It's been almost 45 years since Elder Verle Allred and his missionary companion, Elder Joseph Bentley, crossed the Andes into Chile and began teaching the gospel.
There were a handful of North American members living in Santiago in 1956 — but not a single native Chilean. Months later, Elder Allred walked into a river near the nation's capital and baptized Ricardo Garcia outside the Santiago Country Club. Brother Garcia's baptism on Nov. 2, 1956, marked a historic day. Chile had its first convert.
Now jump to 2001. The Church is young in Chile — still shy of it 50th birthday. Yet a miracle has happened. Today, there are 509,000 members, 115 stakes and eight missions. Chile has become a power in the Church.
While the numbers are remarkable, many say they're not surprising. Faithful members like Brother Allred, his mission president, Lee B. Valentine, and tens of thousands of contemporary Chileans have long regarded the narrow South American country as a promised land. Elder Parley P. Pratt was the restored gospel's first representative to visit Chile 150 years ago. His stay was brief. Language barriers and civil uneasiness prevented Elder Pratt from establishing a foothold. Still, that apostle of the Restoration hoped that miracles would be realized in Chile long after his passing.
Brother Allred was a young elder serving in Argentina when Church leaders incorporated Chile into the Argentine Mission. He and Elder Bentley were selected to travel to Santiago, petition to have the Church legally recognized in Chile and begin proselytizing. The call to the Chilean assignment remains a prize memory for Brother Allred.
"It was more than exciting, it was very, very thrilling," said Brother Allred, a Brigham City, Utah, native currently serving as a counselor in the Lima Peru Temple presidency.
Although the Church was essentially a mystery in Chile, the newly arrived elders established a teaching pool almost immediately.
"The success was wonderful compared to what it had been in Argentina," Brother Allred said. "In nearly 99 percent of the homes we visited we were allowed to come in to state our purpose and why we were there. . . from the start we found people who must have been waiting for our arrival."
One day, Elders Allred and Bentley were tracting in the Santiago suburb of Nunoa. They introduced themselves to Perla Garcia, who was outside her home working in the yard. The missionaries invited Perla to listen to their message. She asked the elders to return when her husband returned home from a business trip. They agreed.
Perla Garcia recently told the Church News she was certain her husband, Ricardo, would not want to speak to the two young North Americans.
But Ricardo Garcia responded immediately. Brother Allred remembers Ricardo being so excited about their message that he stood up, locked the door and told the elders they were not leaving his home until they told him about the gospel. Later, Ricardo accepted their invitation to join the Church. He was joined at the baptismal waters by a group of other Chileans who had also been touched by the gospel spirit.
"I was so worried Ricardo wouldn't listen and, in the end, he was the first baptized," Sister Garcia said.
Soon Sister Garcia was also baptized, more missionaries were assigned to Chile and the Church blossomed. Ricardo and Perla Garcia shared the gospel with their children and then with their neighbors. Brother Garcia, who died in 1994, was an agricultural specialist and traveled with his family around the country. Wherever the family went, they offered their gospel gifts to others.
"That family became a showcase for everyone in Chile," Brother Allred said. "The Lord could not have picked stronger models for the Church in Chile than Brother and Sister Garcia."
Today, Sister Garcia marvels at the Church's Chilean success.
"We worked very hard at the beginning, but our work was rewarded because our faith was strengthened," she said.
Sister Garcia said she'll be forever grateful for that first meeting with the newly arrived missionaries outside her Santiago home. Last January, Brother Allred and his wife, Alyce, traveled to Chile to visit Sister Garcia and her family. It was a joyous reunion enriched by Chilean food, hymns and favorite stories.
Brother Allred admits he didn't have a full vision of the Church's future in Chile when he initially arrived in Santiago. When the mission president was released, he wrote Elders Allred and Bentley, reminding the companionship of their special place in Church history.
"President Valentine wrote that the seeds we had planted in Chile would multiply and multiply and the Church would become a great force in Chile," Brother Allred said. "I have followed Chile ever since;it has been a wonderful, wonderful segment of my life."