Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga was born in Viña del Mar, Chile, on 22 January 1901; he was orphaned when he was four years old by the death of his father. His mother had to sell, at a loss, their modest property in order to pay the family’s debts. As a further consequence, Alberto and his brother had to go to live with relatives and were often moved from one family to another. From an early age, he experienced what it meant to be poor, and without a home. Thanks to a scholarship, he managed to study at the prestigious all-boys Jesuit school of St. Ignacio, Santiago (1909–17). During this time, he volunteered at the Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Andacollo, a Catholic parish and school in a poor neighborhood of Santiago. At the parish and school, he assisted in the office and was librarian. From 1918 to 1923, he attended the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, studying in its law school and writing his thesis on labour law. Obligatory military service interrupted his studies, but once he fulfilled this duty he went on to earn his degree early in August 1923. Rather than starting a career in law, Hurtado entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1923. In 1925 he went to Córdoba, Argentina, where he studied humanities. In 1927 he was sent to Barcelona, Spain to study philosophy and theology, but because of the suppression of the Jesuits in Spain in 1931, he went on to Belgium and continued his studies in theology at Louvain. He was ordained a priest there on 24 August 1933, and in 1935 obtained a doctorate in pedagogy and psychology.
Right from the early days of his studies in labour law, and before becoming a Jesuit, Hurtado had his mind and heart set on tackling social issues and problems. Before returning to Chile, he visited social and educational centers in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. He returned to Chile in January 1936, and began his activity as professor of religion at Colegio San Ignacio and of Pedagogy at the Catholic University of Santiago. He was entrusted with the Sodality of Our Lady for the students, and he involved them in teaching catechism to the poor.
There was much social inequality in Chile during this time, and conservative Catholics in the nation had difficulty accepting the Vatican’s social teachings. As late as 1931, the official party organ (aligned with the church hierarchy) refused to publish Quadragesimo anno, and when a group of clergy petitioned Archbishop José Horacio Campillo Infante to remove the editors, he refused and stated it was “necessary to protect Catholics from the imprudent acts of the pope”. In 1936, he authored an article entitled The Priesthood Crisis In Chile, which addressed the problem of the shortage of priests in Chile; his analysis was criticized as ‘exaggerated’. He criticized the level of catechism instruction offered in Chile, and wrote that young men often signed up as catechists but lacked the necessary certificate.
In 1940, he was appointed diocesan director of the Catholic Action youth movement and the very next year, its national director (1941–1944). That same year, in 1941, Hurtado’s sociology-oriented mind led to his authoring of the book Is Chile a Catholic Country? The book published statistics revealing a lack of priests assigned to the working class and rural populations, including detailing parishes that had 10,000 laypeople assigned for one priest covering huge geographic areas. His solution was to increase and better educate the clergy, however, this never came to be. Almost half of Chile’s clergy were foreigners (including missionaries from the United States and Canada) who did circuits of towns administering the sacraments (i.e., going to one town one week, then another the next week, etc.) Most Chileans regarded devotion to the Virgin and the saints as more important than attending Mass or consuming the Eucharist, which they could not do regularly. In the book he published the results of a 1939 survey of Chilean religious practices and found that only 9% of Chilean women and 3.5% of Chilean men regularly attended Mass (leaving over 90% as not regularly practicing). Laying open a number of unpleasant realities, the book was heavily criticised by more conservative Catholics, who even accused Hurtado of being a Communist.
Keeping in mind his own origins, and ever grateful for the help he (and his family) had received when they were in great difficulties, Hurtado was led to active social involvement. His strong faith was transformed into action with his founding of an organization similar to Boys Town in the United States. His shelters, called Hogar de Cristo (Home of Christ), took in all children in need of food and shelter, abandoned or not. He also purchased a 1946 green pickup truck and monitored the streets at night to help those in need that he could reach. His own charisma brought him many collaborators and benefactors; the movement was a huge success. The shelters multiplied all over the country. It is estimated that between 1945 and 1951 more than 850,000 children received some help from the movement.
In 1947, Hurtado entered the labor movement. Inspired by the social teaching of the Church he founded the Chilean Trade Union Association, meant to train leaders and instill Christian values in the labor unions of his country. For them he wrote the three books Social Humanism (1947), The Christian Social Order (1947) and Trade Unions (1950). He served as a confessor to the Falange Nacional (the precursor to the modern Christian Democratic Party). To disseminate the social teaching of the Church and help Christians reflect and act on the serious social problems faced by the country he founded in 1951 the periodical called Mensaje (“Message”). He himself published numerous articles and books on labor issues in relation to the Roman Catholic faith.
Deeply spiritual, Hurtado was untiring in his work for the workers and the youth, combining intellectual reflection and practical actions. Ever optimistic and joyful he had also an attractive personality that brought many people to Christ and the Church, young and old, intellectuals and manual workers. One day in 1952, Father Hurtado was stricken with intense pain and rushed to hospital. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Day after day the media kept the country informed of Hurtado’s state of health. Before his death he had become a national hero. True to the faith he had been professing all through his life, he accepted gracefully what was ineluctable. After a brief battle with the illness, he died in Santiago.
- January, 22, 1901
- Viña del Mar, Chile
- August, 18, 1952
- Santiago, Chile
Cause of Death
- Pancreatic Cancer