-by-page through old newspapers in Valparaiso Chile's largest port city and one which claims the oldest Spanish-language newspaper in the world Brother Acevedo found mention of the Church in the United States in a Chilean newspaper from 1840, and a later mention about converts traveling from England to the U.S. "It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack," he remembers. But when he did find something, "my heart was excited."
"The history of the Church in Chile is a history of friendship between Mormons and Chileans," he observes. He tells how he discovered that Church history began in Chile about the same time as the pioneers left Nauvoo, as people living on Chile's Juan Fernandez Island assisted converts crossing to California on the ship Brooklyn. Three years later, when gold was discovered in California and Chileans went there to find it, they found Mormons willing to help them in return.
In 1851, Elder Parley P. Pratt landed at Valparaiso with his wife Phoebe and Elder Rufus C. Allen as missionaries, but challenges "an empty purse and an imperfect tongue," as Elder Pratt wrote and the death of the Pratts' infant son forced their return to the United States just five months later. More than a century would pass until two missionaries from the Argentine Mission crossed the high Andes mountains in June 1956 to begin missionary work in Chile.
Apostle Henry D. Moyle dedicated the country for the preaching of the gospel during a visit a month later. The baptism of Ricardo Garcia on that November afternoon in 1956 was the beginning of a groundswell that less than three decades later resulted in the dedication of the Santiago Temple, the second LDS temple in South America and the first to be built in a Spanish-speaking country. There are now more than 500 LDS chapels in Chile to serve its 74 stakes. On March 12, 2006, President Gordon B. Hinckley returned to Chile to rededicate the renovated and enlarged Santiago Chile Temple during the Church's 50th anniversary year.
Brother Acevedo 10 years ago recorded the history of the building of the Santiago Temple in a 186-page book, "Alturas Sagradas," or "Sacred Heights" in English.
The book has a couple of extra pages outlining the conversion of the author's family to the Church, and their first contact with missionaries who came to their door on a rainy June day in 1968 in the port city of San Antonio, Chile.
"I had never heard the word 'Mormon' before meeting the missionaries," recalls Brother Acevedo, who was then 17. He was baptized in the nearby ocean, as were his parents and four siblings. Four younger brothers and sisters later were baptized members of the Church. He tells how he first met his wife-to-be in a photograph of students who planned to serve missions. The photo was among others displayed in the Deseret School, where he was teaching social studies. The school was on the grounds near the temple, in the building now occupied by the Church's area offices. He met her in a choir of returned missionaries four years after they had each returned from a mission in Chile. "I knew she would be my wife," he remembers. "But I met her in this photo nine years before I met her in person."
He and his wife, Soledad, have four children. The eldest daughter is married and lives in the United States. Two sons have served missions in Uruguay and Colombia. Another son, 17, plans to serve when he is old enough. Brother Acevedo, a former bishop, serves as patriarch in the Santiago Chile Puenta Alto Stake. He has spent the past two decades employed by the Church; part of his duties involves obtaining visas for missionaries. It is somewhat ironic as he, himself, ended up serving a mission in his native land rather than in Peru, where he'd originally been called, because he had been unable to obtain a visa.
Of his spare time he said, "I am investigating and writing about the Church every day of my life." This time, he has traded shoeboxes filled with hand-written notes for a computer and Internet access, making his job much easier.
"I would like to present this history to my people, to leave something of the Church in my country."