Uncertainty in Uruguay

Will the church survive its mistakes in a land of secularism?

By Matthew Townsend

MONTEVIDEO — In a quiet corner of South America, far removed from the splendor of Machu Picchu or the excitement of Rio de Janeiro, you can find a small, committed group of Anglicans who deeply love their church. The Anglicans of Uruguay, the small coastal country nestled between Argentina and Brazil, also fear for the future of their church: numbers have continued to decline, the parishioners are growing older, and the outside culture has not expressed taste for church.

While the worldwide nature of the Anglican Communion is often a subject of discussion, Uruguay’s Anglicans may not come to mind frequently to northern Episcopalians and Anglicans. The Iglesia Anglicana del Uruguay made headlines in 2010, when, based on its desire to ordain women to the priesthood, it voted to leave the Province of the Southern Cone and join Brazil. The rest of the province said no. Trouble also erupted after the election of Canadian-born Michael Pollesel as bishop in early 2012; the province’s House of Bishops refused to ratify the election. In 2012, the Anglican Consultative Council declined Uruguay’s request to leave the Southern Cone. However, with the ratification of Pollesel’s election in 2013, and a local option for women’s ordination granted in 2015, Uruguay’s Anglicans have slipped away from the headlines and likely toward the back of Northern minds.

Plaza de Independencia, Montevideo

Americans, Canadians, and Brits may not think of Uruguay in general. If you live in North America, you may never visit Uruguay. After all, Uruguay is far: expect around 18 hours of flight time from New York. It is also small; by land area, the country is about the size of Oklahoma. And do not feel guilty if you have never met an Uruguayan: the population, about half of which lives in Montevideo, totals only 3.4 million. There are, in fact, more Oklahomans than Uruguayans.

To understand the church in Uruguay, it is necessary to understand the country. That is a task easier said than done. Name the last book you read or even saw about Uruguay. Try finding an Uruguayan travel book at your local bookstore (you may gather some tidbits from a book on Buenos Aires, as day trips are possible). Try, if you will, asking Google for information about Uruguay. If you do, be sure to use Spanish, as English will yield far fewer results.

Some guidebooks may tell you that Uruguayans are similar to porteños, the inhabitants of Buenos Aires. While Montevideo is about five hours by boat from Buenos Aires, this is not a fair comparison. Sure, both peoples like yerba mate and soccer. They both suffered under dictatorship and instability in the 1970s and ’80s. They both dance tango. However, Uruguay and Argentina have different histories and function under different circumstances. On the street, Uruguayans will readily tell you that they live at a slower, calmer pace than the Argentines. They are more obscure, and they know it. Argentines might tell you the Uruguayans are extremely well educated and that they make lousy coffee. They also might say Uruguayans are not aware of how easy their lives are, by comparison. In any case, there are similarities, but they are not the same.

For starters, Uruguay is the most socially progressive country in South America. Marijuana is legal for citizens, abortion is legal to 12 weeks, and same-sex marriage is legal. Education is free, including university. The president of Uruguay, Tabaré Vasquez, is a medical doctor and socialist. The current mayor of Montevideo is also a socialist; the previous one, a communist. In fact, communist and Marxist literature abounds in the many, many bookstores to be found in the capital, and pro-worker fliers and posters are scattered throughout the city.

Laicismo at Large

Another aspect of Uruguayan progressivism: a strongly secular society. “Laicismo is in the law here,” the Rt. Rev. Michele Pollesel told TLC shortly before his retirement in July. Pollesel explained that laicismo — secularism — goes beyond separation of church and state in Uruguay.

Pollesel: “There’s really very little interest for anything like the church or religion here.”

“It’s not only legal, but there’s a sense of almost anti-clericalism in the country,” he said. “Religion just isn’t a part of most people’s everyday life.”

Pollesel said that North Americans would be surprised at just how secular Uruguay is. He said he’s found it more secular than Canada or even Cuba, a country he came to know well while serving as secretary to the Metropolitan Council of Cuba. Uruguay is not a country where you find full churches on Sundays.

“To be a church anywhere is challenging, but there’s that added thing that there’s really very little support or interest for anything like the church or religion here,” he said. “Up north you hear, I’m spiritual. I may not have a denomination, but I’m spiritual. I don’t know that you would hear that here. It just wouldn’t be a part of the mindset.”

Rebecca Oswin, a native of England who has lived in Uruguay for 19 years, agreed. Oswin, who worships at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Montevideo, said she finds Uruguay significantly less religious than the United Kingdom.

“It’s really, really secular,” she said. “Life in the U.K. is very much plural; it’s got a lot of different religions. They did a census a couple of years ago and actually put Jedi as a religion. I think we’re sort of proud of being religious in some way or another, even if it’s completely out there. Here, no. Here people can’t really understand why I go to church and what it is. There’s not a lot of interest because it’s completely out of their knowledge.

“People my age here, they have no concept of going to church, being part of a church.”

Indeed, a glance at the calendar would suggest that the Christian life has been entirely removed from public affairs. Celebrating December 25? That’s Family Day. And then there’s Tourism Week, which coincides with Holy Week. During this week, Uruguayans are encouraged not to attend church but to travel. Crosses and other religious symbols are not to be found in public schools and hospitals — they were removed in the early 20th century. A cross and statue were installed in the Tres Cruces area of Montevideo this year to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Uruguay. El Pais reported that the cross was accepted by former Uruguayan president and confessed agnostic Julio María Sanguinetti as a “record of this historical circumstance that will remind us not only of the Catholic community, but all men of good will.” The daily also reported that the installation sparked heated debate in both legislative chambers.

Hector E. Luisi, a retired international civil servant who has lived in both Uruguay and the United States, told TLC that the country’s encompassing secularism grew from the intersection of pioneering civil rights efforts and miscalculations made by the Roman Catholic Church.

The streets of Montevideo reveal Uruguay’s progressive flavor, replete with signs of Communism, solidarity movements, and workers’ rights.

Luisi, who is not an Anglican, cited the country’s roots in secular revolution. It was Uruguay where Giuseppe Garibaldi first raised an army of Redshirts to fight in the Uruguayan Civil War. Many of Uruguay’s early leadership embraced the values of the French Revolution — liberty, equality, and fraternity, all within a secular mindset. Uruguayan writer José Pedro Varela helped the country establish free, secular, and compulsory education in 1876.

“The lay tradition came very much after the Paris Commune and the breakup of the monopoly of the Catholic Church in primary schools,” he said. “All of these things came together and created this perfect storm.”

This storm was worsened by missteps made by the church during these years of change. Luisi shared a now-folkloric story about the church refusing to bury a good German man in the interior of the country, which continues to stir resentment in Uruguayans. In 1835 Enrique Jakobsen died in San Jose and was refused burial both there and in Montevideo because he was a Freemason. After Jakobsen was finally buried at Cementerio Central in Montevideo, Bishop Jacinto Vera decreed that no other burials would occur there until Jakobsen’s body was removed from the cemetery. The government responded by removing all church authority over cemeteries and transferring their administration to the police.

Luisi added that his ancestors faced unpopular resistance from the church for their pioneering efforts. Clotilde Luisi, his great-grandmother and Uruguay’s first woman lawyer, brought several advances to women’s education. Paulina Luisi, his great-aunt and the country’s first woman doctor, championed women’s rights in Uruguay and was the first Latin American woman to participate in the League of Nations.

“The church wasn’t happy about it,” he said. “And there was a backlash. The Catholic Church didn’t play their cards right.”

Luisi said the secular culture has allowed tolerance of religion rather than repression. “We don’t like people or dislike people because they happen to be religious,” he explained. “Catholics marry Protestants, Protestants marry atheists.” He said atheism is widely accepted as well.

“This has created this extraordinary tolerance, which is quite unique and remarkable.”

Anglican Missteps

The exterior of Uruguay’s cathedral, which faces Montevideo’s iconic Rambla, shows signs of the church’s challenges, including graffiti.

Roman Catholics are not alone in struggling to connect with Uruguayans. Despite about 175 years of presence, Anglicans have not quite managed to engage Spanish-speaking Uruguayans or those seeking less traditional Anglican worship styles.

“I think some mistakes were made when the Anglican Church first came here,” Pollesel said. “Like many other parts of the world, it was a chaplaincy to the British. It seems that it got stuck there. It didn’t look beyond that.”

In other parts of South America, such as in Argentina, locals became involved with the church. “That never happened here.” Pollesel also cited the common nickname for Holy Trinity Cathedral, at which he also served as dean during his episcopacy: el Templo Ingles, the English Temple.

“So, why would I as a Uruguayan want to go to el Templo Ingles? — except maybe out of curiosity or something, but certainly not for any spiritual need I feel I might have.”

Pollesel also said that Anglicans, while trying to revive, attempted to plant several churches in Montevideo rather than building up a single church. “And they’ve all been struggling ever since.”

The cathedral is not faring much better. There are two Sunday services: morning worship in English, with about 12 to 20 people, and afternoon worship in Spanish, with around 5 to 10. The cathedral’s members care about their church, but their numbers are few. The passing of the peace is warm and loving, but the singing struggles and graffiti remains on the church’s exterior. Uruguay’s somewhat persistent litter problem is evident at the church, exacerbated by the small number of homeless people who have taken residence on the cathedral green. There are only two young members there; the youngest of them is Oswin’s teenage daughter. While the lights are on and Mass is celebrated, critical mass is not present.

“I would love to see it grow. I would love to see younger people come,” Oswin said. “There’s a lot of older people and there’s very few younger people coming in to replace them.”

The diocese is “at a crossroads, huge crossroads,” the Rev. Cynthia Dickin told TLC. Dickin, who was in the first group of women ordained to the priesthood in Uruguay, has worked with Pollesel in the cathedral. She also served at a church in Malvín, a Montevidean suburb, for a year. “We’re very tiny. In fact, if we read our canons — and I don’t like to be legalistic — but if we read our canons we’re not a church. We’re a mission, still.”


In contrast, the church in Argentina, led by the Most Rev. Gregory Venables, has been able to develop a pattern for church growth that involves transition from Anglo chaplaincy and toward ministry to young, evangelical, Spanish-speaking families. Venables is presiding bishop of the Anglican Church of South America (formerly the Southern Cone), of which Uruguay is a part.

Argentina’s success with such transitions may translate to Uruguay. The Rev. David George, who served as archdeacon in Argentina for many years, has now been assigned as vicar general of Uruguay during the transition following Pollesel’s retirement.

Venables, a British native, told TLC that Argentina’s experience led to the Uruguayan church’s request to work with George. “I think the fact that the Uruguayan Anglican church has asked us as a province, and particularly us in Argentina, reflects that,” he said. “They’re looking for more church identity. It’s been very much a kind of chaplaincy of social work, which has done some wonderful things. But I think now it’s a question of Where’s the community? How are we going to be a Christian community? it’s a challenge, but it’s a wonderful opportunity.”

Dickin described George as “a man with a lot of understanding of the whole context.”

She said, “I believe that he is very well positioned to listen and, therefore, afterwards to counsel us; but also take back, hopefully, an objective point of view to the rest of the province.”

Worshipers greet one another during the peace at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Montevideo.

There is cause for hope in the Uruguayan church. Pollesel said the parishes in Salto, a city in the interior, have attracted more young people. Last year, the diocese hosted a vacation Bible school in partnership with the Diocese of Oklahoma. The event attracted about 40 youth there, double the number that came to the cathedral in Montevideo. The Rt. Rev. Ed Konieczny, Bishop of Oklahoma, told TLC by email that his diocese also helped construct student housing on the church campus in Salto and provided Spanish-language prayer books to the diocese.

Another hopeful initiative in Uruguay would develop formational community for students on the cathedral’s grounds. Pollesel said he modeled the idea after Archbishop Justin Welby’s similar community in Lambeth Palace. Students would have to agree to a rule of life and participate in the community. The program has yet to launch, however.

“The bureaucracy of the state just grinds you down,” he said. Because of the cathedral’s historic designation, it took two years to gain approval from the government. “From that perspective, it’s a go. The other challenge is raising the funds for it, and from inside the country there’s just no way it’s going to come.”

Pollesel said the most supportive outside response to the project has come from the Anglican Church in North America. He said he wrote to Canon William Deiss of the Anglican Relief and Development Fund to express concern that the project would halt upon his retirement.

“He wrote back immediately saying that he really hoped that the diocese did carry through with it, because they’re very keen on supporting something like that. That would touch not just one or two people but a future generation.”

Problems Social and Spiritual

Like other Christian churches, the Anglican Church in Uruguay has also tried to grow by providing direct ministry to those in need. Promoción Humana, the social work mentioned by Archbishop Venables, was started as a means to provide this help. The program is able to take advantage of substantial funds provided by the Uruguayan government to NGOs offering direct assistance to the poor and marginalized.

In light of the small size of the church in Uruguay, the scale of the project may prove surprising.

“The Anglican Church here has had a significant role in terms of working with the marginalized,” Pollesel said. With money provided by the government, the church runs programs like infant care, a halfway house, and services for teenagers, street children, and young mothers. Around 200 employees work in these programs, with a total annual budget of more than U.S. $3.5 million — about 40 times the diocesan budget, Pollesel said.

The program touches a few thousand lives each year, though those being ministered to may not connect their help with the Anglican Church, Christian mission, or Jesus Christ. Of the 200 employees, “maybe less than 10 would say, I’m an Anglican. For the rest it’s just a job, even though we have tried to be clear that we’re doing this because this is what the church is called to do. For most it’s just a job,” the bishop said.

“For the recipient, as long as they’re being taken care of, they really don’t seem to care.”

Pollesel said this is one of the harmful side effects of Uruguay’s long-standing socialist government: an increasing dependence upon handouts among the have-nots, with little regard to where help comes from and little drive to change.

Thus, a program that was meant to increase exposure of the church and grow with it has instead grown while the church has contracted. And while Promoción Humana has carried out Christ’s command to serve those in need, it may not be commissioning new disciples.

Pollesel said programs like Promoción Humana are not unique to Anglicans, either. “We’re one of many. The Roman church does it. Other not-for-profit foundations or organizations do the same kind of thing.” He said the government is able to use such programs to avoid being the direct provider of assistance. “So, in some ways it saves their bacon.”

The bishop also said that Uruguayans share in a collective impulse toward collaboration; it is not unusual to see soccer clubs and other civic organizations cooking meals for homeless people or giving away blankets. Young people routinely collect for organizations like Doctors Without Borders on the street corners of Montevideo. “You could say that’s sort of a humanistic kind of approach to helping others. Whether there’s any spiritual nature to that, I would have my doubts.”

The question of spirituality, and spiritual problems, is much on the mind of Fr. Héctor Robin Traverso Batto, a priest at St. John the Baptist Catholic Parish in the upper-middle-class Pocitos neighborhood. The all-Spanish church drew about 200 for a Saturday evening Mass in July, in which the priest started his sermon by discussing young parishioners’ fears about automation and lack of meaningful work. Traverso, a native Uruguayan who has been a priest for decades, is enigmatic and witty as he addresses the congregation, but he is also quick to discuss spiritual problems.


He told TLC in Spanish that the Catholic Church considers gay marriage, drug use, and abortion as moral issues. “The challenge isn’t in the moral acts, but the challenge that we feel, and [as] our Archbishop Monsignor Daniel Sturla greatly insists, … is the almost 700 suicides we have annually in Uruguay, absolutely out of proportion to the population.” in fact, at 18.54 suicides per 100,000 people each year, Uruguay has the highest rate of suicide in South America and one of the highest rates in the world. That figure is double the rate of Chile and 50 percent higher than the rate in the United States.

“We have a proposal to make to the Uruguayans, and it is to find a reason to live, to find meaning in life,” Traverso said. “The problem that we Uruguayans have, in the point of view of the Catholic Church and our archbishop, is that we are depreciating religion, depreciating the religious orientation of any religion. And the Uruguayan doesn’t find a reason to live. He works and works, but for what?”

Traverso said that Uruguayan couples often avoid having children, favoring career advancement instead, arriving at 40 without children. Thus, they lose the opportunity to have a family, one way of finding meaning in life.

“Family is disintegrating in Uruguay,” he said. “A lot of divorce, certainly. If I don’t feel good, if we don’t understand each other, I wash my hands of it all. Why? Because they lack principles that are useful for feeling purposeful in life. Then, if you feel uncomfortable, you have needs and look for something else, and look for something else, and look for something else, and look for something else, but without any direction. Religion usually gives that direction.”

Traverso confirmed that the secular culture challenges conversations about the issues — and that children are not exposed to spiritual or religious ideas, even at home. Thus, children may go through an entire education never having addressed spiritual issues. He said problems with suicide and listlessness can be especially concentrated among middle class and upper middle class families that live south of Avenida Italia and closer to the sea, in places like Pocitos.

“The first failure they have, boom, their world comes crashing down and they don’t know what to do; and rightly, as they have no firm spiritual formation, no meaning in their lives. I have to do my own thing, earn my keep, have my success, get what I want, carry my own weight, and if something gets in my way, and I can’t remove it, down comes my world.

“We are materialist because we lack spirituality, we lack meaning in our lives.”

He said the church is trying to expand its educational programs to address these issues, as well as the poverty that can be found on the city’s north side.

Uruguay’s Anglicans are certainly aware of the challenges in their society. Back at the cathedral, Rebecca Oswin described how her peers see moral issues. “Uruguay, a couple of a years ago, was the first country in Latin America to have abortion as something legal. At least people that I’m around, that I know, it was like, okay, it’s acceptable. Gay marriage is the same. It’s very accepted, and there’s no sort of a moral dilemma behind it.”

What remains to be seen, though, is whether the church in Uruguay will grow beyond Anglo chaplaincy and toward meeting the deep spiritual needs of a people far removed from religion. Pollesel expressed his concern that immersion in social work may cloud the church’s task. “That’s been part of the challenge for us,” he said. “Because of the projects, the Promoción Humana as we call it, I and others have said, Are we just another NGO that’s doing good stuff — but we aren’t really church?

“Pray for Conversion”

The future of the Anglican Church in Uruguay is uncertain. Dickin, the priest who has spent her life in the church, said the church needs time to sort itself out.

“I think your guess is as good as mine as to what the future holds,” she said. “I believe we need to have a space, and a fairly big space, and not try and just barge ahead because we think as Uruguayans that we want to have an Anglican Church. We need to stop and listen, and not waste time but be honest.

“I don’t know how many of us are really willing to say, okay, we’re at a crossroads and that’s not bad. But we need to listen to each other, ourselves, to God, and to others out there and not get stuck in I want this and I think this is the only way to do it.

Dickin also said people have been bruised by the church during turbulence in years past, and that the church should seek an opportunity to walk alongside them.

Seaside shrine to the Virgin Mary near Punta del Diablo (Devil’s Point). Religious symbols are not easy to spot in Uruguay.

Michael Brown, a lifelong Episcopalian from California who has lived in Uruguay 12 years, expressed concern that the transition could see the diocese losing its independence. “Personally, my fear is that the province will take over,” he told TLC. “We’ve been rather isolated and rather independent. We were, I think, the only diocese that really fought for female priests. We finally got local option out of the province, but that was very difficult.”

Brown, who also worships at the cathedral in Montevideo, said the diocese has not really been a part of the Global South — in fact, use of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal 1982 is part of the diocesan canons — and that this might change.

He said he hopes people will pray for someone willing to come to Uruguay and provide leadership. “We don’t have any local leadership to take on the diocese. I think it would be ideal if we get another Michele, for example, to come for five years and really try to get things set,” he said.

Brown added that the task of leadership would be a challenge. “There is a small group of very supportive people. The challenge would be to enlarge that group and possibly to bring back some of those who have left the church in recent decades. For somebody who’s looking for a challenge, it would meet their goal.”

From a practical standpoint and given his retirement, Pollesel said interested Episcopalians and Anglicans can help the church in Uruguay through the Diocese of Oklahoma. He also cited a need that can be fulfilled through prayer.

“What is really needed here, even in the church, is conversion,” he said. “That would be my request in terms of prayer: that people who say they are Anglican Christians or Christian Anglicans really discover what that means and then live it out.

“Conversion really needs to happen here. If prayers from faithful people everywhere can help that come about, that would be fantastic.”


Online Archives