He grew up as a Church member when Latter-day Saints were a rarity in his country. There were perhaps four hundred members of the Church in Argentina when he was baptized at age ten, in November of 1943.
But years of Church experience, combined with parental support, molded Elder Angel Abrea into the kind of individual who could be a counselor in the district presidency at seventeen, and a branch president at twenty-three. He was later a district president, first stake president in his country, Regional Representative, and mission president before he was sustained as a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy on 4 April 1981.
It has been a growth-filled journey from the boy, who had to walk more than two miles each Sunday to el local, the rented house where Church services were held, to the man, already selected as first president of the Buenos Aires Temple, now under construction. He is currently managing director of the Church’s Temple Department and also Executive Administrator for the Peru-Bolivia Area.
Angel Abrea represents the major European influences in Argentina’s heritage. One of his grandfathers was from Italy, the other from Spain. Both of his grandmothers were Argentine-born.
His father, Edealo Abrea, was a middle-class businessman. Edealo and Angel’s mother, Zulema Estrado Abrea, were fine people who provided moral and ethical examples for their two children, Angel and his younger brother, Oscar. Not active in the dominant religion of Argentina, the family seemed to be waiting, Elder Abrea recalls, “for something to believe in, and that was the message of the LDS Church.”
They first heard that message from two lady missionaries who were tracting in their area. Sister Zulema Abrea accepted the gospel immediately. She helped her son Angel understand the story of the Book of Mormon and learn to study the scriptures in preparation for his baptism, which came almost a year later. Oscar, who was then too young, entered the waters of baptism at age eight.
It would be satisfying to write that Edealo Abrea joined his wife and sons in Church membership before his death eight years ago, but that did not happen. Elder Abrea’s father nevertheless supported his family, encouraging his wife and sons in their Church service. Elder Abrea remembers that when he was baptized, his father told him, “‘Angel, if you are going to be a member of that Church—if you are going to be a member of the Mormon Church—you have to be a faithful member.’ I remember that was a Sunday morning, when he was waking me up to go to the meetings. Really, he was a tremendous help for me.”
His mother, always busy in a variety of Church positions, led by example. “She has been working in the Primary for more than thirty years now, and I think that she is one of the greatest missionaries in Argentina.” She has learned to make friends with people and to proselyte them as she meets them, particularly on public transportation. She has been responsible for bringing more than thirty-five people into the Church through the years, including a current stake president and more than one Relief Society president.
Zulema Abrea helped her sons grow up as examples of their faith, despite the difficulty of being, at times, the lone Church members in their peer groups. Like his elder brother, Oscar Abrea developed a love for serving in the Church. He is currently bishop of the Buenos Aires Fourth Ward and institute director at a university.
Edealo Abrea influenced his son Angel to study accounting after secondary school. Working in his father’s business, Elder Abrea learned some of the basics of commerce and accounting while he helped sell candy. Soon he was putting his university training into practice by doing accounting for his father, and then for other clients. This outside work helped pay his way through the university.
He had become involved in politics, and after he finished his education, he served for a time as secretary of the treasury for San Miguel, a city near Buenos Aires of more than one million people. When he finished his government service, he applied for and received a job with Deloitte, Haskins & Sells, a major international accounting firm.
One of the things he had done to help pay his way through the university was tutor younger students. Among them was Maria Victoria Chiapparino, who came under his tutelage as a fourteen-year-old. Elder Abrea’s mother was instrumental in teaching Maria the gospel, and Angel, as an eighteen-year-old priest, baptized her.
But that was not the end of the story. He was attracted by her beauty and maturity. Their acquaintance blossomed into romance, and they were married in 1957. Elder Abrea was then twenty-three, and his bride was eighteen. (Their marriage was solemnized in the Salt Lake Temple in 1966.)
“She has been a tremendous help,” Elder Abrea says of his wife. More than that, she has been “an inspiration.”
When they were married, Sister Abrea recalls, he was a counselor in the Mutual presidency for the mission. (His call as branch president came three months later.) It is the Argentine custom for the bride and groom to meet relatives and well-wishers in their home the evening of their wedding. But he was involved in planning an upcoming Mutual conference, and there was a key meeting that night. So he excused himself to go to the meeting, and she met the guests alone.
“The thing that has always impressed me most has been his faithfulness, his consecration to the work. Always the Lord has come first. And I have been content with that.”
In their marriage partnership, dedication to the Lord’s work has not been one-sided. Elder Abrea praises his wife for her service to the Church and for the strength she has been in their family.
Since her youth, he says, she has dedicated her life to the Church. “She was very active in everything.” At twenty-one, she was called to be president of the Relief Society in the mission, one of the first Argentine women to hold that position. She has also been a seminary teacher. He recalls that she used to get up at 4:30 in the morning so she could prepare for the day, then pick up students in the car and take them to the church for seminary. “She’s always had great impact among the young people.”
The young people who felt that impact most, of course, were the Abreas’ three daughters, Patricia, Claudia, and Cynthia. The three were born within a four-year period, and they have shared a closeness that their parents encouraged. “Mother wanted us to be friends,” Patricia explains. Patricia (Mrs. Guillermo Houlin) and Cynthia (Mrs. Robert Buma) were married in the fall of 1983.
Their mother is a good listener, Cynthia says. “Every time we had a problem, we would go to Mother first, before anybody else.”
“My mother dedicated her life to us. Many times she felt the responsibility of being mother and father,” Claudia adds. The minor problems, Sister Abrea often solved by herself; the major ones had to wait until they could be discussed with her husband. But her daughters remember that she never complained because her husband was gone on a Church assignment when she needed him.
“There is a need to learn to be alone many times, to share one’s husband with many people,” Sister Abrea explains softly.
Elder Abrea makes the best of the time he has with his family, Claudia explains. “He’s really considerate with my mother. One of the things he always asks first when he gets home is, ‘Where’s Mom?’” One of Claudia’s goals is to share with her spouse the same high quality of communication her parents enjoy.
Claudia says she has never felt that her father’s devotion to his callings, though responsibilities frequently took him away from home, robbed her in any sense. Instead, it made him a better father. “When he was at home, he was totally at home.”
“My daughters can’t remember a time when I wasn’t busy in the Church,” Elder Abrea says, adding that callings have been a part “not only of my life, but of my family’s. We couldn’t imagine life without the Church.”
In his years of Church service, Claudia reflects, her father has learned to be patient and more outgoing, a characteristic that came with difficulty because of his natural reserve.
His reserve melts when he is with those who are close to him, his daughters say. He is very affectionate and warm, particularly with his family. Those who know his serious, public personality might be surprised to see him laughing with his daughters.
Claudia recalls that some of the favorite family activities in Buenos Aires included going to theater shows and dinner together, on picnics, or to parks.
Sometimes, she says, she and her sisters felt the pressure of being a Church leader’s daughters, “especially with our dates.” Her parents were strict by Argentine standards. Dates usually began at 8 P.M., since most Argentines work until 6:30, and her father insisted his daughters be home by 10:00. On reflection, she says, it was a good policy.
When Elder Abrea was president of the Argentina Rosario Mission, his daughters noted that he regularly interviewed all the missionaries under his direction. They asked him for the same one-on-one opportunity. Through these interviews, he has often provided exactly the counsel his daughters needed to handle problems. His technique is not to tell them just what to do; instead, they talk about the problems and arrive at a solution together. “Things that seem really difficult for me seem easy for him,” Claudia comments.
“Wise” is the word Cynthia chooses to characterize her father. He has “a good sense of leadership” and is highly organized. His respect for people is reciprocated; he has always taught that one must give people the kind of treatment one expects.
Patricia says there is an admirable persistence and consistency about his work. “He knows what he has to do and, no matter what, he does it.”
Elder Abrea explains that his professional background undoubtedly accounts for some of that persistence and consistency. “I am a results-oriented man. I like goals. I like results. I want to be better, to improve. Each day has to be different from yesterday.”
Perhaps his greatest contribution to the Church in Argentina, Patricia reflects, has been his work in building leadership, and most of it has been done through teaching by example.
Leadership, Elder Abrea comments, is one of the greatest needs among South American Saints. Many who are very strong spiritually nevertheless have little leadership experience. Things that may be commonplace to North American members—delegation, teamwork, planning and conducting meetings, for example—are new and intimidating for many South American members. The solution is to teach them correct leadership principles, then help them learn these through practice.
His daughter Claudia says that dedication is another of Elder Abrea’s great strengths. She and Cynthia tell the same story to illustrate the point. Elder Abrea was scheduled to fill a Church assignment out of town the day after his father was buried, and he had to catch a flight out of Buenos Aires shortly after the burial. He was deeply grieved at his father’s passing, and Cynthia asked him why he was going ahead with the trip. He gently reminded her of his father’s admonition always to do his best in Church commitments (an admonition he has passed on to his daughters), and commented that he would be honoring his father by obeying that counsel.
When the call came to be a mission president, there was no question about his accepting it. But none of the family realized how profound would be the change it would bring in their lives. Becoming a mission president required him to give up a good job, and his daughters were concerned about that. As the time neared for him to be released, in July of 1981, one of them asked him several times where he planned to work afterward. He had no answer, except that he was not worrying about it.
Then, on 16 March 1981, there was a telephone call from President Spencer W. Kimball in Salt Lake City. The prophet asked how things were in the mission, and asked about the welfare of Elder Abrea and his family. But “I didn’t think he had called me just to see how I was,” Elder Abrea says, smiling. Then President Kimball issued the call to the First Quorum of the Seventy, as well as to the presidency of the temple that was to be built in Buenos Aires. He talked to Sister Abrea and called her to be the first matron of that temple.
Suddenly, everything about the Abreas’ life had changed. Elder Abrea remembers that President Kimball told him on the telephone that day, “You will never finish your mission. This mission is for the rest of your life.” He was sustained a member of the quorum 4 April 1981, and moved easily into full-time service as a way of life.
How does a man who is so dedicated unwind? “My only hobby is to work in the Church,” Elder Abrea replies. When there is an opportunity, he enjoys watching soccer, a game he used to play on high school and university teams. (Claudia notes that he also used to make a creditable contribution as a member of Church basketball teams.) But what does he do when he wants to relax? “I like to read. I like to talk to people. I like to be with people.”
Elder Abrea will undoubtedly have the opportunity to be with many people when he returns to Buenos Aires as temple president. The Buenos Aires urban area includes approximately eleven million residents, more than a third of Argentina’s population. His wife and daughters speak of the pleasure of living in Salt Lake City, a “small city” where most people they meet are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It is time for more Argentines to become Latter-day Saints, Elder Abrea says. Many are better prepared than ever before to hear the gospel message because of the growth of the Church and the building of the temple in their country. Sister Abrea notes that the Church has become well enough established in Argentina for its influence to be felt over decades; her nephew represents the fourth generation of Church members in his family. Elder Abrea says Church growth has accelerated in his native country during the past fifteen or twenty years.
“The LDS Church has the great respect of the government and the people. They respect the members. They don’t know the doctrine, but they can see how the Mormon people act, how they live. I think that example of the people of the Church is the best proselyting tool we have.”
In fact, he says, people throughout South America are now much more prepared to hear and accept the gospel. “I think the hand of the Lord is at this moment on those countries. We have more missionaries working. More local members of the Church are doing missionary work.” Handling rapid growth is one of the Church’s biggest challenges in South America. But that very growth makes Latter-day Saints more visible and gives them more influence.
When he was fifteen, reflects Elder Abrea, “the only temple I heard about was in Salt Lake City. I couldn’t imagine a temple in my country.” But the House of the Lord that is being built there now is a symbol of the progress being made in Argentina, and throughout South America. So, too, he says, are the rising attendance figure—in one conference, for example, forty-five men were recently ordained to be elders; in some areas, there is a 75 percent activity rate for Melchizedek Priesthood holders.
“I am a witness of the latter-day miracles,” Elder Abrea affirms. “We need to look at what the Church is doing with the eyes of faith. There are so many miracles being done in South America.” Members who look beyond the routine affairs of the organization will see the hand of God at work.
He speaks quietly, but firmly. He is going back to South America to work. With Elder Abrea, and South Americans like him, laboring under the Lord’s direction, one expects that the Church will continue to experience many more miracles of growth and spirituality.