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Mission in Chile

The mission in Chile

In December 1951 the decision was taken to start a new mission in the South American country of Chile. The Brothers of the Immaculate Conception would take over a school in the town of Talca, in the middle of the country. It was a Dutch priest from the Congregation of the Holy Family, active in Chile, who made the contact between the Bishop of Talca and the General Council in Maastricht.

In fact, something similar happened nearly always when mission areas were taken up. At no time did the Congregation choose a certain area all on its own and on its own initiative. It was always outsiders - quite often former pupils of the Brothers in the Netherlands - or missionaries and other clergy, and sometimes lay people too, who came to Maastricht to beg for help; the administration of the Congregation then considered the proposal and came to a decision. The ancient practice of establishing houses in the Netherlands without proper planning was carried over to the mission areas. It was the fire brigade approach: aim the hoses where you see fire. The limited number of brothers ruled out large-scale planning. In defence of this haphazard approach one can also point out that it had produced a lot of good, and, anyhow, should they - if at all possible - have gone about it in another way?

In former times it was the custom in the Congregation for the General Council to address itself to the brothers in a New Year letter. This was read out in all the communities on the morning of New Year's Day. Along with good wishes for the New Year and the customary spiritual exhortations it would sometimes bring real news. As on 1 January 1952, when it was announced that the Brothers were to go to Chile as missionaries. Apart from the insistent papal injunction to pay more attention to the mission areas, two reasons were given why from all the requests it was Chile that had been selected. The General Council took into consideration that the acceptance of a mission in a Spanish- speaking territory had the great advantage that the knowledge of Spanish, gained in a Spanish-speaking mission area, would enable the brothers to work in many other countries, in case the work in Chile should not develop satisfactorily. A second reason was the great need of the poor in South America: the uplifting of the poor was exactly in line with the original objective of the Maastricht Brothers.

The reactions to the acceptance of the mission in Chile could be described as mixed, or perhaps, more adequately, lukewarm. In 1920 a similar message about the adoption of a mission in Central Java had roused great enthusiasm in the Congregation, at least if we may believe the chronicler of that day. Was the enthusiasm not so great because the brothers were not familiar with the country? To the average Dutchman in 1952 Chile was terra incognita, unknown land, in contrast to the Dutch Indies in 1919. And so it was to the Dutch brother. One thing is certain: in 1920 the idea of “mission” was quite different from what it was during the early fifties. After the end of the First World War the Dutch Catholic did not only think of the possibility of converting their own native country to Catholicism within the foreseeable future but also the “pagan” world outside. At the time a holy mission fire was burning in the Netherlands. Thirty years later this enthusiasm had considerably cooled down, while the idea of going to remote regions as, what we call in our days, development workers, lay still in the distant future.

After a short time of preparation the first six Dutch brothers set out for the new mission in Central Chile in December 1952. Soon after his six-year period as general superior was over, Brother Bonaventure Meijs (1900-1974) had gone ahead as quartermaster. There was a lot of pioneer work to be done in Talca, also because the knowledge of Spanish was still far from perfect. The first accommodation of the brothers was quite primitive and so was the school equipment: it recalled the early days of the Congregation in 1840! But there was one big difference. Now a financially strong congregation in the Netherlands was ready to promptly supply whatever was lacking in material goods. The Bishop of Talca gave the brothers an old house as a residence; a school was built opposite. The initial idea was to put up a teacher training college next to this primary school. This plan did not materialise; a secondary school was built instead; all this with the stipulation that it would always be used for the education of the poor and needy.

The initial difficulties were not slight. The brothers came to a foreign country, almost eighteen times the Netherlands. The subtropical climate was pleasant, the landscapes were marvellous, the spacious country with its six to seven million inhabitants then - at present thirteen million - was thinly populated, the people were kind. But the unknown predominated. Unfamiliar was the language which the brothers had to master. Unfamiliar a national mentality so unlike Dutch punctuality and straightforwardness. Unfamiliar the educational system which was not at all like the school system with which they were so familiar in their mother country. Unfamiliar too the way religion was practised. The vast majority of the Chilean people are Catholics, but in a style which is somewhat strange to people from Western Europe. The devotional element prevails. Besides, Chilean Catholicism is liberally mixed with forms of popular belief which, to the outsider, look like superstition, sometimes even idolatry. Unfamiliar too was the social and political order with its sharp dividing lines and the frictions between Church and State. In this area Dutch people are, from their early years on, accustomed to making compromises, and to greater flexibility.

Once in Chile, the brothers courageously worked their way through all these unfamiliar elements. Success was their reward. The primary education, their initial undertaking, was soon extended with schools for secondary and technical education and a school for the handicapped. In later years education remained their main occupation, though there were also brothers who devoted themselves to pastoral and social work in the parishes. The increase in work also demanded an increase in the number of brothers (24 in 1998) and the number of establishments. Besides Talca (1953), with a second house in 1987, these were successively: three houses in Santiago (1957, 1962 and 1981) and one in Buin (1962). For some time there was a settlement in Viña del Mar (1962-1969).

More work required more workers. During the first decades these came exclusively from the Netherlands. However, during the fifties the number of vocations there diminished visibly. Very soon the moment would arrive when the brothers in the Netherlands could no longer meet the need of staff in the Chilean houses. Growth from Chile itself could hardly be expected; as was proved by the experience of other congregations, similar to the Maastricht Brothers.

Therefore, upon advice from Chile, the General Council in Maastricht turned to Spain, where in some regions a good number of vocations could be expected. Moreover, with Spanish brothers a major difficulty in the education in Chile, the language problem, would logically be solved. In a Spanish foundation Dutch brothers could learn Spanish before being sent out to Chile. Some brothers in Chile objected that Spaniards born and bred in the old mother country were not that popular in Chile, which could cause difficulties in the future. But these objections were waved aside.

In the little town of Miranda de Ebro in the north-west of Spain the Congregation built a juvenaat (1965), which was soon filling up. In Valladolid (1971-1973) a study house was established; it was continued in Vitoria, from 1973 till 1981. For miles around a brother recruiter visited village priests in search of suitable aspirants. However, in the seventies a drop in the interest in religious life was also felt in Spain. The decline of the Spanish juvenaat was irreversible. Finally, in 1984 the Congregation had to decide to discontinue the training of prospective brothers in Spain after a presence of 22 years. Recruiting for Chile in Spain once seemed an tempting idea. But with hindsight, it proved a short-lived adventure, which has hardly produced the yield at first expected. At the time of writing two brothers from Spain and five from Chile itself are members of the Congregation.

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