Volume 7, Number 4

November 2011

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Mission in Pinochet’s Chile: A Memoir

By Alo Connaughton

Alo Connaughton is a Columban priest originally from Ballinacree, Co. Meath. He was a missionary in Latin America from 1974 to 1993, is a former editor of Far East magazine, and worked in Myanmar from 2004 to 2007. He is now based in Thailand, and teaches at Saengtham College, Bangkok.

Appointment to Chile

I remember lines from a book by a French theologian, Yves Congar where he described a farmer who, from a distance, watches two armies fight in 1815. He knows there’s a war going on but he doesn’t know that he is watching ‘The Battle of Waterloo.’ That event, with all that it came to signify, would only become clear to him and to others later on. When I look back on my years in Chile I realize that, to some extent, I was in the farmer’s situation. Many things were happening. Some of them I understood, but the significance of others only dawned on me later on.

I first visited Chile during May and June of 1973. The Unidad Popular government led by Salvador Allende was in its final months. Every week there was at least one large rally or protest followed by a counter-event a day or two later. The country was gradually being paralyzed by internal and external forces. I left Santiago on the day after an attempted coup at the end of June. The previous day’s events were perhaps the first of those whose full significance I would come to appreciate only later on.

I returned to my work on the Far East magazine but I indicated to my superiors that I would be happy to take up an overseas assignment in the near future. Before the end of 1973 I had received an appointment to work with the Society of St Columban in Latin America. This was to take effect from September 1974. I came to Chile ‘by accident.’ I had in fact been assigned to Peru but Cardinal Raul Silva of Santiago visited the Columban Irish headquarters in Navan some time after I got my appointment – and after the other 9/11, the military coup. He asked if more priests could be sent to Chile. After he left, I met the Superior General on the corridor. He said ‘Oh by the way, we have decided to send you to Chile’. I have no recollection of being either delighted or upset by the news.

After eighteen weeks of language studies in Cochabamba, Bolivia I arrived in Santiago with reasonably good Spanish in early March 1975. Chile was to be my home during most of the military regime of General Pinochet and, for the first three years of the government led by Patricio Aylwin. Towards the end of 1993, almost twenty years after I arrived, I left the country to take up a new assignment in Ireland.

The First Year

I was given a pastoral appointment to the parish of San Gabriel, Lo Prado, in Santiago’s Western Zone. I arrived as the people of the Zone were going through a kind of mourning period. Their very much-loved bishop, Fernando Ariztia, had just been appointed bishop of Copiapó, a diocese that covers a large expanse of the Atacama Desert. Some people felt that through some sort of compromise this champion of the poor and of human rights had been sidelined from the centre of things. He had been a key member of the Comité pro Paz, the forerunner of the Vicaría de Solidaridad, the human rights group which played such a vital role then and for many years afterwards. (He was a member of one of Chile’s richest families). The new bishop, Enrique Alvear, seemed to be relatively unknown to all.

As I write this, thirty five years later, two events stand out clearly in my mind from that first year. One was on the 1 May 1975. The deanery groups of Movimiento de Obreros Católicos (MOAC) and Jóvenes Obreros Católicos (JOC or YCW) had invited their members and friends to attend a religious celebration in honour of the Feast of St Joseph the Worker, the ‘baptized’ version of May Day. The venue was to be our church in San Gabriel, at about 11.00 am. ‘Church’ is perhaps a rather grand name for what, at that time, was little more than a large multi-purpose shed. There were the usual hymns with a social edge to them, and readings; Jeremiah, Micah and Habacuk were favourites in those days. A member of one of the groups read from a document prepared by the MOAC. I cannot remember now whether it was a prayer, or a kind of letter to the authorities. The words were fairly mild, asking that the rights of workers be respected by the new regime. When he finished, as he came down the steps, he was arrested and taken to the police station which was next door to the church. Our new bishop, Don Enrique Alvear, and some of the priests followed immediately to the retén de Carabineros. The man – today I remember only his first name – Atrizio, was not released. I spent most of that afternoon sitting on a low wall opposite the police station with Fr Mario Garfias, the parish priest of San Luis Beltrán, the parish of Atrizio. All requests for information were refused. By late evening we found out that he had been taken away by the dreaded DINA, the secret police. Hours of sickening worry followed. I was new to the country, but I was there long enough to know what had happened to other innocent people from the area who had fallen into the hands of the DINA. There was general relief, when perhaps three days later, Atrizio was released unharmed.

The housekeeper in the Columban Centre House in Larrain Gandarillas in central Santiago was Enriqueta Reyes. One evening at the end of October 1975 I had a long chat with her. She was only about twenty nine, already married and separated, the mother of four children who lived ‘down the country’ with relatives. She had been desperate for work and was happy to accept the job offered by the Columbans. But she felt very lonely. Two days after our chat she died in the second ‘high impact’ event of my first year in Chile. The DINA also played a prominent part in this episode in the late evening of 1 November 1975; an event which is sometimes referred to as the Caso Columbano.

The DINA may have believed that one or more wounded members of the MIR, an armed opposition group, were hiding in the house. Their agents had reported that an English doctor, Sheila Cassidy was making frequent visits there. She had in fact, some days previously, given medical attention to a wounded MIR member, but somewhere else. The DINA had obtained this information through interrogation of detainees. The reasons for her visits to the Columban house was the presence of a nun who was quite ill. Heavily armed agents of the DINA using powerful lights surrounded the Centre House; their objective was the arrest of the recently arrived doctor. When the housekeeper, Enriqueta, moved from the glass door through which she had spoken to the agents, to get the keys to open the street gate, they opened fire. Enriqueta died instantly. The director, Fr Bill Halliden narrowly escaped death. Dr Cassidy was taken away, interrogated and tortured.

In the following days all the government-controlled media carried reports of the courageous fight of the agentes de seguridad with the ferocious terrorists who were shooting at them from inside the Columban house. One paper carried a photo of an arm being operated on to remove a bullet – one of the injured agentes, the article asserted. There was of course nobody in the house except Enriqueta, the sick nun, Fr Halliden and Sheila Cassidy. A military fiscal, to his credit, over a year later ruled that there was no evidence whatsoever of shooting from inside the house. But the Caso Columbano was quoted again and again during the Pinochet years to show just how involved the church was with subversion. To this day one can read the ‘priest terrorist’ version of the story on the Internet.

Other people were arrested at the time of Sheila Cassidy’s detention, including priests and nuns. They had helped three MIR members into the Apostolic Nunciature in Santiago where they applied for asylum. The Cardinal Silva strongly defended their action. If I recall rightly, his argument was that the people being pursued would face almost certain extra-judicial death if handed over.

What Am I Doing Here?

I do have another vivid memory from that first year. I occasionally went for a rest to a parish staffed by Columbans in the port city of San Antonio. I can remember walking on one of the nearby beaches with a priest friend one evening as the sun sank into the Pacific Ocean. One of the things we asked ourselves was ‘What are we, foreigners from the far side of the world, doing here in the middle of this turmoil? Often, as priests in parishes, we are being asked to make decisions about complex matters that we only half understand,

All of us worked in poor areas of Chile, mostly Santiago. This, without a doubt, shaped the way we saw things. If I had been assigned to an upper-class parish, much less affected by the political situation my version of history might be quite different. But I lived in Pudahuel where probably forty per cent of the people were unemployed. So many of those who were employed were paid horribly unjust wages. I remember especially those who took off at dawn to work in the houses and businesses of the rich on the other side of the city. Some were treated well; the majority were not. Several people in the area where I worked had disappeared; many had been arrested and tortured. The vast majority had voted either with the Christian Democrats or with some of the parties of the Unidad Popular – mainly Communist and Socialist. All of them had hopes and dreams of a better life, of a more just society.

To come back to the question ‘What are we doing here?’ I wasn’t entirely naïve. I had gone to university and also received a reasonably good education in theology and some of the social sciences. For four years I had worked on the staff of a magazine where I had plenty of opportunities to do some research on religious, social, cultural and political issues. Two Latin Americans who particularly interested me at that time were Paulo Freire author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Dom Helder Camara, Archbishop of Olinda and Recife. They were both Brazilians. I remember at one stage, when Dom Helder was much in demand around the world as a speaker, wondering if he was just a kind of holy showman. Having had the privilege of meeting him on a few occasions in later years I was left in no doubt that I was in the presence of a saint.

I was aware too that the Latin American bishops at a long meeting in Medellín in Colombia, a sort of South American Vatican II, had really come to grips with the challenges of the day. I had read A Theology of Liberation, a book by a Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutierrez. This gave me some new insights. It caused considerable discomfort to some bishops in Latin American who didn’t see things the way Dom Helder or Cardinal Arns of Sao Paulo or some of the Chilean bishops did. During the pontificate of John Paul II Colombian Cardinal Lopez Trujillo would be the chief promoter of Roman suspicion of Latinamerican theology.

Daily Life in Lo Prado

In San Gabriel the ordinary round of parish activities took up all available time. Most of my energy went to the Lo Prado area but I also had some responsibilities for the sizeable poblaciones of Arturo Prat, Manuel Rodriguez, Los Maitenes, and a campamento, Los Copihues. It was not a nine-to-five life. The mornings were frequently taken up with ‘institutional’ activities. Often there were courses to be attended or meetings for one reason or another with priests or religious who worked in the archdiocese. Then there were funerals or calls to sick people. It was a good time for just listening to people who wanted a sympathetic ear and for writing letters of recommendation to potential employers, school principals and judges. Most of the pastoral activities took place from mid afternoon until as late as 11:00 pm. I spent a lot of time participating in small communities or groups. I inherited a parish where the ordinary people were used to taking responsibility. As I look back now, having seen so many places where that does not happen, I marvel at the extent of the involvement. At one time, probably around 1981, I did a rough count of the number of groups functioning in the parish. There were around two hundred. The majority were those connected to sacramental preparation. Parents who had children for First Communion were expected to participate in groups during the winters/spring for two years. They attended about twenty sessions per year during which they got a thorough grounding in the basics of Christian life and teaching. There were probably about forty of these groups, all led by one or two people who had done some training as catechists and group leaders. And of course that meant that there were also forty groups of children. They got the basics from their parents but also had back-up sessions with youth leaders. Apart from that there were Baptism and Confirmation groups; basic Christian communities, pastoral councils, workers’ and unemployed peoples’ groups, assistance groups, music groups, food kitchen and health groups, culture groups, finance committees, sports clubs and funeral service groups – to mention the ones I can now remember.

In my experience, the ordinary people of those poor areas of Santiago were probably the best educated general body of lay Christians that I have known – and I have worked and lived in several countries. I don’t think it is nostalgia that prompts me to say that. So many of them, young and old, had a very clear grasp of the fundamentals of the Christian life, and they tried to put this into practice. So often in community work or liturgies I felt my own flagging spirits being raised up by the Spirit that was present among them. To have had Don Fernando Ariztía as bishop followed by Don Enrique Alvear was an exceptional blessing for our Western Zone. They had an enormous influence in shaping the life of its communities.

I remember chatting with a member of one of the communities years after both had gone and other winds were blowing. The priest of this community, a very down-to-earth man of the people, had been replaced by some new, very clerical, young priests. He was reflecting out loud on the change. ‘Over the years, with Don Fernando and Don Enrique, we had come to know a God who came down to earth, who really became one of us. Now I feel that God is being pushed back up into heaven again.’

Why They Came

I cannot now recall the name of the professor of anthropology from the University of Salamanca who wrote an article in Vida Nueva several years ago describing what motivates Spanish Catholics. He said they come to church for four main reasons i) emergency (for example sickness or exams) ii) social benefit (meet friends) iii) search for meaning in life iv) solid belief in God, faith etc. He added that something of those four motives is mixed into the ‘faith’ of nearly every believer.

In the years I am talking about most participants in the parish were motivated by some degree of Christian faith. Some of them, in normal circumstances, would have been more involved in local politics and community work. The only spaces available for people like that in the Pinochet years were in a few highly manipulated regime projects; not wanting that, they dedicated their talents to promoting various community activities under the umbrella of the church. It gave them a certain security. Close relatives of some members of the Christian communities had been arrested for their activities – for example organizing workers to demand better pay – and had disappeared. Most parishes in poor areas were glad to welcome people with social or organization skills and there was a fairly clear understanding about the boundaries of activities. The presence of former communists or socialists in Church groups or activities made for plenty of comment at times. Many of these were also convinced Christians.

I do not know how many participants were in the category of the man who said to one of my companions ‘No creo en la iglesia pero si creo en el cardenal.’ The man he was talking about was Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez who played such an enormous role in the Chile of Pinochet. Recently I read again a section of his address for 1 May 1982.

Las solucciones que hasta ahora se han querido dar a la crisis nos parecen fracasadas. La imposicion de un sistema economico social-neoliberal no sólo no ha corregido los males que nos affligan, sino que los ha acentuado, llevándolos a limites extramedamente peligrosos. Los remedios económicos adolecen, a nuestro juicio, de un despiadado materialismo que no respeta al hombre ni sus derechos. El costo social de ellos es enorme, y para un cristiano, inaceptable. Las estructuras de participación y de control de la sociedad sobre el Estado son prácticamente inexistentes y, por lo tanto, inoperantes [see notes for English translation, ed.]. [1]

On great occasions like Chile’s national holiday, 18 September, and 1 May the cardinal’s address was a reflection on the current situation and had suggestions about a way forward. The 1982 words, quoted above brings me back again to the farmer in the field. I understood what the cardinal was talking about in the course of the well though-out address. It was perfectly clear to me that the Chilean ‘miracle’ being lauded by international financial institutions was not being seen as such in the Western Zone, where I lived. Twenty-five years would pass before I read Naomi Klein’s penetrating analysis of the shock doctrine as applied to economics in Chile. [2] As I lived through it I could see many of the pieces of the jigsaw but could not put them all together to form the whole picture. For some people, like that select few who were able to buy the privatized industries at bargain prices, or pay slave wages, things were obviously terrific. For the people I listened to every week in their small groups the story was very different. Milton Friedman, the architect of Chile’s new economic policy, the policy the cardinal described as merciless materialism, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1976.

There is a danger in writing something many years after the event, from far away and with few resources on hand. I have seen articles supporting the view that the sacrifices of the 1970s and 1980s were necessary to build the foundations of a stable economy in Chile. For me the question remains ‘Were not other countries able to do it with a smaller social cost and with less suffering? Social and political repression was an essential element of the imposition of the Friedman model. Other relevant questions might be ‘What was the reality behind the growth figures? Who benefitted? What is the state of wealth distribution in Chile today?’

Ways of Understanding Mission

Recently in Saengtham College, Bangkok, where I teach, a class of students invited me to talk to them about my work as a missionary. I mentioned some of the things I have written here. When I paused to ask if there were any questions one student said ‘We were hoping that you would talk to us about your missionary work’. He didn’t see much relation between the things I had said and his understanding of mission.

What was my own understanding of my role as a missionary? The first thing I would say is that the original motivations that brought me to make an option for that life would have been inadequate to see me through it. These initial motivations were heavily coloured by a simplistic understanding of faith and salvation. Where did my revised motivations come from? Membership of the Society of St Columban and the education/formation I received in UCD and Dalgan Park in the 1960s was obviously one formative influence. New approaches being used by those who had gone before me was another. Membership of the Chilean Church was the most significant one. My understanding of what I should do was shaped by the lay people, priests, religious, theologians and bishops that I had the privilege to come to know there. Foremost among these was Don Enrique Alvear. I came to a new and more grounded understanding of themes like the Kingdom of God, the Holy Spirit, the place of the poor, structural sin, the centrality of justice and the meaning of salvation.

One of the continual accusations against the Church in the Pinochet years was that it was hopelessly politicized. There were plenty of Catholic voices singing in this chorus and the usual insinuation was that the Church was abandoning its authentic spiritual mission. The implication was that the true Church never dirtied its hands with topics like arrest, torture, disappearance dawn searches of poblaciones, unemployment, exploitation and so on. Patristic Theology is one of the subjects I teach today. I find no shortage there of devastating social and political critique in the writings of saints like Justin, Athanasius, Basil, the Gregorys of Cappadocia, Ambrose and John Chrysostom to mention but a few.

The Big Picture

A quotation from another of the Fathers, St Augustine brings me to a final point about not seeing the full picture at the time. Augustine’s theme is justice.

The answer that a well-known pirate gave to Alexander the Great was perfectly accurate and correct. When the king asked the man what he meant by infesting the sea the man boldly replied ‘I am doing the same as you, but you are making war on the whole world. I do my robbing from a small ship and they call me a pirate. You do yours with a big fleet of ships and they call you a commander. (City of God: Book IV)

Augustine’s words could be applied to the activity of the ‘Alexander’ that has controlled so much of the world affairs for over sixty years; and it will probably apply equally to the new ‘Alexander’ emerging from Asia. The title of William Blum’s book on the CIA Killing Hope aptly described what that organization managed to do (not single-handedly, granted) at the beginning of my time in Chile. [3] For so many decades its activities have helped kill the hopes of millions of people around the world, and especially in Latin America; its priorities are the financial interests of the people it serves. When I arrived in Latin America all but two, as far as I remember, of the countries were under military regimes. The CIA had been involved in many of the coups that suppressed democracy and the doctrine of national security was the new bible. Many of the coup leaders had been trained in the School of the Americas.

Around that time I read about the Santa Fé Document – the blueprint for the Reagan Latin American policy, and the earlier Banzer Plan.[4] They made it clear that there was an urgent need to neutralize those who had ideas similar to those of Dom Helder Camara (or later) Archbishop Oscar Romero. The dictators who applied the recommended anti-church policies murdered thousands of lay Christian leaders and nearly seventy bishops, priests and sisters in the seventies and eighties. The fuller significance of the National Security Doctrine, the reasons for the multiple coups, and the plans of campaign only became clear years later, with the publication of declassified documents and other pieces of careful research. The saddest and most scandalous reading from this period comes from Central America. Noam Chomsky, who I think describes himself as an agnostic Jew, wrote the following about that period.

Central America was a very striking case, because the United States was basically at war with the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1960's and 1970's had really shifted its traditional vocation. It had adopted aspects of liberation theology, and had recognized what's called ‘the preferential option for the poor’. Priests, nuns and lay workers were organizing peasants into communities, where they would read the Gospels and draw lessons about organization that they could use to try to take control of their own lives. And of course that made them bitter enemies of the United States and Washington launched a war to destroy them. For example, one of the publicity points of the School of the Americas, which changed its name in 2000 to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is that the U.S. army helped 'defeat liberation theology.’ Which is accurate…

It is interesting to look back at what was happening at that time. Here was a supposedly very religious country, the United States, going to war against organized religion. And the reason was that the church was working for the poor. As long as religion is working for the rich, it is fine; but not for the poor.[5]

There may be a need here to make a distinction between a state’s policy and its people. It was my privilege in Latin America to know many missionaries from the USA. There is no attempt at flattery when I say that few groups were more socially aware or more committed to teaching and living Gospel values.

A Missionary Today?

Why does one continue to be a missionary in a Catholic Church that seems to collect a scandal a day? (An inadequate but not totally irrelevant response is that if you have 1.2 billion members there is a lot of potential for scandal.) For me the reason to continue has a lot to do with keeping hope alive in the face of so many forces that threaten to kill it. I experienced first-hand how that hope works among the poor. But in today’s world the ‘non-poor’ are just as much in need of a system (for want of a better word) to nurture solidarity and build a more human community. A high profile but ‘tone deaf to religion’ intellectual like Jurgen Habermas gives this short description of contemporary society:

[We see] the transformation of the citizens of prosperous and peaceful liberal societies into isolated monads acting on the basis of their own self-interest, persons who use their subject rights only as weapons against each other. We can also see evidence of a crumbling of citizens’ solidarity in the larger context, where there is no political control over the dynamic of the global economy and the global society.[6]

Living in Southeast Asia, where religion is still very much part of the culture, has made me even more aware of the extent the ‘western’ world has lost its sense of the transcendent. I still believe that the Church of which I am a member can play a vital role in keeping that awareness alive and building caring communities that provide a more fitting environment for human beings. But beyond the humanitarian activity it also offers a system of meaning. It is and can continue to be a great force for good. While much of the negative criticism today is deserved the ‘carpet bombing’ approach of negative media coverage takes little account of the positive. Because of negative publicity few people would be aware for instance that about one quarter of HIV/AIDS sufferers in the world are taken care of by organizations related to the Catholic Church.

In 1989, I interviewed Dom Matthias Schmitt, a bishop in the northeast of Brazil for the Far East magazine. He was a heroic defender of the small farmers in his diocese, a man who lived in the middle of what seemed like unbearable tensions. My final question was ‘What keeps you going, what keeps your hope alive?’ His answer sounded like words from one of the ancient prophets. From what I remember it went more or less like this.

I do what I can, but a lot of the time I can’t stop people being driven off their land or their houses being burned, I can’t prevent a lot of their daily suffering. But there is a big difference between suffering alone and suffering with the support of someone else. Secondly you must always remember that the seed that is planted never lives to see the fruit. So you must work in hope, knowing that you, in your lifetime you may never see the results of what you do.

How do I evaluate my own time as a missionary in Chile? I would prefer to let those on the receiving end do that. I remember a colleague, who perhaps was quoting someone else, saying to me one time ‘When I leave I hope they will not say “Look at all the things he did for us.” Rather, I hope they will say “Look at the things we were able to do ourselves because he encouraged us’”. All I hope for is that there may be a few who can honestly say that about me.



[1] The following is a translation of Cardinal Raul Silva’s words in his 1982 homily. ‘The solutions to the crisis which have been used up until now have, in our opinion, failed. The imposition of the neoliberal economic system has not corrected the evils that afflict us; it has accentuated them and pushed them to dangerous extremes. The economic remedies in our judgment, suffer from a merciless materialism which does not respect man or his rights. Their social cost is enormous, and, for a Christian, is unacceptable. The structures of participation and control of society over the state are practically non-existent and, for this reason, inoperative’.

[2] Naomi Klein. The Shock Doctrine. (New York: Metropolitan Book, 2007).

[3] William Blum. Killing Hope: US Military and CIA intervention since World War II. (Monroe: Common Courage Press, 2008).

[4] Penny Lernoux. Cry of the Poor. (New York: Penguin, 1982) 143-45.

[5] Noam Chomsky. Imperial Ambitions. (Hamish Hamilton, 2005) 188.

[6] Jurgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger. The Dialectics of Civilization. (Ignatius Press, 2005)


Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2011

Published: 01 November 2011
Edited: 07 Diciembre 2011

Alo Connaughton ' Mission in Pinochet’s Chile: A Memoir ' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 7:4 (November 2011), pp. 299-304. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla2011_7_04_10_Alo_Connaughton.htm), accessed .

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