Columban History in Chile

February 15, 2010

In 1953, three Columbans were sent from Peru to take over the parish of San Andres in Santiago, Chile. They came to a Catholic Church experiencing a crisis common in much of Latin America: an acute shortage of priests and religious. Although Catholic, the people knew little of their faith and practiced it even less.

Columban Father Charles Coulter chats with children in Santiago, Chile.

That was the beginning of a Columban effort to develop Christian communities in the continually growing, poor housing tracts on the outskirts of Santiago.

In fifteen years’ time, the Columban effort grew from one to seven parishes and from three to 28 Columbans and priest associates caring for 200,000 people. They started with small wooden chapels that were gradually replaced by more substantial chapel/community centers.

In the mid-1960s, to cope with the increasing mass of people, a pastoral plan to build basic Christian communities was adopted and a new catechetical program was introduced. The latter prescribed preparation courses for baptism, first Communion, confirmation and marriage. This pre-sacramental preparation was put in the hands of trained lay people.

Where once the priest was the sole religious force in a parish, zealous lay men and women now provide for the spiritual needs of their brothers and sisters.

For the priests, this means a new role of guiding and supporting an eager laity as well as working with a hundred hands instead of two.

In 1974, the Columban Sisters came to Chile to work with families and youth groups and to provide adult catechetics. Fourteen Columban Sisters continue this work in Chile today.

All this activity was carried out in a situation of dire poverty resulting from lack of employment and in a volatile political situation that at times caused violent social unrest. The violent political and economic turmoil brought many hardships and much suffering for the people. Much poverty still exists although the political climate is now much more stable.

True to their missionary charism, Columban missionaries have tried to instill a missionary spirit among the Chilean people they serve. Since 1983, they have been receiving lay missionaries from abroad and recently sent two Columban Chilean lay missionary groups to the United States and Fiji.

Over the years, 79 Columbans and 39 priest associates have served the people of Chile.

In recent years, Columbans have undertaken work in other areas of Chile. Today, Columban priests, priest associates and lay missionaries labor in the poorer areas of Valparaiso, Copiapo and Iquique in northern Chile and among the Mapuche tribal people in southern Chile.