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Jack and Elizabeth Cumming with their oldest son, Allan, following his christening
Jack and Elizabeth Cumming with their oldest son, Allan, following his christening

From Orkney to Buenos Aires

Monday May 30 2016

Kenneth Cumming revisits the roots of his father’s early ministry in South America

It was a journey of discovery for newly weds John (‘Jack’) and Elizabeth Cumming from Orkney, as they set sail for an adventure which would take them to a new life in Buenos Aires.

It was 1948 and many Orcadians had never even left the islands, yet my parents felt a call to sail thousands of miles for Dad to begin his ministry in the Argentinian capital.

After the birth of my eldest brother Allan (christened Allano) in Buenos Aires, they returned to Scotland in 1951 and Dad became minister at Newton Panbride in Carnoustie, followed by a spell at Nairn Old, and then 17 years at Palmerston Place Church in Edinburgh. He retired in 1985 and sadly died in 1987. They never returned to the city which had been their home for the first years of their marriage.

Following my mum’s death in 2013, my wife Fiona and I agreed that we would retrace my parents’ footsteps and booked a holiday in Argentina at the end of 2015, partly to explore the country and its culture, but also to try and learn more about my parents’ early married life in a far flung outpost of the Church of Scotland.

Having looked back at the research which my brother Colin did at the time of Mum's funeral and having done a bit more of my own, it seemed pretty clear (but not absolutely definite) that the church where Dad had gone to work in Buenos Aires was what is now the St Andrews Presbyterian Church on Avenida General Jose Maria Paz in Temperley. It had been built in 1913 as the St Andrews Church of Scotland (one of several in Buenos Aires established by the large Scottish community), but the link with Scotland ended in 1983 when it became known simply as the Presbyterian Church.

Fiona and I had booked a guided walking tour of Buenos Aires and I told our guide Rocia about the family connection with Buenos Aires and she was very interested. It turned out she lived not far from Temperley, which is in the suburbs of the city, so she very kindly offered, on her day off, to meet us off the bus out from the centre and drive us to Avenida General Jose Maria Paz. We managed to negotiate the bus journey and Rocia appeared moments later in her little car with her two-year-old son Julian (pronounced 'Hoolian') who enjoyed meeting us so much that he immediately fell asleep!

Five minutes later we pulled up outside the church, situated in a stylish, quiet, leafy area. The door was open and, as luck would again have it, an Argentinian lady and a young guy who were inside turned out to be the Church secretary and her son.

Rocia swung in to action and explained to them in Spanish why we were there. They were very pleased and excited, and the son took us on a full guided tour of the office, the inside of the church, the hall, the youth room, the kitchen and the toilets!

I could certainly picture Dad here, but still harboured nagging doubts that we were actually in the right place. Then, just as we were thinking we'd seen everything, the son said "Ah momento" (or something like that) and unlocked a door that looked like it hadn't been opened for years. In we went to what I think must have been the old vestry and there on the wall was a framed set of photographs – all the ministers of the church, including at the end of the second row, a very young looking Rev J W Cumming 1948-1951.

It was very emotional and almost overwhelming to see him there and to know for sure that this was the place to which two young Orcadians had sailed thousands of miles by boat at the start of their lives together, at a time when most Orcadians had never even ventured "sooth". Fiona and I both felt very proud of them.

We were then taken to see the manse, which is a lovely little house in the grounds of the church. We were initially very excited to think that this was where Allan had been born, but we learned later that this manse had only been built in 1957 and that ministers before then had just rented houses in the area.

By this time, the secretary had made a phone call to Arnold Dodds, a man whose late father had been a pillar of the church and who apparently remembered Mum and Dad. I was handed the phone and spoke to Arnold. He told me that, on a trip to Scotland many years ago, he visited us in Nairn, and that he had a book of old photographs we must see. So despite telling him that we were running out of time (Julian had by this time woken up!), he announced that he was driving straight over to meet us and would be there in 10 minutes.

It was, by this time, beginning to feel a bit like we were in an edition of Who Do You Think You Are, but before we knew it, Arnold had screeched to a halt outside the church, clasping a plastic bag containing his photo album. We reckon he must have been late 80s/early 90s, but still very sharp. He seemed delighted to meet us and devastated that we couldn't come to his house for a meal. He then told me that he had a photograph of me, which initially puzzled me, until I realised that he mistaking me for my older brother Allan!

The photograph in question was a lovely one of Dad, Mum and the infant Allan sitting on a beautiful stone seat outside the church after Allan's christening. 

Arnold actually only had one other picture of Dad, but his other photos included several of Colin Martin who was the minister there some time after Dad and who I can remember visited us in Nairn and/or Edinburgh.

Arnold's album also contained a number of photos of Betty Walls (former General Secretary of the Overseas Council of the Church of Scotland and member of Palmerston Place Church)! It turned out she was there in the 1960s as part of a Church of Scotland delegation conducting an official visit. Another strange connection with Dad.

Unfortunately, Arnold did not know where Mum and Dad had lived when they were there, and he confirmed that the address on Allan's birth certificate - 161 Avenida Jose Maria Paz - was the old postal address of the church before it changed to 191. So Allano's birthplace remains a mystery!

We eventually managed to persuade Arnold that we really had to go, but not before he told us that he didn't like their current minister because he was Chilean and wore an open necked shirt for his induction! Rocio then drove us back to a place where we could get the bus back in to the centre of Buenos Aires with our heads full of thoughts about what my parents’ lives there must have been like, and questions we wished we had asked them when they were alive.

Life in Scotland would have been very different (and much colder!) but we were thrilled to have learned more of the early days of Dad’s ministry in South America.