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Catholicism and ancient cultures entwined

Day eighteen in Chile

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A last morning in Hanga Roa

Santa Cruz Church

We had already walked past Hanga Roa’s small but intriguing Catholic church on our first afternoon on the island. Our last day fell on a Sunday, and with our flight not until the afternoon we decided to spend the first part of the morning attending mass. Now, my husband is a Catholic and goes to mass regularly, and I often accompany him. We have been to some interesting services around the world as a result but perhaps none more so than here.


When the moai culture collapsed and the islanders turned against the ancestral statues they thought would protect them from harm, they needed something or someone to take their place. That someone was the Birdman, chosen each year at the ceremonial village of Orongo. But still the fortunes of the island declined, especially after Peruvian slavers raided the island and kidnapped about 1,000 men to harvest guano on islands off the Peruvian coast. A year later only 100 survived and, faced with an international scandal, the government of Peru sent them home. However, only 15 survived the journey, and they brought smallpox to the island, causing further death and despair among the Rapanui. So when European missionaries arrived, bringing a new religion with a Messiah who promised salvation and hope to a people desperately in need of the latter in particular, it is little wonder they converted en masse. Just ten years after the missionaries’ arrival in 1863 all the islanders had adopted the new religion.


Today the island can definitely be regarded as predominately Christian, but old beliefs die hard and if you scratch the surface of most islanders’ Christianity you will find a lingering allegiance to some of the convictions of the past, as expressed through the oral tradition. Even in the church you are not far from the ancient island cultures; statues of saints reflect traditional wood-carving techniques and many have elements of ancient symbols such as the Birdman and Make-Make.

It is quite common, and accepted, that many tourists who are not practising Christians will want to attend the mass – usually the 9.00 AM one which features traditional music and singing. Any who do so are made welcome. In return it would be good to think that those visitors respect any requests of the church-going locals. I was very disappointed therefore to see many around us taking photos and shooting videos during the service – the one thing that you are expressly asked not to do. This is a religious ceremony, not a performance. Having said, that I do understand the temptation as who, used to more conventional church services and hymn singing, would not be intrigued by musical instruments made from animal jaw-bones and singing that blends Rapanui and Tahitian languages? The thought occurred to me that the worshipping islanders might be more successful in their demands of tourists if they were to offer to “stage” one song after the mass had ended.

Photos are permitted before the mass starts, which is when I took mine. It is also possible to visit the church at other times, although we had found it closed on our previous attempt to do so.

11_10_Hanga_Roai_2016.jpg 11_11_Hanga_Roai_2016.jpg

After the mass we took a last walk around town and stopped for coffee at a friendly café on Atamu Tekena where we were lucky enough to secure a table on the outside deck – perfect for some people watching.


We walked back to our hotel past the Rapa Nui parliament building further up the same street (the Rapanui have limited autonomy from Chile and can make a few of their own laws) and some of the protest signs near the airport where a local Rapanui family, the Roe, are claiming ownership of the land on which it was built. Earlier in 2016 they had threatened to block access to the airport and their dispute with the government is on-going. This is one of several similar conflicts over land on the island – earlier in our stay we had passed the protest camp outside the Hangaroa Eco Village and Spa which is located on land which the Hito Rangi clan claims was illegally sold to private developers during the period of the Pinochet military dictatorship, and is rightfully theirs. Some understanding of the challenges facing the modern-day Rapanui, as they negotiate their relationship with mainland Chile and strive for balance in creating a sustainable approach to tourism, will, I believe, enhance your visit to the island as much as will an understanding of its ancient cultures.


But it was time for us to leave this magical place. After checking in at its tiny airport with the incongruously long runway we ate lunch there at a table overlooking that same runway before boarding the plane that would take us back to Santiago. And as a final token of the island’s hospitality, a tiny wooden moai on a string was hung around the neck of each departing passenger much as on arrival we had all been draped with a lei.


Posted by ToonSarah 02:11 Archived in Chile Tagged church chile rapa_nui

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This really does sound like a magical place, Sarah.

by Nemorino

Absolutely fascinating Don

by ToonSarah

what a place ... you definitely never going to forget this experience!

by Ils1976

Absolutely not Ils!

by ToonSarah

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