Welsh Chapels in Patagonia

Introduction

Some 39 places of worship were erected in Patagonia by Welsh settlers in the 60 years between 1865 and 1925. The vast majority of these were Nonconformist chapels and they served the religious as well as social and educational needs of the Welsh community in the Lower Chubut Valley and in their settlements in the foothills of the Andes.

The spelling of place names in the following article reflects that used in Patagonia.

The Quest for a Better Life

Revd. Michael D. Jones

During the Industrial Revolution, hundreds of thousands of people moved from Wales to seek work in the big cities or industrial regions of England. Others chose to travel further afield. It is reckoned that between the 18th and 20th centuries, more than 250,000 Welsh people emigrated to the USA alone. In just the 20 years between 1850 and 1870, 60,000 people moved from Wales to the USA. Indeed, so many Welsh people settled in Wisconsin that the state’s constitution was translated into Welsh.

One of the chief promoters of the movement to establish a colony in Patagonia was the Revd. Michael D. Jones (1822-1898) from Bala in north Wales. He had trained for the Ministry in Carmarthen and London after which, in 1848, he emigrated to the USA. During his time in America, he noticed how easily the Welsh settlers became assimilated into the American way of life and how quickly they lost their language. Jones later returned to Wales where he was appointed Principal of the Congregational College in Bala. It was here that he developed his vision of establishing a new colony where the Welsh language, religion and culture could be preserved – free from English or American influences. “These values would be promoted through the religious institutions which aimed at making their religious writings the basis of all social interaction. This point cannot be over-emphasised in considering the strong internal cohesion of the Welsh as a culture group in Patagonia.” (Williams 1975: 38) Jones pursued his dream with a missionary zeal and invested heavily in the venture, not only in time and effort, but also financially. The chapel pulpits of north and west Wales, the industrial valleys of south Wales as well as those of the Welsh communities in Liverpool and north-west England were used to promote the project.

In Search of Paradise

Map of Argentina showing location of Welsh settlements in the Lower Chubut Valley (Dyffryn Camwy) and Andes (Cwm Hyfryd)]

It was against this background that the first 160 or so Welsh settlers set sail in May 1865 to create a new life for themselves and their families in the lower Chubut valley in central Patagonia. Michael D. Jones did not believe a Welsh colony could succeed unless a Welsh Nonconformist Christianity had a central part to play within the community. (Jones 1987: 9) During the 2-month journey aboard the ‘Mimosa’, whenever the weather permitted, a daily service was held on board, as well as two services and a Sunday School on a Sunday. (Jones 1987: 11) Among the first settlers were three Nonconformist Ministers of Religion and the majority of the others would undoubtedly have been chapel-goers. Of the ten ministers who worked in the Colony during the early years, five were former students at Coleg y Bala where Jones was Principal. (Jones 1987: 9)

Once they had selected a site for their initial settlement (later named Rawson), they set about erecting dwelling houses and sheds which would provide shelter from the winter weather. The first buildings were little more than shacks, hastily erected from branches and driftwood and coated with a daub of clay and thatched. At the centre of the little settlement a store shed was built. It measured about 6m by 7m and was constructed of timber boards that had been brought to the Colony. Once completed, it also served as a temporary meeting place and chapel.

The first religious service was held on the first Sunday following the settlers’ arrival in Rawson. “Adeiladwyd stordy bychan i gadw’r blawd a’r gwenith. Daeth bore Sul, ac ymgasglodd y cwbl i’r ystordy i gynnal y gwasanaeth crefyddol cyntaf a fu ym Mhatagonia. Cafwyd bocs mawr yn bulpud, ac arno Feibl a llyfr emynau. Eisteddai’r gwragedd a’r plant ar blanciau a osodwyd ar draws y llawr, a’r gwŷr yn eistedd ar y sachau gwenith yn y cefn.” [‘A small store house was built for keeping the corn and flour. When Sunday morning came, people gathered at the store to hold the first religious service to be held in Patagonia. A large box was used as a pulpit, and on it a Bible and a hymn book. The women and children sat on planks placed across the floor, while the men sat on the sacks of wheat at the back’.] (Williams 1962: 96) In his sermon, the Revd. Abraham Matthews (formerly joint minister at the Congregational chapels of Horeb, Llwydcoed and Elim, Cwmdâr), who had travelled aboard the ‘Mimosa’, compared the plight of the Welsh settlers to that of the tribe of Israel in the wilderness, and the prospect of finding the ‘Promised Land’!

The First Decade 1866 – 1875

The first two purpose-built chapels were constructed using whatever materials could be made or sourced close at hand. Thus we find that the first chapel in Rawson was built, in 1868, of rammed earth or clay blocks. It was quite small, measuring just 4.5m wide by 7.3m long and was about 2.1m high, suggesting that it had a low, single-pitched roof. Gradually, the menfolk moved out to take up their allotted farm plots and to start clearing the land and build houses. Of course, as more people arrived, so they had to move further and further from Rawson and the only chapel. A second chapel, ‘Capel Bach’ [‘Little Chapel’] was built in 1873 at Glyn Du, about 7 miles from Rawson. It was also built using clay, though this time 20,000 sun-dried bricks were used in its construction. It was about 4m longer than the first chapel. The roof was built using timbers salvaged from a wrecked ship that had been discovered in the mouth of the River Chubut. These timbers were then covered with branches and reeds before being coated with a layer of clay to make it water-tight. There was a single doorway and two small windows, which were covered with cloth as there was no glass available.

Generally, as new tracts of land were settled, religious meetings and services were held in people’s houses. When time and resources allowed, they gradually formed congregations and set about erecting purpose-built chapels, usually on land donated by one of the farmers. The first chapels that were built in any area were often quite small and simple. William Meloch Hughes recalled that “Diaddurn a moel o reidrwydd oedd addoldai’r Wladfa ym mlynyddoedd cyntaf ei hanes. Ni feddid adnoddau’r pryd hwnnw i’w gwneud yn adeiladau golygus a phrydferth.” [“During the Colony’s early years, the chapels were, of necessity, plain and unadorned. The resources were not available at that time to make the buildings attractive and beautiful.”] (Hughes 1927: 298) It has been claimed (Abdala & Jones 1965:3) that there were 13 congregations by the end of 1874 being ministered by 5 preachers. However, it must be assumed that most of these met in people’s homes, and that only two purpose-built chapels had been built by that time.

A Period of Consolidation 1876 – 1885

By 1876, the population had risen to 690, and during the second decade, no less than 9 chapels were built in the Valley. The first of three chapels to be built in Gaiman was established in 1876, following the settlement of the middle section of the lower Chubut Valley around 1874-76. Like many other buildings in Gaiman, this chapel was built of locally-quarried stone. Willow trees, growing along the river banks, were felled for use as roof rafters, the roof itself being made of branches (presumably a rough wattle or thatch) which was then covered in clay to make it water-tight. The floor was made of beaten earth and the benches were fabricated from willow planks. This little chapel, known as ‘Capel Cerrig’ [‘Stone Chapel’] only measured 3.7m wide by 5.5m long, and it was soon too small for its purpose. When the roof collapsed, the decision was taken to demolish it.

Map of Lower Chubut Valley showing districts and main settlements

The only chapel to be built by the Baptists was that at Frondeg, Treorcky, which was erected in 1878. Little is known about this chapel except that it measured about 16m in length by 5m wide and was constructed of unfired clay blocks. It was divided into three sections, the main section, measuring about 8m in length, being used both as a meeting hall and a chapel. It had a single door and 6 windows.

By 1879, the population had reached 778, living in 140 houses. Newly-acquired skills meant that they were now able to make kiln-fired bricks rather than relying on sun-dried clay blocks.

In the 15 years since the first settlers had arrived, people had settled on their allotted farm plots, many of which were now some distance from Rawson. Also, ‘Capel Bach’ at Glyn Du had become derelict, and so the decision was taken to build a new Independent chapel in the area. Constructed of brick, ‘Moriah’ was completed in 1880. Attached, and at right angles to the chapel, was a vestry which also served as an elementary school in the early years.

Moriah (1880)

The chapel has a single doorway in the gable with a window on either side. Whereas these have lancet-arched heads, all the other openings – both in the chapel and the vestry – have semi-circular heads. Inside, the chapel boasts an impressive boarded ceiling. There are ten rows of pews providing seating for about one hundred people. The floor of the chapel slopes down from the entrance towards a full-width 1-step dais, in the centre of which a Communion Table, on which stands a lectern, takes the place of a pulpit as the focal point of the chapel. Many of the first settlers are buried in the adjoining cemetery.

Bethel I, Gaiman (1880)

The second chapel in Gaiman, named ‘Bethel’, was built, in 1880. It was constructed of bricks with pine trusses and rafters. The first roof was made of pinewood boards covered with clay. This was later replaced with corrugated iron sheeting. Attached to the back of the building, and at right angles to it, was a vestry where the Sunday School met. The main gable has a central doorway with a window on either side – all having ‘Gothic’-style pointed arches. 34 years later, in 1914, a new, larger, chapel – also named ‘Bethel’ – was built nearby with the original building (now referred to as ‘Yr Hen Gapel’ – ‘The Old Chapel’) being kept as a vestry.

Capel Berwyn, Rawson (1881)

In 1881, a Presbyterian minister, the Revd. William Williams arrived in Patagonia. A number of the settlers who were Calvinistic Methodists, led by one of the founders, Richard Jones Berwyn, decided to build their own chapel in the northern part of Rawson. The chapel, which was built of brick, would become known as ‘Capel Berwyn’ [‘Berwyn’s Chapel’]. It eventually closed and remained thus for many years. Then, in 1956, the building received a new lease of life when it was restored and re-opened for services.

The first chapel in Drofa Dulog appears to have been built about 1881 on land belonging to David Jones, (Maes Comet). It was a small structure, built of clay blocks, and its small size gave it its name of ‘Capel Bach’ [‘Little Chapel’]. It was used for about ten years. However, its location was inconvenient for many people in the area. There are no details of its size, appearance and construction. By 1882, the population of the Valley had risen to 1,210.

Between 1870 and 1880, the first settlers in Bryn Gwyn, all of whom were Calvinistic Methodists, met to worship in the home of one of their number. However, to get to the house in question the men had to walk, whilst the women and children travelled by horse and cart. They then had to cross the river (Afon Camwy/ River Chubut) in a boat to reach the meeting house. Later, meetings were held in a more conveniently-located house, that of Evan Roberts, and also in the Cefn Hir schoolroom. By 1883, the decision had been taken to erect a purpose-built chapel, called ‘Seion’, on land belonging to Evan Lewis. Building work was undertaken by Edward Griffiths, helped by members of the congregation, who also made the clay bricks used in its construction. No details have survived of the size or appearance of this chapel, which was destroyed in a storm in 1888.

In 1883, a chapel was built about 3 miles north-west of Rawson. The site was identified by three prominent willow trees which gave its name, ‘Tair Helygen’, to the location and chapel. Little is known about this chapel except that it was built on the corner of land belonging to Robert Jones (Bedol) and that it was constructed of clay blocks.

The area around Bryn Crwn started to be settled about the year 1880. The population was split between Calvinistic Methodists and Independents, who held their own separate services in people’s houses. However, in 1884, the decision was taken to unite the two congregations in one chapel, in a building that was also used as a day school. The chapel was known as ‘Capel Unedig Bryn Crwn’ (‘Bryn Crwn United Chapel’). However, during a re-survey of lands a few years later, it was found that the building stood in the middle of a road between 2 farms. It was therefore demolished and a new site was sought for a replacement. By 1884, the population had increased to 1,600, and by the following year, all the farmable plots of land in the Lower Chubut Valley had been claimed. Of the 495 farms, only 3 were owned by non-Welsh settlers.

Expansion and Disaster 1886 – 1899

This was the period of greatest growth in the Colony, and within a decade the population more than doubled to 3,000 as people settled their farmsteads further up the Valley and away from Rawson and Gaiman. Brick was by far the most popular building material for constructing houses, commercial premises and chapels, though clay-block was still sometimes used for lesser buildings. By 1887, every home was within 2 or 3 miles of a chapel. Corrugated iron sheeting, imported into the region through Porth Madryn, was now well established as the preferred roofing material; however, it was also used as a wall cladding in some buildings. No less than thirteen chapels and two Anglican churches were built in the Valley during this period.

Capel Glan Alaw, near Dolafon (1887) was built on land on Farm No. 250 donated by Owen Jones. ‘Seion’, Bryn Gwyn (1888), replaced the earlier building of the same name that had been destroyed in a storm earlier that year. It has seating for about 200 people. Lewis P. Jones and Evan Roberts were primarily responsible for building the new chapel, assisted by members of the congregation and neighbours.

Tabernacl, Trelew (1889)

‘Tabernacl’, was the first building to be erected, in 1889, in the new township of Trelew (named after Lewis Jones, one of the founders of the Welsh settlement). It was built on land donated by the Central Chubut Railway Company which was then constructing the line from Porth Madryn inland along the valley. In fact, workers from the Railway Company were also responsible for building the chapel, under the careful supervision of the Chief Engineer, A.P. Bell. It is not known who was responsible for the original joinery work, but in 1913, the seating and pulpit were renewed by Owen Lloyd and William Williams. A single-step dais extends the full width of the building on which stands a carved and turned pine-wood balustrade which encloses a ‘Sedd Fawr’ and a raised pulpit.

St. Mark’s, Trelew

The Colony’s first Anglican church, St Mark’s, was established by Edwin C. Roberts in Trelew in 1890. However, by 1907, the building was already in a poor state of repair. Representatives of the church came to an agreement with the Central Chubut Railway Company who agreed to help carry out repairs. Entry to the brick-built building was via a door in the main gable accessed through a porch. The interior was lit by 3 lancet windows in each of the side walls and one behind the altar. The Anglican congregation dwindled when many of the members moved from the Valley, and St Mark’s church closed shortly afterwards and was demolished, the materials and the land on which it stood being sold. The doors and windows were purchased by the Catholic church in Gaiman.

Once all the farmable land in the lower Chubut Valley had been occupied, new arrivals were obliged to find employment on existing farms or in one of the townships – Rawson, Trelew, Gaiman or Dolavon. Alternatively, they could make the 400 mile trek across the semi-desert to the foothills of the Andes where new lands were available. The Welsh settlers soon adapted to this new environment and to the new materials that were available here for building houses. The availability of good timber on the mountain sides enabled some to construct log houses, a technique unknown in Wales, but one that some of the settlers who had arrived from the Welsh settlements in north America may have been familiar with. As was the case in the Valley, the first religious services were held in people’s houses, but by 1890, the first chapel, built of logs, had been erected at Trevelin near the river – Afon Aber Gyrants.

Nazareth, Drofa Dulog (1892)

Meanwhile, back in the Valley, a new chapel was built in 1892 to replace ‘Capel Bach’, Drofa Dulog, which was dismantled in 1891. It was named ‘Nazareth’ by its first minister, Revd. D. Lloyd Jones. The pulpit backs onto the wall between the two windows, meaning that the pews face the entrance doors. A harmonium stands alongside, and at right angles to the Communion Table and lectern. The chapel is probably capable of accommodating about 100 people on 6 long, open-backed bench-pews. The building is in two parts; the larger portion comprising the chapel itself, with a schoolroom beyond.

Among the people who both promoted, and travelled to, Patagonia, were a number of Anglicans including the influential Edwin C. Roberts (Bryn Antur). Indeed, the first Anglican services were held in his house, located between Rawson and Trelew. Through his efforts, two Anglican Ministers were persuaded to travel to the Colony, including the Revd. Hugh Davies from Bangor, in 1884. Revd. Davies later moved inland to Dolavon where, in 1891, ‘Llanddewi’ church was built. This brick-built building was quite small in size, but lasted only a few years as it was badly damaged in a cyclone in 1909. Despite being repaired, it was not considered safe enough to hold meetings there and so it was dismantled in 1914.

By 1888, Welsh settlers had started occupying the furthest parts of the lower Chubut Valley at Tir Halen [lit. ‘Salt Lands’]. Initially they held services in the house of David Rowland, but by 1892 they had decided to build a chapel, to be known as ‘Bethel’, on land donated by William Edwards (Erw Fair). Sometime after 1892, the Calvinistic Methodists decided to erect their own chapel in Tir Halen on land at Farm No. 311 owned by Owen Roberts, whilst a chapel and vestry, known as ‘Ebeneser’ were built near Dolavon in 1894 on land belonging to Farm No. 326, construction being a collaborative effort by people in the area.

In spite of having landed at New Bay, few people were attracted to set up home here until the establishment of the port and township of Porth Madryn some years later. In time, some members of the Welsh community found work there and, as their numbers grew, so they established a place of worship in the town. An Independent Welsh Protestant church was built here about 1895. It was constructed of timber framing and clad with corrugated iron sheeting, the interior walls and ceiling being neatly timber-boarded. There are no other details, except that it was in use for a short period. It was still standing in 1965, though by then it was being used as a store shed. (Abdala & Jones 1965: 3)

A split in the congregation at the Independent chapel at Glan Alaw, Dolavon, led to the foundation of a new chapel, named ‘Bethesda’, on Farm No. 260 about the year 1895. Little is known about this building except that it was small, built of unfired clay blocks and roofed with straw thatch.

The second chapel at Bryn Crwn was built in 1896, just a short distance from the site of the first, on land donated by William Williams (Mostyn) on Farm No. 235. There are no details of its size or construction, except that it was built by members of the congregation.

Bethel I, Trevelin (1897)

Meanwhile, in Cwm Hyfryd, in the Andes, a new site was selected for a log-built chapel to replace the one built in 1890, this time on the outskirts of Trevelin on a hillock near the River Percy. It was built in 1897, and early photographs show that it had a central doorway in the main gable wall and two square windows in each side wall. The roof was covered in a straw thatch. There appears to be a chimney on the opposite gable which suggests that there was a fireplace in a small vestry at the far end of the building. The chapel could probably accommodate about 70 people.

The second chapel in Treorcky, this time built by the Calvinistic Methodists, was opened in 1898. Unusually, the building and carpentry work was carried out not by Welsh craftsmen, but by Mariano Suarez. Little is known about this chapel except that it was similar in size to the Frondeg Baptist chapel.

The River Chubut was prone to flooding from time to time. However, the construction of a dam and the completion of a series of irrigation canals meant that a certain degree of control was now possible, and there had been relatively few problems after 1880. However, in 1899, the Valley was devastated by a huge flood which laid waste vast tracts of the valley floor and destroyed at least 100 houses as well as farm buildings, schools and no less than eight chapels, namely Capel Bach, Rawson; Capel Frondeg, Treorcky; Tair Helygen, Rawson; Bethel, Tir Halen; Capel M.C., Tir Halen; Ebeneser, Dolavon; Capel Unedig, Bryn Crwn and also, possibly, Bethesda, Glan Alaw.

Recovery and rebuilding 1900 – 1905

Just a year after the devastating flood of 1899 which had destroyed the chapel at Tair Helygen, John Murray Thomas donated land at his farm for building a new one. As with most of the Welsh chapels, this was a co-operative venture, with people giving freely of their time as well as donating materials. The front door is offset to the main gable and there is a small tall rectangular window alongside. Another doorway at the far end of the south side wall probably led to a small vestry. By 1965, the chapel had been closed for several decades during which time the interior was vandalised and the chapel’s records stolen.

Capel Bryn Crwn – exterior

A new chapel was also built at Bryn Crwn in 1900. The site chosen was slightly higher than the surrounding land and had escaped the flooding a year earlier. Building the new chapel was a collaborative effort with some people making the clay bricks and others transporting them to Thomas Jones (Y Plastrwr) for firing in his kilns. Others carried stone and other building materials – this at a time when they were also struggling to re-build their homes which had also been damaged or destroyed in the floods.

The main gable façade has a central doorway accessed through an open-fronted porch, with tall 8-paned sash windows on each side. Corner pilasters are continued upwards to form truncated turrets on either side of a triangulated, Classically-inspired pediment. A doorway leads from the chapel to a vestry which is built at right angles to the main building. Inside, is the name plaque from the earlier chapel which reads: Y BRYN CRWN – 1896 – ‘Ofn yr Arglwydd yw Dechreuad Gwybodaeth’ [‘Fear of the Lord is the Source of Knowledge’].

Capel Ebeneser, Dolavon (1900)

Following the loss of the original chapel at Dolafon in the flood, the former vestry, which had survived, was adapted for use as a chapel, keeping the name ‘Ebeneser’. This probably explains why, unlike the other chapels in the Valley, it has an entrance door in one of the side walls. The building measured about 4m wide by about 11m long – this being further extended to about 16m during the mid-1960s, the new extension being built in concrete blockwork. It has recently been further refurbished, this time using locally-produced bricks to replace the concrete blocks in the extension.

In 1901, a new chapel was built in Tir Halen on a 1ha plot donated by Lewis Jones (Cardi) on Farm No. 301. It was named ‘Bethel’ after the one of the same name that was destroyed in the flood two years earlier. Members from both the nearby chapels that had been destroyed – Independents and Calvinistic Methodists – came together in this new chapel, which was non-denominational. It was built by John Davies (Patagonia) using bricks on the exterior face and clay blocks on the inside. The timberwork was carried out by Richard Owen during the evenings, as he had to tend to his flood-damaged farm during the day. At least some of the wall plasterwork in the chapel has been painted or lined to imitate masonry blocks. Originally, there were 2 gable windows behind the dais, but when a vestry was added, one of these was converted to a doorway to provide internal access to the vestry.

Bethesda II, Glan Alaw

The original chapel at Glan Alaw was replaced by a larger chapel also named ‘Bethesda’, in 1904, on the adjoining land on Farm No 259, donated by Griffith Pugh. A pulpit was made some years later by Hugh Rowland Parry. The front gable door is accessed through a small open-fronted porch. On either side is a tall, narrow window with a triangulated head. Attached to one end of the building is a small vestry, where the Sunday School met.

A chapel, named ‘Seion’, was also established in Esquel, in the Andes, about 1904, when 71 members were recorded. However, there are no details of this building’s construction or appearance.

1906 – 1915

The effects of the Welsh Religious Revival of 1904-05 were also felt in Patagonia, resulting in a marked increase in chapel attendance. Membership at ‘Bethel’, Gaiman, for instance, rose from 145 in 1903 to 242 by the end of 1905 – the increase being due almost entirely to the effects of the Revival which reached Gaiman on 17 May 1905. ‘Bethel’ was soon deemed to be too small, and a new chapel was proposed. In fact, five new chapels were built during this decade.

Bethlehem, Treorcky – interior, view towards rear of chapel
Bethel, Trevelin

The third chapel to be built at Frondeg, Treorcky, was named ‘Bethlehem’, the work being completed in September 1908. The chapel, which is brick-built, has two entrance doors in the main gable wall, with a single tall window between. The pulpit is located between the two doors, meaning that people entering the building face the congregation. This entrance elevation has a stepped gable, this being the only concession to ornamentation on an otherwise plain fascade. In 1910, a new chapel, ‘Bethel’, was built at Trevelin, in Cwm Hyfryd, on a plot immediately behind the second log-built chapel. This time, bricks were used in its construction. It has a door in the gable wall but no windows – all the windows being in the side walls. There is a dais at the far end of the room on which stands a small harmonium. A door leads from the dais to a small vestry behind.

Salem, Lle Cul

When Lle Cul [‘Narrow Place’] was first settled, people initially met in the house of David Jenkins, where Sunday School classes and, later, morning and evening services were held. However, in 1901, Jenkins re-located to Sarmiento, and the congregation split, some to attend ‘Bethel’ chapel in Gaiman, and others to Bryn Gwyn.

In 1912, the decision was taken to build a chapel, to be known as ‘Salem’. Unusually, it was timber-framed and clad on the outside with corrugated iron and on the inside with vertical timber boarding. The ceiling was match-boarded. A 2-step high dais extends the full width of the building upon which stands a Communion Table and harmonium. The pews are quite plain and are open-backed and occupy the central section of the building, with access aisles on either side following the side walls.

Bethel II, Gaiman

A new chapel, named ‘Bethel’ like its predecessor, was opened in Gaiman in 1914, even though the plaque in the gable above the entrance door states 1913! It was a substantial structure compared with most of the other chapels in the Colony. Brick-built, it measures 11.63m wide by 17.55m long and 8.75m high. On either side of the central doorway are brick pilasters which not only frame the doorway, but continue upwards to a point where they splay out to form blind lancet arches. The entrance doorway and gable windows all have pointed-arched heads.

The inside walls are plastered and then scribed to replicate the appearance of rectangular stone blocks. The ceiling, which is match-boarded, follows the profile of the underside of the A-framed roof. A restrained moulded cornice is the only concession to ornamentation other than the carefully-finished bench-ends. The floor and pews slope down towards the front where a full-width dais is dominated by a raised pulpit, in front of which stands a Communion Table. To one side, is a harmonium made by Mason & Hamlin of Boston, USA. It has been claimed (Abdala & Jones), that between 450 and 500 people could be seated inside the chapel but nearer 350 would seem to be a more credible figure. ‘Bethel’ is, nevertheless, the largest chapel in the Colony.

Seion, Esquel

‘Seion’, Esquel, was built in 1915. Both it, and the vestry (1912), are built of brick, the chapel having the usual gable entry. Like ‘Bethel’ in Trevelin, all the door and window openings are rectangular. However, one interesting feature, not found in any of the other Welsh chapels, are the small triangular ‘pediments’ positioned above each of the 2 windows and central doorway to the gable, giving the effect of slightly surprised raised eyebrows!

1916 – 1925

The final period corresponds with the last phase of traditional chapel building in the Colony. Only two new places of worship were built, both near Dolavon; one being an Anglican church and the other a United Protestant chapel.

Llanddewi, Dolavon

A new Anglican church, named ‘Llanddewi’, was built in 1917, on land at Maes-teg, Dolavon, donated by the Revd. Hugh Davies. It is brick-built, with many of the materials having been salvaged from the earlier church. It was designed by the wife of the Revd. David Williams, who was at that time Minister at St Mark’s church, Trelew. The building was paid for mostly by a grant from the Anglican community in Buenos Aires. The 300-year old church bell was donated by Llanllyfni church in Caernarfonshire. (Jones 1937: 32-4) By about the mid 1940s, services had ceased here and many of the interior fittings, pews etc were removed. Unusually for a church, it is aligned north-south (most churches being arranged east-west, with the altar at the east end). The building is, in every sense, a ‘miniature’ Gothic church, the nave measuring just 5.8m wide by about 9.5m long, with the chancel, which is 2 steps higher than the nave, extending a further 2.5m beyond. Access is via a small porch in the east wall. 3 narrow lancet windows dominate the south (altar) end of the church. A small transept is built at right angles to the church on the west side. All the windows have Gothic-style lancet arches. Following its closure, the bench-pews were given to Capel Berwyn in Rawson. However, in 1989, the church was repaired and re-opened and benches from ‘Ebeneser’ were placed inside. When ‘Ebeneser’ itself re-opened, the benches were returned, and in 2015 new benches were installed in the church.

‘Carmel’ United Protestant chapel, Dolavon, was probably the last traditional chapel to be built in the Colony. Initially, services were held in a house in Dolavon, which was rented for that purpose. They remained there until 1925 when the present building was purchased from the Bryn Gwyn Flour Mill Co. The upper part of the façade is formed as a Classical pediment having (originally) truncated turrets on either side.

Summary – Typical features of Welsh chapels in Patagonia

A standardised design quickly emerged in the Colony which was copied, in one form or another, in most of the chapels in the Welsh settlements. These bore a similarity to the smaller, mostly rural, single-storeyed chapels that were to be found in Wales at that time.

Bethesda Independent chapel, Llanymawddwy, Gwynedd
Ainon Baptist chapel, Pen-llyn, Gwynedd

The main differences between these and their Welsh counterparts were to be found in the details. Welsh chapels, for instance, tended to be built of stone, though a few were constructed of brick. In Patagonia on the other hand, adobe or brick predominated. Roofs in Wales were usually covered with slate, whilst those in the Colony were covered with corrugated iron. Welsh roofs are also steeper than those in Chubut, due to the greater incidence of rainfall experienced here.

A variety of materials were used for building the chapels in the Welsh settlements. Before about 1885, these ranged from clay blocks (adobe), sun-dried bricks and also, possibly, at Capel Rawson, earth mass-walling – a technique that was widely found in parts of Wales during the 19th century. In the Andes, the first chapels were built of logs. Soon, locally-produced kiln-fired bricks became the constructional material of choice, and after about 1885, nearly all the places of worship were brick-built. Some roofs were thatched and then covered in a coating of clay to make them waterproof. However, corrugated iron soon became widely available and this rapidly became the preferred material. Occasionally, as at Capel Porth Madryn and ‘Salem’, Lle Cul, corrugated iron was also used for the walls, being fixed to a framework of timber which was generally match-boarded on the inside.

Tabernacl, Trelew – interior
Bethel II, Gaiman – Interior showing raised pulpit on 2-step dais. Note also original oil lamps and American harmonium.

The vast majority of chapels had gable-entry doorways. This was also the pattern that was popular in Wales at that time, even though some surviving early chapels still had entry doorways in one of the side walls. Only one chapel was found with a doorway in the side wall, namely Ebeneser II, Dolavon, which had originally been built as a vestry and had been adapted for use as a chapel following the destruction of the original chapel in the flood of 1899.

Seion, Bryn Gwyn

Most chapels had a single entrance doorway in the main gable façade, though three – ‘Seion’, Bryn Gwyn; ‘Nazareth’, Drofa Dulog and ‘Bethlehem’, Treorcky – boasted two doors.

Seating was arranged facing the preacher, and this generally meant facing towards the pulpit or lectern at the opposite end to the entrance doors. In Wales, the pulpit was usually surrounded by a ‘Sedd Fawr’ [lit. ‘Big Seat’] where the elected officials of the church were seated. This was usually set on a low platform or dais and was enclosed by a low wooden-boarded surround or balustrading. The raised dais is a feature of Welsh chapels in the lower Chubut Valley, and in at least three instances the chapel floor slopes down towards the dais, thus improving the congregation’s view of the preacher. However, unlike chapels in Wales, only one chapel here has a ‘Sedd Fawr’ in front of the pulpit, namely ‘Tabernacl’, Trelew.

Nazareth, Drofa Dulog – Interior

Two of the chapels which have 2 entrance doors in the gable wall, namely ‘Nazareth’, Drofa Dulog and ‘Bethlehem’, Treorcky, have the pulpit backing onto the wall between the two doorways. This was a feature of many early chapels in Wales (where the doors were usually in one of the side walls), but by the 19th century it was considered archaic, and most new chapels had pulpits located at the gable end opposite the entrance elevation.

The majority of chapels have vertical timber match-boarding fixed to the lower part of the wall with a dado rail on top. Above this, the walls are plastered. In at least two cases, the plasterwork has been scribed or lined to replicate the effect of squared blocks of masonry. Ceilings are generally boarded, usually with narrow match-boarding laid in-line with the building as at Bryn Gwyn; Bryn Crwn; ‘Bethlehem’, Treorcky; ‘Salem’, Lle Cul and ‘Bethel’ II, Gaiman. At ‘Nazareth’, Drofa Dulog, the ceiling is formed as long, narrow, boarded panels laid along the length of the building.

Moriah – interior

The most elaborate ceiling is that at ‘Moriah’, which is formed as a series of lateral bays, carved to give the impression of deeply moulded beams and cornices with boarded recesses between.

Some of the Patagonian chapels made a token acknowledgement of Classical design. At ‘Bethel’, Tir Halen; Capel Bryn Crwn and ‘Carmel’, Dolavon the upper part of the gable wall was triangulated to create the impression of a pediment. However, of the 20 buildings for which evidence is available, 10 had ‘Gothic’ pointed-arched door and window openings to the main entrance elevation.  Several also have short ‘turrets’ to the corners, a feature that can be found on chapels with ‘Classically’-inspired features as well as those with ‘Gothic’ details.

Map of Lower Chubut Valley showing location of surviving chapels. There are also 2 chapels in the Andean settlements – at Esquel and Trevelin

In spite of hardships and natural disasters – especially several huge floods which inundated vast tracts of the lower Chubut Valley and destroyed farms, houses and chapels – the Welsh settlers doggedly set about repairing and rebuilding their lives and their homes – and of course the chapels. According to Abdala and Jones “These little buildings were silent witnesses to their joy and heartbreak, their hopes and their despair… they were symbols of immortality and perseverance and of a colony based on faith rather than physical strength, on belief and respect for fellow-man”.

Gerallt D. Nash

References and Further Reading

Abdala, Alberto, a Matthew Henry Jones 1965. Capillas del Valle, Centenary of the Welsh Colonization of Chubut, 1865 – July 28 1965, Trelew