‘Letters from the past’: Missionary life in the troubled Chile of 1985

‘Letters from the past’: Missionary life in the troubled Chile of 1985 An impoverished town in Chile contrasts the skyscrapers in the background.

Recently I came across in my files this letter which I received in February 1985 from my classmate and much-treasured friend, Fr Peter Lemass. Peter set out at the end of 1984 to join the Columban mission in Chile. Before his departure he promised his classmates to keep us informed on his experiences and the challenges of the mission in Chile. This letter was one of a series in which he fulfilled his promise.

Peter’s letter, written in 1985, illustrates the truth of the aphorism ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’. Peter records an earthquake, the evil influence of a dictator, poverty and class-distinction – all realities still with us.

The particular situation in Chile that year arose from the earlier political and social movements in the country. The socialist president, freely elected in 1970, was deposed by the army and died by his own hand in the siege of the presidential palace in September 1973. He was followed by the rigid dictatorship of General Pinochet, which lasted down to March 1990. The period, when Peter Lemass was in Chile, was one of the darkest periods of Chile’s history, one involving great social inequalities.


Dear Tony,

It’s been an eventful few weeks here in Santiago. First there was the sudden news of (former Archbishop of Dublin) Dermot Ryan’s death. My brother phoned the Columban’s to let me know, and (Fr) Jimmy Prendiville broke the news to me. Dermot had been a good friend over more than 30 years. It was he who introduced me to Clonliffe. It was a friendship that endured his being my archbishop, occasional sharp differences of opinion, and the distance of the Atlantic. I always regarded him first as a friend. I miss him.

The other event was the earthquake. It happened last Sunday night at seven minutes to eight. I was travelling to visit Matt McMahon, an agronomist from Kerry, who has been working here for several years, and had a motor accident last week. Jimmy Prendiville and (Fr) Peter Hughes, (my PP) were in the car. We had stopped to turn left when it happened. I thought a car from behind had run into us, but when I looked around there was no car, and ours kept bucking and rocking.

Peter Lemass in his last years.

Then we realised what it was and jumped onto the street. It was quite hard to stand, you had to hold on to the car. In about three minutes it stopped. We were in a ritzier part of the city, where buildings were new and strong, so the full extent of the damage did not immediately appear. But hardly a single house was unaffected by it. Hundreds fell, especially in the old sectors, or roofs, and part or whole walls. Parapets fell and killed passers-by. Windows of high-rise buildings fell out, and shot across the streets, blinding, cutting and, in some cases, killing people.

Road subsidence’s did more damage; some cars simply drove into a hole 20 feet deep, which had opened in front of them. Thousands slept out in tents. Many still are doing so.


In our parish we were lucky. A baby was killed in the Pentecostal church when part of the roof fell in. Her mother was injured badly. Apart from that, the damage was slight, walls down, ceilings collapsing, nothing more serious. But we used the Mass in time of earthquake at the back of the Missal – I always thought I wouldn’t be using that!

The fact that the group was multi-national, Australian, New Zealand, American, Scottish, English and Irish, causes some misunderstandings and certain differences of approach but I think on the whole it makes for greater tolerance of one another’s views. There does seem to be a good deal of unanimity in the group, which impressed me. They have been through a lot together. One was expelled last year and four arrested.

The work is fairly different from at home. We are just beginning enrolments for First Communion, marriages and baptisms. All the people involved in these will have to do courses of preparation, and these will all be run by lay people from the parish. My job as the priest will be to visit these groups and keep them in good heart and shape.

We have five chapels in the parish, with four Masses each Sunday. In the fifth chapel which varies each week, a lay man holds a service of the Word and Eucharist. The number who come to this would be little, though not much less than Mass. Most of the funerals are done by lay people from the area where the person dies. It is unusual for the body to be brought to church.


The music is good and there is always music at Mass. There is usually a shared homily and the prayers of the faithful come from the floor, not from the altar (but then all our chapels are small enough for the people to be heard).

It is an interesting experience settling into parish life here after 27 years of it at home. In some ways it is like starting off again. I thought I would regret being so old coming out here, and while there are problems in this – my memory is not so sharp for the language, or names – the fact of having a fair bit of pastoral experience helps in making judgements on the situation here. Otherwise, I might have been inclined to think this was the only way of evangelising people.

For instance, there is no daily Mass in many of the parishes here. Mass is celebrated on Sundays only, and then with plenty of effort and participation. I am saying Mass each week-day during Lent, and getting a good attendance. The Mass takes nearly an hour, as they sing about five verses of every hymn and sing all they possibly can. Then at a time like this, with the earthquake, the prayers of the faithful go on, and on.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The Church seems to be pretty divided. The Columbans are in poor areas, the locals (diocesans) in the high-class ones. There does not seem to be much dialogue between the two. An American Columban was arrested when he was selling Christmas cards outside a parish church in the Barrio Alto (high class area). Some parishioners were coming out of Mass. The cards bore the words, “we wish you a Christmas without torture” and when the people saw this they started to hit the priest. The local PP stood by without interfering and the police were called. The Columban was later deported.

I heard the PP was furious at the Columban selling outside his Church without his permission and ‘upsetting’ his people. There is talk now of trying to arrange a meeting between these priests and the Columbans. Should be interesting.

The problem is further complicated by the fact that while the former Cardinal (de Silva) was clearly against the government and on the side of the oppressed, the present man is talking of reconciliation which, in practice, seems to mean appeasement of the [President Augusto] Pinochet regime.

It leaves those who are in the van of the struggle for human rights, and against torture in a less secure position. Last week the medical council expelled one of its members, a doctor, for participating in torture. They said they were investigating a further three doctors for the same offence. Yet in some Church circles there seems to be a denial of its existence.

All of which, plus earthquakes, means that we shall hardly die of boredom…


Copyright (c) The estate of Fr Peter Lemass, 2023. Published by permission.

Diagnosed with a terminal illness, Peter Lemass returned to Ireland. He died on 22 January 1988, and so he did not live to see the end of Pinochet’s rule two years later.