No one knows much about the religion of the first residents of Rapa Nui hundreds of years ago. But huge mysterious stone heads — about 900 of them in all — attest to ancestor worship. On average, each moai stands 13 feet high and weighs 14 tons.
Annexed by Chile in 1888, Rapa Nui, about 2,300 miles west of Chile, is one of the most remote locations in the world.
Rapa Nui is called Easter Island because the first-recorded European contact with the island was on Easter Sunday 1722 by Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen. He estimated there were 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants on the island.
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote about the mysterious island and its moai in 1971.
The mammoth stone heads in various positions around the small island — only 14 miles by 7 miles — are reminders of Rapa Nui’s once flourishing past.
Under the gaze of the moai statues, hard times began several hundred years ago due to over-population and tribal rivalries for scarce resources. Not enough timber remained on the island to build the boats required for fishing.
Resources continued to decline, fighting increased and growing contact from the outside world had disastrous results. Disease and the slave trade reduced the population to near extinction.
Then a young French Jesuit priest named Eugene Eyraud arrived in 1864. On his second visit he came with other missionaries, including Polynesians from what is now French Polynesia, and shared the concepts of Catholicism. The islanders converted by the hundreds.
Tribal rivalries ended and the people united as a single society.
Rapa Nui’s Catholic church is in the heart of the only town on the sparsely inhabited island. Rapa Nui symbols have been combined with Christian motifs.
Outside, at the main entrance, can be seen the tablets of Moses, the keys to paradise and angels along with designs from the Rapa Nui culture, such as a turtle, a symbol for wisdom or longevity.
Every Sunday, the mass is said in Spanish. The vibrant music in the church has a heavy beat and words and sounds from the Rapa Nui culture. One instrument was the bleached jaw (about 12 inches long) of an animal. The priest ware a headdress with large, fluffy white feathers, and all of the church’s carvings and paintings had a Rapa Nui look and feel.
In 2018, a U.S. couple, Robert and Nancy Weber, completed their 40-year project of translating the New Testament into modern Rapa Nui.