October 20, 2014
A slice of Sweden
by Michael Soltys
If Swedish links with Argentina go back two centuries with Count Johan Adam Graaner the only foreigner at the Tucumán independence convention in 1816 (fishing for a possible crown for the Bernadotte dynasty), a religious presence here dates back less than a century with the typically Nordic Swedish Church on the corner of Azopardo and Garay built in 1945.
A formal Swedish Lutheran Congregation was founded in 1918 but until the church’s construction took the form of roving preachers ministering in Swedish homes and English-speaking chapels. Yet the many Swedish sailors passing through Buenos Aires with the then lively Swedish merchant shipping traffic (which gave its colours to Boca Juniors, according to the famous legend) were generally not in town long enough to locate this network so the need for a physically identifiable church for seamen became clear, especially since the role of neutral Sweden in shipping trade grew enormously during the Second World War (and sometimes Swedish vessels were stranded here for weeks at an end by the U-Boot menace).
The Swedish Association stumped up 25,000 pesos to build a church, which was enough money in those days (even allowing for some striking stained glass) — the construction was completed 50 weeks after the foundation stone was laid in May, 1944. The church’s first service was held just five days after the German surrender in Europe and for a while it flourished with its congregations topping 20,000 in 1947-8 (i.e. hundreds of people on any given Sunday) — this encouraged the foundation of a seaman’s home by the Johnson Foundation in 1946-47. But over the next three decades “flags of convenience” plus the container and roll on-roll off revolutions in shipping transport reduced to a trickle the maritime links which had seen up to 38 Swedish-flagged ships in port at a time, thus leaving the seaman’s church without any sailors.
So that was then, what about now, the Herald asked Sven Larsson, chairman of the Church Council. Today the Swedish Church has a sort of involuntary independence — there has been no permanent paid Swedish pastor since 1992 and Swedish Lutheranism in this part of the world has been run out of Sao Paulo since 1994. The last 20 years have thus seen the Swedish Lutheran Church here transformed into an Argentine Christian community with a tiny core of Swedes within a more secularized society. Births, marriages and deaths are usually occasions for a church service even today but both regular activities and funding now lie elsewhere.
Yet a new religious community has arisen to replace the Swedish seamen with a congregation of 40-45 people. Like all traditional Protestant communities they have to compete with the sects (even more so in Brazil). The congregation is fully ecumenical (including Catholics) with background unimportant. Christian values are not necessarily the only attraction although they are extremely important for many people (especially in today’s “anything goes” society, says Larsson). Some Argentines who were forced into a Swedish exile during the 1976-83 military dictatorship or have lived in Sweden since like to keep up the link this way. Some people like the church’s atmosphere while others are drawn by the music, which has always been a strong point and has long been directed by the organist Sergio Bacigalupo — an invaluable asset for the church not only as an organist but for his ability to organize concerts (flute, jazz or salsa, he does it all).
Perhaps the biggest activity is at the end of the year with Santa Lucia night around December 13 and the Christmas bazaar (including Swedish food-stalls) draws 700-900 people and is a serious fund-raiser. Plus film showings, bridge tournaments and various events to bring people together in an age when there are so many more things going on, reflects Larsson (who grew up on a farm).
So Buenos Aires has its own Swedish church alongside London, Paris, Nice, Berlin, Spain, Italy, Greece, India, Thailand and Brazil. Uniquely Swedish but extremely Argentine is Larsson’s conclusion — a renewed community in an old church.