History of the Church in Argentina

David R. Crockett

In 1923, two LDS families from Germany, the Friedrichs and the Hoppes, emigrated to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The following year, Wilhelm Friedrichs and Emil Hoppe wrote to Church authorities asking that missionaries be sent to teach other Germans in Buenos Aires who desired to join the Church. Brother Friedrichs was a deacon and Brother Hoppe was a teacher -- neither holding the authority to baptize. ("The South American Mission, Ensign, February 1975)

During 1925, Andrew Jenson and Thomas Page were sent by the First Presidency to tour South America to consider opening it up to missionary work. They brought back a favorable report.

In 1925, Elder Melvin J. Ballard was appointed to open up a mission in South America. Accompanying Elder Ballard was Elder Rey L. Pratt, president of the Mexican Mission, and Elder Rulon S. Wells, a former mission president to Germany. The three arrived in Buenos Aires on December 6, 1925, where they were met by Brother Friedrichs and Hoppe. A cottage meeting was held that evening at the home of the Friedrichs.

On December 13, 1925, the first baptisms were held in the Rio de la Plata for the German-speaking investigators. six were baptized including: Mr. and Mrs. Kulick and their daughter, and Mr. and Mrs. Biebersdort and their daughter. Later that day, a sacrament meeting was held and the new converts were confirmed. Brothers Friedrichs and Hoppe were ordained priests. Some children were also blessed. (See Andrew Jenson, Encyclopedic History of the Church, p.810)

On Christmas Day, December 25, 1925, a historic meeting was held in the park of Tres de Febrero in Buenos Aires. Elder Melvin J. Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated South America for the preaching of the gospel. In his dedicatory prayer, he prayed:

And now, oh, Father, by authority of the blessing and appointment by the President of the Church, and by the authority of the holy apostleship which I have, I turn the key, unlock, and open the door for the preaching of the Gospel in all these South American nations, and do rebuke and command to be stayed every power that would oppose the preaching of the Gospel in these lands; and we do bless and dedicate these nations of this land for the preaching of thy Gospel. And we do all this that salvation may come to all men, and that thy name may be honored and glorified in this part of the land of Zion. (Melvin J. Ballard, Crusader for Righteousness, 81)
In January, 1826, Elder Rulon S. Wells became very ill and had to return to the United States on January 14. Without Elder Wells' expertise in the German language, it became more difficult to preach the gospel among those who spoke German. Elders Ballard and Pratt began to work among the Spanish-speaking people. (Melvin J. Ballard, Conference Report, October 1926)

The gospel was also taken to Italian immigrants including the Gianfelice family. Antonino Gianfelice was five years old when his family accepted the gospel. He would later become the first ordained patriarch in South America. Brother Gianfelice explained: "We went to visit a family of friends of my parents. While we were there, we could hear what seemed to be singing of church hymns. My parents enjoyed the singing very much. We were told that it was a church brought by foreigners who lived with German families. My mother asked my father to investigate to learn if it was possible to attend this new church. During the following week, a man distributed pamphlets from door to door. The pamphlet was titled, 'The Gospel Restored' and listed the meeting times and addresses of the Church." The Gianfelice family attended church the following week. "In our home, we will always remember the first visit of the missionaries." They were first taught by Elder Rey Pratt and were baptized shortly after he left Argentina. "Elder Pratt understood the language and had much experience. He was a person always willing to share his understanding of the gospel." ("Argentine Pioneer Saw Church Grow From Small Beginnings" by Nestor E. Curbelo. Church News, July 23, 1994)

In June 1926, more missionaries arrived to help with the work. Among them was K. B. Reinhold Stoof and his wife. Elder Stoof succeeded Elder Ballard as the president of the South America Mission. Elder Stoof had been the editor of the "Beobachter", a Church publication in German, printed in Salt Lake City. Two other elders soon arrived who would work among the Spanish-speaking Argentines. Elders Ballard and Pratt departed from Argentina in July, 1926. Elder Ballard later related: We left small group converted, for eleven of them signified to us their intention of joining the Church and bore testimony to the truth of the message we had brought them. When we finally did leave, there were as many tears shed at our departure in Buenos Aires as there had been in Salt Lake City when we left here a year ago. Since leaving that land four splendid Italians, three men and a woman, have joined the Church, and others in addition to the eleven that I have referred to have become interested. (General Conference, October, 1926). On the way home, while in the High Andes of Peru, Elder Ballard made this historic and prophetic statement:

The work of the Lord will grow slowly for a time here just as an oak grows slowly from an acorn. It will not shoot up in a day as does the sunflower that grows quickly and then dies. But thousands will join the Church here. It will be divided into more than one mission and will be one of the strongest in the Church. The work here is the smallest that it will ever be. The day will come when the Lamanites in this land will be given a chance. The South American Mission will be a power in the Church. (Briant S. Hinckley, ed., "Sermons and Missionary Service of Melvin Joseph Ballard, p. 100)
At the end of 1930, President Reinhold Stoof reported that the South American Mission had a total membership of 135 members, including 27 children. Most of these members were German converts, about thirty-two were Spanish-speaking, and eleven were Italians. There were fourteen elders laboring as missionaries. Attempts were made to teach the gospel to native Indians, but language and culture differences were significant barriers at that time. In 1930, Rosario became the second city in Argentina to receive missionaries. (Andrew Jenson, Encyclopedic History of the Church, p.810)

In 1931, the first church-owned branch chapel was purchased and dedicated in Liniers, a suburb of Buenos Aires. In 1933, Elder J. Reuben Clark, of the Quorum of the Twelve, visited Argentina.

The work progressed slowly. By 1935, there was only 192 members. After nine years as president, Reinhold Stoof was released. He was replaced by President W. Ernest Young. He presided over fourteen missionaries and 255 members. In 1936, the mission was divided into the Brazilian and Argentine Mission.

Frederick S. Williams became president of the Argentine Mission in 1938. He was able to generate favorable publicity when mission teams won the Argentine baseball and softball championships. These teams were known as "Lose Mormones." Musical groups were also used to improve public relations. The first chapel in South America was built in Liniers. It was dedicated on April 9, 1939 by President Williams. ("The Church in Argentina," Ensign, February, 1975)

In 1940, the government decreed that public meetings could only be held in Spanish, causing difficulty for the German-speaking Saints. In 1944, World War II forced all but three missionaries to return home. President W. Ernest Young presided over the mission during the war years. By 1945, there were 801 members in Argentina. With the end of the war, Harold Brown was called as mission president. Auxiliary were organized and local members were called to serve as branch presidents and missionaries.

President David O. McKay visited Argentina in 1954. By 1959, missionary work had picked up steam. Membership had grown to 3,500 members. Elder Spencer W. Kimball visited Argentina in 1959. "The people were so sweet. Tears in some of their eyes, occasionally they kissed my hand, one man fell to his knees and kissed my coat and made me nearly drop with humility. They brought their little ones to shake hands and be kissed." (Kimball, Spencer W. Kimball, 315)

Later, in General Conference, Elder Kimball reported:

The work is progressing and accelerating in speed. It took twenty-four years to get the first thousand converts in Argentina. It took only eight years for the second thousand, a year and seven months for the third thousand, and they expect from now on to get a thousand plus each year. The other countries, likewise, are inspiring, and it was a joyous experience. In most of the many branch chapels there hangs the picture of the prophet of the Lord with his counselors, and the prayers of the Saints are constantly for them. (General Conference, April, 1959).
President Joseph Fielding Smith and Elder A. Theodore Tuttle visited the country in 1960.

In northern Argentina, in the city of Tucuman, the first member baptized was Maria Rosario Omill. The first sacrament meetings were held in her home. Sister Omill recalled the day of her baptism. She said: "As we were leaving after my baptism in the river, one of the missionaries, Elder William Sill, said to me that we could not understand the importance of this moment; that my baptism would be a great help in starting the Church in Tucuman." ("Argentines focus on pioneers," Church News, May 17, 1997).

In 1962, the Argentine Mission was divided. In 1966, Elder Spencer W. Kimball and Elder Franklin D. Richards organized the first stake in Argentina in Buenos Aires. They interviewed seventy-five men and found seventy-three men worthy to hold any position. "Many wept with emotion when called to positions of responsibility. The building bulged with the 1440 in attendance." The new stake consisted of seven wards. Angel Abrea was the first stake president. (Kimball, Spencer W. Kimball, p. 359).

In 1968, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley toured South America. There, Elder and Sister Hinckley were reunited with their son Clark, serving as a missionary in the North Argentine Mission. Clark Hinckley was able to travel with his parents and help translate their talks. When a flight was cancelled to Tucuman, the Hinckleys ended up driving 700 kilometer in eight hours with mission president, Richard G. Scott. They arrived to a chapel full of Saints waiting for Elder Hinckley to dedicate their chapel. He also ended up signing hundreds of autographs. (Dew, Go Forward with Faith, p. 300)

The first Argentine mission president was Juan Carlos Avila, called in 1974. In 1975, President Kimball conducted an Area General Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina. More than 1,300 priesthood holders attended a leadership session and more than 10,000 attended the general session. President N. Eldon Tanner said:

It is evident that the work of the Lord is going forward and that his kingdom is being built up throughout the world. The members were thrilled and most excited and enthusiastic and appreciative when the president announced that we would have a temple in Sao Paulo. Both in Brazil and Argentina the members pledged their full support. (General Conference, April, 1975)
While speaking to a gathering of youth during the area conference, President Kimball put aside his prepared text and shared a personal experience with them. "He then told them about his experience with surgery to save his voice. He explained that the Lord had spared his voice. He said it wasn't the same voice he had once had. . . . As the President concluded his remarks he asked, 'Didn't the Lord give you your voice so you could teach the gospel?' He then testified that he had come to know that his voice and our voices are for the declaring of the gospel of Jesus Christ." (Rex D. Pinegar, General Conference, October, 1976)

At that time there was more than 35,000 members, five stakes, and four missions in Argentina. By 1978, membership reached 40,000. In 1979, President Ezra Taft Benson, president of the Quorum of the Twelve visited Argentina. This is recorded in his biography: "President Benson recorded in his journal an experience one missionary in Argentina related to him. This missionary and his companion had been working for some time with a family who, though they accepted many gospel truths, lacked a testimony of modern-day prophets. On February 23, 1979, President Benson spoke at the Cine Opera in Buenos Aires, concluding his remarks with a powerful testimony of the Savior. This investigator family attended, and afterwards the father approached the missionary and said with emotion, 'I do not want to wait for baptism any longer. I have just seen and heard a living prophet.'" (Dew, Ezra Taft Benson, p. 436).

In 1980 membership had risen to 46,000 and a temple was announced for Buenos Aires that year. In 1981, Elder Angel Abrea was the first General Authority called from Argentina. In fact he was the first called from South America. He later said: "A few days ago, when I received a phone call at the mission home in Rosario, Argentina, and President Kimball extended to me this calling, Sister Abrea and I were not only touched emotionally, but also overwhelmed by the tremendous responsibility. A feeling and a word immediately filled me. The feeling, gratitude; the word, gracias--thank you." (General Conference, April, 1981).

The Buenos Aires Temple was dedicated on January 17, 1986, by President Thomas S. Monson. He prayed in the dedicatory prayer, "We remember that it was in this very city of Buenos Aires, on Christmas Day in the year 1925, just 60 years ago, that Elder Melvin J. Ballard, an apostle of the Lord, dedicated all of South America for the preaching of the gospel. What a fulfillment to an inspired prayer is evident today." (Church News, January 26, 1986). Angel and Maria Victoria Chiapparino Abrea were called as the president and the matron. A Missionary training center was established in Buenos Aires in 1986. (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol.3, South America, The Church in Argentina).

The temple has given additional enthusiasm and dedication to Argentine Saints. They have committed themselves to more family history and endowment work. Elder Angel Abrea said: "Having a temple has given [the Argentine members] a different perspective of the gospel and the plan of salvation. For many converts who had learned about temples almost since they learned about the Church, temple blessings had always been out of reach, something they would never be able to attain. And suddenly they had a temple in their midst," explained Elder Angel Abrea, the first temple president. (Derin Head Rodriquez from Every Nation, p. 111)

In 1988, the Church News recognized two outstanding home teachers in Mor Del Plata, Argentina. "Home teaching partners Rafael Salvioli, 90, and Francisco Vidal Cunningham, 84, of the Mar del Plata 2nd Ward, have had 100 percent home teaching for the past seven years." (Church News, August 13, 1989)

On May 28, 1989, two sisters missionaries died of accidental asphyxiation in their living quarters in Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina. Sister Yunette Harris, 22, of Memphis, Tenn., and Sister Gabriela Maria Cristina Nieva, 21, of Godoy Cruz, Mendoza, Argentina, died in their sleep. ("Two Missionaries in Argentina Die of Accidental Asphyxiation." Church News, June 10, 1989).

By January 1991, 171,000 members in nine missions, 64 stakes and districts, and in more than five hundred wards and branches. In 1992, the Argentina Buenos Aires West Mission was created, becoming the 50th mission in South America. In 1993, Argentina had 195,423 members in 23 stakes, and 10 missions. President Anthony I. Bentley of the Argentina Buenos Aires North Mission, observed: "I am convinced that not withstanding the growth and progress of the past 57 years, all of that predicted by Elder [Melvin J.] Ballard will be realized. In reality, we are just commencing. The day will come when the members of the Church will represent a high percentage of the population of Argentina. The Church will be well-known and its members very respected. The influence of the Church will be beneficial and will be felt throughout the land." (As Converts Increase, Faithful Argentine LDS Are Key to Future. Church News, April 17, 1993).

On November 12, 1996, President Gordon B. Hinckley arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina and spoke to 700 missionaries and to 50,000 members at the Estadio Velez Sarsfield. The members arrived in 600 buses from stakes as far away as Paraguay. A 1,130-voice choir sang at the service. President Hinckley said: "Once we were a very small group. Now we are spread across the earth in more than 150 nations, 10 million strong, yet we are interested in one another as individuals. Each of your problems is my problem and we stand to help you any way we can." ("Quiet Gratitude Greets Prophet in Chile, Argentina." Church News, November 23, 1996.)

On April 9, 1997, Elder Orin A. Voorheis was shot in the head during a robbery in a community 20 miles south of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Church News reported: "Police said the shooting occurred on a rainy evening when most people were indoors. Three bandits wielding knives and a gun accosted Elder Voorheis and his companion, Elder Armondo J. Barry, and demanded their money. The elders' little money angered the bandits, so one pointed a gun at Elder Voorheis and demanded his backpack. The missionary evidently pushed the gun away twice in the process of taking off his pack, and it was then that the gun was fired. Elder Barry ran for help, but quickly returned and cradled his companion in his arms and gave him a blessing." Doctors in Argentina expected him to die within 36 hours, but he did not. On April 30, still in a coma, Elder Voorheis was flown back to Utah. ("Outpouring of love for missionary." Church News, May 10, 1997).

Elder Voorheis' father, Wayne Voorheis wrote: "We arrived in Utah April 30th and transferred Elder Voorheis to the University of Utah Hospital that evening. For a few weeks he was mostly paralyzed but gradually movement returned, first to his arms, then to his legs. By mid-June he could turn his head from one side to the other. Significant purposeful movement gradually began to develop later in July. During the first two months in the hospital, he fought for his life against pneumonia at least three times. The pneumonia was caused by an antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria." By October, Elder Voorheis was able to perform tasks on command. "This morning, I asked him to wave goodbye to me by holding his hand up with fingers extended. He did it without any help. We have been working toward this achievement for about a month. . . . We are encouraged by the regular, steady progress he continues to make. Continuing at this rate he will take many months yet to return to normal, maybe years." (Wayne Voorheis to LDS-GEMS, October, 1, 1997)

On October 11, 1997, more violence occurred against a missionary in Argentina. Elder Daniel B. Lawson, of La Verkin, Utah, a missionary in the Argentina Buenos Aires North Mission who was shot in the jaw by an assailant during a hold-up attempt. The Church News reported: "The incident occurred as Elder Lawson and his companion returned home from the community of Jose C. Paz, 20 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. As they walked home, three men accosted them and asked for their money. The missionaries complied, but when one man went through Elder Lawson's backpack, he found a film container with some coins in it. Angered, the gunman fired at him." He returned to Salt Lake City on October 18 in good spirits. The .22 bullet was removed successfully in outpatient surgery on October 20, without complications. ("Missionary, injured in shooting, in good spirits, good condition." Church News, June 10, 1989. "Bullet removed from missionary in minor surgery." Church News, October 25, 1997)

Membership reached 265,000 in 1997 with sixty-seven stakes and ten missions. During 1997, more than 1,000 people attended a "Missionary Legacy" night held for returned and future missionaries and their families of 10 stakes in the Buenos Aires area. All three members of the area presidency spoke.