On Saturday 8 September Baha’is from across Canada will gather in Montreal to commemorate the centenary of the 1912 visit to Canada of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, one of the three central figures of the Baha’i Faith.
After arriving in Montreal by train from Boston on 30 August 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave at least eight formal talks and seven informal presentations before leaving on 9 September. Of the half-million French and English-speaking inhabitants of Montreal at that time, many followed the visit with interest in the newspapers of the day. There were more than 35 articles published in eleven different papers. “Le Devoir” and “La Presse”, still publishing today, printed two articles each, and the “Montreal Gazette” published six. The “Montreal Daily-Star”, no longer in operation, printed ten articles.
The visit was remarkable, not just for the large crowds that greeted ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s public talks at venues like the Church of the Messiah, Coronation Hall, St. James Methodist Church, the Windsor Hotel and the Maxwell home on Pine Avenue, but for the range of issues he addressed and the excitement he generated among the Baha’is and the many prominent individuals and ordinary citizens he met.
He spoke about the oneness of religion, the importance of eliminating prejudice, the principles for establishing world peace, the need for individuals to investigate truth for themselves, the avoidance of superstition, the recognition of the unity of science and religion, and the need for social and economic justice. He predicted the outbreak of World War I, and several times expressed his joy in visiting Canada, calling it “a prosperous and delightful land.” Although he had been warned that Montrealers were superstitious and fanatical, he said that, on the contrary, he found the people of Montreal and Canada very receptive and welcoming. After he returned to the Holy Land, he wrote that Canada’s future, “whether from a material or spiritual point of view, is very great.”
From 30 August to 9 September, the period during which ‘Abdu’l-Baha was in Montreal, there will be a number of activities including a music concert, a special talk at St. James Church, where he delivered an address, a reception for prominent people, and a large gathering on the evening of 8 September at the Fairmount Queen Elizabeth hotel. Other commemorative events will be taking place in cities across Canada. There will also be special visits to the Baha’i Shrine on Pine Avenue West, recently renovated to its original condition. That property is the only Baha’i Shrine in Canada.
The 8 September event will be the third large gathering of Baha’is in Montreal this year – all representing various ways of marking the centenary year. More than eight hundred Baha’is from across Canada attended the National Baha’i Convention in Montreal in late April; and the Association for Baha’i Studies held a very successful conference in Montreal 9-12 August with more than 1,400 participants.
The first Baha’i community in Canada was established in Montreal in 1902 by May Bolles Maxwell and William Sutherland Maxwell, who was one of Canada’s most prominent architects of the early twentieth century. A turning point in the development of that small, growing community, the visit by ‘Abdu’l-Baha represents an event of enormous spiritual significance for Baha’is. He had left the Holy Land to undertake a trip to North America and Europe after spending 40 years with his father, Baha’u’llah, the Founder-Prophet of the Baha’i Faith, as an exile of the Persian Empire and a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire in Haifa and ‘Akka in present-day Israel. The Revolution of the Young Turks put an end to his house arrest and allowed him to undertake those historic visits.
Montreal was very special among the cities he visited in the West, for he referred to the home of May and William Sutherland Maxwell as his own. Their daughter, Mary Maxwell, later married Shoghi Effendi, Head of the Baha’i Faith following the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. He designated the Maxwell home as a Baha’i Shrine. The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada, the community’s governing council, recently had the home renovated to match the furniture, décor and styling that had existed in 1912, and opened a Visitors’ Centre adjacent to the Shrine.
Although a number of special commemorative events are being held, the most important focus of the centenary has been the dedication of individual Baha’is to remembering and recommitting themselves to the values and ideals which ‘Abdu’l-Baha demonstrated throughout his life. His was a life devoted to service and action, to a never-ending emphasis on the importance of knowledge in service to the well-being of the world, the value of good character, moral principles and practices, and the need for both individual and social transformation. Born in 1844, ‘Abdu’l-Baha passed away in 1921, having devoted his life entirely to the service of others and of the religion for which his father, Baha’u’llah and the Forerunner of the Baha’i Faith, the Bab, had also sacrificed their lives.