Knowing how early missionaries took the gospel to far corners of the world, we may be surprised that, except for a brief and unproductive visit to Chile in 1851, no attempt was made to proselytize in South American until late in 1925. But that year, a small group of Latter-day Saints who had joined the Church in their native Germany and then emigrated to Buenos Aires, Argentina, petitioned the First Presidency to send them missionaries. They had been meeting in each other’s homes, and had interested German friends in the gospel, and they asked for a church organization and the authority to baptize.
In response, President Heber J. Grant called three general authorities – Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve, and Elders Rulon S. Wells and Rey L. Pratt, two of the seven presidents of the Seventy – to go to Buenos Aires, dedicate South America for the preaching of the gospel, and begin missionary work there.
There is no question that their intention was to establish the work not only among that small German colony, but among the Spanish-speaking majority. Elder Wells spoke German; Elder Pratt spoke Spanish. Even the menu at a farewell dinner given to Elders Ballard and Wells (Elder Pratt was in Mexico, serving as president of that mission) evinces the continent-wide scope of their mission:
Buenos Aires Roast Turkey
Andes Potatoes . . . . . . . . Giblet Gravy
Peruvian Peas in Timbale Cases
Bolivia Olives . . . . . . . . Celery
Argentina Ice Cream . . . . . . . . Spanish Cake
On December 6, 1925, after 21 days at sea, the elders’ ship reached Buenos Aires. They were greeted at the dock by the German members and their friends.
And the elders wasted no time in opening the work they had been sent to do. On December 12, only six days after arriving, they baptized five converts, all German-speaking, in the La Plata River. Among them were Jakob and Anna Kullick and their 16-year-old daughter Herta, the youngest member of the Church there. They were confirmed the next day by Elder Wells.
Quite an auspicious beginning to the work in South America … but there the work stalled for a time. Although they had been welcomed by the mayor of Buenos Aires and told that there would be no objection to their proselyting, the elders had a difficult time making contacts among the Spanish-speaking Argentinians. The German-speaking colony had been there too briefly (the Kullicks had come only two years before) to have established many contacts among the Spanish – none of the adults really spoke the language well yet. The Spanish-language newspapers were not interested in publishing announcements of the LDS presence. And although Elder Pratt spoke Spanish, Elders Ballard and Wells did not. (Elder Ballard’s only language was English; Elder Wells spoke English and German, but he became ill and soon returned to the United States.)
They printed some fliers in Spanish inviting Argentinians to attend services and listen to a lecture illustrated by photographic slides at the storefront the elders had rented at 8970 Rivadavia Street. The language barrier made it so difficult for Elder Ballard to communicate with people that much of his time was spent in painting chairs to furnish the storefront meeting hall, or standing on the street passing out fliers to anyone who would take them – hardly the highest and best use of an apostle!
The elders continued to meet with the German members and to explore options with them. The record isn’t clear whether she suggested it to them, or they suggested it to her, but Herta Kullick, the teenage Latter-day Saint who had picked up Spanish readily, thought that perhaps she could interest some of her friends in coming to hear the elders and look at their slideshow. The first meeting was scheduled for May 1, 1926.
And did Herta bring friends? She did – over one hundred of them.
The response may have taken the elders by surprise, especially since the teenagers did not act like Mormon youth elsewhere who would have treated the elders with deference. One of them wrote, “They are very hard to control and have no idea of the sacredness of a meeting.” But those rambunctious teenagers cooperated with the elders, who organized them as a Sunday School. In addition to giving their illustrated lecture, the elders taught them some LDS hymns: Elder Pratt had translated the texts of a few hymns into Spanish, and Elder Ballard, who had a broad background in choral music, taught them the tunes.
Herta’s friends came back, over and over. And before long their parents followed them – what were these unfamiliar songs their children were singing? and why were they pestering their parents to say a blessing before meals?
That summer, Spanish names begin showing up in the record of South American baptisms. Although the youth meetings were discontinued before long, the match had been put to the tinder, and the gospel began to spread among the Spanish-speaking millions. (Work continued among the Germans, too, especially under Reinholt Stoof, who assumed the mission presidency later in 1926.)
Herta and her parents left Argentina for the U.S. in 1929, settling in Brooklyn. They became American citizens in 1938, and were connected with the Church in New York for the rest of their lives. Herta never married; she died on the last day of 2005, age 96.
It would be easy to overlook Herta’s contribution – the South American Mission history does, crediting the missionaries with organizing a meeting for youth but without mentioning how those youths were interested. We could even say that it was such a slight thing that if Herta hadn’t done it, someone else would have, eventually. But she did do it, and without any of the models most of us have had in how to share the gospel.
I told a brief version of this story in my ward a couple of weeks ago, and a visiting stranger, who had come to our ward only because our chapel was the first one he saw driving around downtown Salt Lake after coming in through the airport, spoke afterward. He told us how moved he was to hear the name of someone who had played in a role in making it possible for his grandparents – Spanish-speakers in Argentina – to hear the gospel. He stopped me afterward to repeat Herta’s name to be sure he had heard it correctly.