Mary, Help of Christians at the Southern Tip of America

The cathedral in Punta Arenas, Chile, is the southernmost cathedral in the world.

Ferdinand Magellan was the Portuguese explorer, working for Spain, who found a channel from the Atlantic Ocean through the southern tip of South America.

Magellan's fleet of five small ships arrived in the fall of 1520 in what is today Chile. A group of Franciscan missionaries who accompanied him were the first to celebrate the Eucharist on what would later become Chilean territory on Nov. 11, 1520.

Sailing through what appeared to be an east-west passage for 360 miles, Magellan indeed discovered the channel — now called the Magellan Strait. On Nov. 28, 1520, he sailed into a body of water so calm that he named it the Pacific Ocean.

Years later, in 1848, a harbor on the Brunswick Peninsula in the Magellan Strait was found to have an abundant supply of firewood, fresh water and room for future expansion.

The site, now a city of about 100,000, was called Punta Arenas, Spanish for "sandy point." It is the southernmost city in Chile — and one of the southernmost cities in the world — and considered Chile's most important city.

It is perhaps best known as the jumping off point for trips to the Antarctic by both scientists and tourists. Located within the picturesque region of Patagonia and at the foot of the Andes Mountains, it is also a very popular area for hikers.

Cathedral Rebuilt

The city's cathedral, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Our Lady of Mercy, replaced a wooden cathedral that burned to the ground in 1892 four months after its completion.

In 1898, a bell tower, about 100 feet high, was raised. In 1901, the newly built cathedral was dedicated.

Designed by Salesian missionary and architect Father Juan Bernabe, the cathedral was built from the first bricks to be made in the Magellan area.

In addition, it was the first brick building to be built in Punta Arenas. It has three distinct interior sections divided by Corinthian columns.

In 1883, Pope Leo XIII established the apostolic prefecture of Southern Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and the Malvinas Islands and assigned the care of Catholics there to the Salesians.

The first prefect was Bishop Jose Fagano, who assumed the ministry in Punta Arenas in 1887.

On October 4, 1916, the apostolic vicariates of Magellanes and Malvinas Islands were formed. Punta Arenas was part of the vicariate of the Magellanes. In 1947, Pope Pius XII made the Magallanes a diocese. The first bishop was Candido Rada.

Local Saints

When one faces the front of the cathedral, to the right is a tower on the top of which is a statue of Maria Auxiliadora (Mary, Help of Christians, whose memorial is normally May 24, though it is a Sunday this year and therefore not observed). She is considered the patroness of the cathedral.

This image of Mary, Help of Christians was crowned in 1987 by Pope John Paul II when he visited the region. At the base of the tower is a bust of St. John Bosco.

As one enters the church, on the immediate left is the bronze mausoleum of the Salesian Bishop Arturo Jara Marquez, first bishop of the vicariate of the Magellanes, followed by a statue of St. Teresa of the Andes.

She was a Discalced Carmelite mystic who was the first Chilean to be beatified and canonized a saint. Born in Santiago, Chile, on July 13, 1900, she was baptized as Juanita Fernandez Solar. Juanita entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery at Los Andes, Chile, on May 7, 1919, and was given the religious name of Teresa of Jesus.

Dying about a year later on April 12, 1919, she was canonized by Pope John Paul II on March 21, 1993. Her feast day is July 13, and she is considered a role model for young people.

On the opposite side of the church is an image of Blessed Alberto Hurtado.

A Jesuit priest who died of cancer in August 1952, Father Hurtado created the largest Catholic social service in South America.

Beatified in October 1994, Blessed Alberto has since become one of the most popular spiritual figures in Chile.

Behind the main altar is the chair of the bishop. It was made in 1987 to be used by John Paul II when he came to Punta Arenas.

Above the chair is the motto of the present bishop: Que Sean Uno (That All May Be One).

The Blessed Sacrament is reserved on the left altar behind a grille. In the rear of the church are located three confessional boxes.

The cathedral is located on the main plaza, called Munoz Gamero Square, where a large statue in honor of Magellan is featured. Though the cathedral is located in a very busy area of the city, visitors are attracted to the church because of its simplicity, silence and peaceful atmosphere.

Around the corner from the cathedral is a privately run religious gift shop, which is very popular.

A few blocks from the cathedral (cathedral staff can give directions) is the Margorino Borgatello Museum.

The museum features artifacts that reflect the history of the region and the work of the Salesian missionaries. It is located adjacent to the Maria Auxiliadora Sanctuary, a church that is even larger than the cathedral. The diocese also runs a spiritual retreat center: Casa Retiro Juan Pablo II (John Paul II Retreat House).

Joseph Albino writes
from Syracuse, New York.

Cathedral of Punta Arenas

Calle Monsenor Fagnano 650

Obispado Casilla 35-D

Punta Arenas, Chile


Planning Your Visit: December through March is a favorable time to visit Punta Arenas because it is summer there. Winter to spring is the least favorable time to visit because of the long rainy season.

The Mass of Anticipation on Saturday evening is at 7 p.m. On Sundays, Masses are at 9:30 and 11 a.m., 12:15 p.m., and 7 p.m. On weekdays, Monday through Friday, Mass is at 7 p.m. Confessions are held 20 minutes before each Mass.

Getting There: Because Punta Arenas is located quite far to the south of other parts of the country, the best approach is by air. Take a taxi from the Presidente Ibanez Airport to the center of the city and Munoz Gamero Square, which the cathedral faces. From cruise ships, take a taxi for a reasonable fee from the port to the cathedral.