Nearly all the early converts to the Church in Argentina were European immigrants seeking economic betterment. German converts Wilhelm Friedrichs and Emil Hoppe were the first to preach the restored gospel in Argentina, energetically proselytizing, though lacking authority to baptize. Friedrichs and Hoppe wrote newspaper articles, gave lectures, and went door-to-door to spread their message.
The work was difficult, and the pair was often rejected. “One must not go in the houses,” Friedrichs reported, “but must remain standing on the street and make a noise with his hands, and then if somebody comes out and accepts a tract, it is well, but in most cases they will not accept.”
Initially, they held Church meetings in Friedrichs’s home, and his son accompanied their hymns with a mandolin. Within a year, they were holding meetings in three suburbs of Buenos Aires to reduce investigators’ travel. Some investigators were so committed they began paying tithing while awaiting baptism. Friedrichs informed Church headquarters of these developments and asked that missionaries be sent to Argentina.
Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles along with Rulon S. Wells and Rey L. Pratt arrived in Buenos Aires in December 1925. They immediately met with the congregations there. On December 12, six of the investigators—Jacob, Anna, and Herta Kullick; Ernst and Maria Biebersdorf; and Elisa Plassman—became the first in Argentina and in South America to be baptized. Two weeks later, on Christmas Day, Ballard dedicated South America for missionary work.
When Ballard and Pratt asked to visit Italian immigrants Donato and Emilia Gianfelice, initially the couple hesitated because their home was constructed of packing crates set on bare ground. At their first meeting, the Gianfelices desired a lesson on prayer. They learned to kneel and give a basic prayer and were soon baptized. Thereafter, they devoted their all to the gospel.
One cold Sunday evening, Donato waded 65 blocks through rain and flooded streets to the missionaries’ apartment. He begged them to “pray to the Lord to forgive” him. When he had paid his tithing that afternoon, he had “miscalculated and underpaid the Lord twenty centavos” (then about USD 0.05). He could not wait until Tuesday, when the missionaries would be in his home, because, he said, “I would not have been able to sleep knowing that I had cheated the Lord in my tithing.”
Spanish immigrant Mariano Borén attended various churches for years searching for the truth. His search was opposed by his wife’s family, who claimed he was mad and had him institutionalized. The doctors soon discharged him as “a normal, very religious man.” Undaunted, he continued until, unable to find the truth, he rented a room where he and similarly minded friends met every Sunday for a few years to study the Bible.
Finally, 27 years after arriving in Argentina, Borén obtained a Church pamphlet. Bibles in hand, he and a friend peppered the missionaries with questions about passages that puzzled them. After two sessions, he announced, “I have found the church I have been looking for.” He was baptized on Christmas Day 1934, and almost every member of the study group joined as well.
After his baptism, Borén told his son Samuel to “make a sign, ‘This store will be closed Sundays.’” Samuel thought it was a mistake to close on their most profitable day. “Make another sign,” his father said. “‘We don’t sell any more coffee or tea.’” Despite these business contractions, Borén was still able to provide food and subsidize the rent for many impoverished members.
During the latter half of the 19th century, more than six million immigrants from around the world settled in Argentina. By the late 1920s, Argentina was a diverse, cosmopolitan country. As a result, much of the early success of the Church in Argentina was among migrant communities. During one mission conference in 1942, the Church celebrated this diversity by having converts from 13 different countries each share one of the Articles of Faith in their own native language.