Editor’s note: Laurie Williams Sowby is currently serving in the Chile Santiago West Mission with her husband, Steve.
SANTIAGO, CHILE — “There is peace in my soul.” “I found what I needed in your temple.” “The peace of the Celestial Room filled me completely.”
These were typical of the comments made by thousands of non-LDS who visited the remodeled Santiago Temple the first week of its open house.
The Santiago Temple, in Chile’s capital city, opened its doors to the public Jan. 21, after a year of remodeling and refurbishing. The “puertas abiertas” — “open doors” — continues through Feb. 11. After its rededication in two sessions Feb. 26, the temple will be open only to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who hold a temple recommend. It will be the Church’s 123rd temple in operation.
Officials expected perhaps 1,000 visitors on the opening day, but more than three times that many attended. They waited in a line that wrapped around the block known locally as Temple Square. On the same block are area and mission offices of the Church, a chapel, small distribution center, and a missionary training facility that also serves as dorms for visiting temple groups. Gardens behind the temple give the area a serene setting.
Before the temple was closed for renovation, several buses a day were arriving, filled with faithful members wanting to attend the temple. Members in outlying areas are especially happy to have “their” temple — the only one in Chile — open again. For a year, they have been traveling to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to receive first-time endowments or be sealed.
First dedicated in September 1983, as the Church’s 24th operating temple, the small temple in Santiago’s Providencia district has undergone a complete renovation and been enlarged by one-third, to 21,000 square feet. It now contains two more sealing rooms, enlarged dressing areas, and offices in addition to the two sealing rooms and two endowment session rooms that existed originally. A notable addition is the baptistry, greatly enlarged and with the font now resting on the backs of 12 oxen.
The temple features local craftsmanship and detail in its furnishings, from the native Chilean marble and blue lapis lazuli stone in the entryway and baptistry floors to the flower motif of the country’s national flower, the copihue, used on furniture, door handles, and art glass. Several reproductions of Minerva Tiechert’s Book of Mormon paintings hang on the walls.
After entering the chapel next door and seeing a 15-minute film about temples, groups of 25 are taken on a tour through all areas of the temple, including locker rooms, laundry area and administrative offices. People are astounded by the quiet beauty of the place and often feel an unexpected reverence, especially as they stand in the Celestial Room. Someone is stationed at the door to offer tissues as they leave.
The Celestial Room and the sealing room across the hallway elicit such comments as, “The spirit of Christ is present.” “I felt great joy and I felt like crying.” A young person offered, “It felt good to be in the house of Christ with my family.” A Catholic said, “I want to understand more about being sealed for eternity.”
Others expressed appreciation to the Church for making the temple open to everyone during the open house. “It is a special place and will be very important to all Christians as a place to feel God,” said one. Said another, “I give thanks to your members for permitting me to know you a little more.” Even one who professed no religion said she’d felt the Spirit of our Father in Heaven: “I arrived with great pain, but after the tour, I left without pain.” Said an atheist, “If God exists, today I found his house.”
The tour ends at the back door, which opens into the gardens. Most visitors return to the chapel cultural hall to view exhibits and visit with sister missionaries. Many fill out cards requesting a visit from missionaries in their area. Information from the cards is entered into a computer the same day, and those referrals are immediately sent to the appropriate one of Chile’s nine missions.
Eduardo Lamartine, coordinator of temple committee over the open house and rededication, said he is happy to know that nonmembers are having a spiritual experience as they walk through the temple, and he hopes those experiences translate into many baptisms of people who will become strong members. But he also hopes the renewal of the temple will be reflected in the personal lives of the Latter-day Saints in Chile.
“We hope there’s an individual spiritual renovation of the people of Chile — more fervor, more faithfulness, more activity — as members remember the covenants they have made and receive the blessings promised by President Hinckley.”
He refers to visits in 1996, President Hinckley’s first as a prophet, and again in 1999, in the midst of the country’s economic problems. Brother Lamartine remembers that both times, President Hinckley promised the Saints in Chile “we would have all the bread we need and a roof over our heads if we would follow his counsel to be worthy and faithful in keeping our covenants, paying tithing, having family prayer and Family Home Evening, and creating harmony in our homes.” But, he says, pride has entered in and people have not been faithful.
Interestingly, the Church counts more than a half million baptized members in Chile, while only about 104,000 (over 15 years of age) reported themselves as Latter-day Saints on the country’s 2002 census.
Church leaders and mission presidents are familiar with the fact that fewer than 15 percent of baptized members in Chile are “active” in attending meetings and associating with other Church members regularly. Everyone is hoping that the focus on the open house visits and temple worthiness will translate into greater commitment on the part of individual members, as well as many baptisms of well-taught, well-fellowshipped converts. It is hoped that the spirit that accompanies the rededication temple will inspire currently inactive church members to return to full fellowship in the gospel.
President Hinckley, who dedicated the temple in 1983, is expected to return to Chile for the two rededicatory sessions on Sunday, Feb. 26. The night before, a stadium that holds 50,000 will be the showcase for a celebration of Chilean culture by 4,000 LDS youth from the Santiago area.