The Baha’i Community of Canada’s governing council, the National Spiritual Assembly, welcomed 60 guests to a reception on September 6th that marked the opening of the new visitors’ centre adjacent to the recently renovated Baha’i Shrine in Montreal.
Municipal officials, academics, religious leaders and other guests attended the reception, one of several events held in Montreal and across Canada during a week-long series of commemorative activities that highlighted the visit to Canada 100 years earlier by the then Head of the Baha’i Faith, ‘Abdu’l-Baha.
“Such a lovely and spiritually uplifting event”, wrote Professor Patrice Brodeur, Canada Research Chair in Islam, Pluralism and Globalization at the University of Montreal, in thanking the Baha’is for the reception. The guests also had the opportunity to visit the Shrine after the event. “What a hidden treasure,” Dr. Brodeur said of the Shrine.
Madame Mary Deros, a Montreal City Councillor and member of Mayor Gerald Tremblay’s Executive Committee, attended the reception, and read a message from the Mayor commenting on the contribution of the Baha’is to Montreal since the first Baha’i community of Canada was established there in the early twentieth century.
The Shrine was originally the home of May Bolles Maxwell and William Sutherland Maxwell, one of Canada’s most prominent architects of the early decades of the twentieth century. ‘Abdu’l-Baha stayed in the home during his visit to North America and described it as his own; it is for this reason that it was later designated a Shrine. The building, the only Baha’i Shrine in Canada, has been restored to its original state in the belle époque style circa 1912.
Two days later, 1,400 people attended a talk by Ali Nakhjavani, a former member of the international governing council of the Baha’i Faith, who recalled ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s message of love, unity and justice, and spoke about its implications for personal growth and development. “Abdu’l-Baha would always remain silent about the faults of others,” he said.
Mr. Nakhjavani was a close friend of Mary Maxwell, the daughter of May and William Sutherland Maxwell, known to Baha’is, subsequently to her marriage to the great-grandson of the Founder of the Faith, as Ruhiyyih Khanum. His talk inspired the audience, many of whom had travelled to Montreal for the national commemoration, a gathering that was echoed in a number of local gatherings held across Canada.
In Hamilton, Ontario, more than 700 people crowded the Liuna Train Station where the train carrying ‘Abdu’l-Baha had stopped 100 years earlier, and in Saskatoon, Members of Parliament and the Provincial Legislature, along with the Mayor, joined the Baha’i community in their festive commemoration of his visit. An afternoon music concert at Alix Goolden Hall was held in Victoria.
Abdu’l-Baha arrived in Montreal on August 30, 1912 and gave eight public and seven informal presentations before leaving on September 9. Of the half-million French and English-speaking population of Montreal at that time, many followed the newspaper accounts of the visit with interest. Thirty-four articles were printed in eleven different papers. “Le Devoir” and “La Presse,” still in operation today, printed two articles each, and the “Montreal Gazette” published six. The “Montreal Daily-Star,” no longer in operation, printed 10 articles.
The visit was remarkable, not merely for the large crowds that greeted his public talks at places such as the Church of the Messiah, Coronation Hall, St. James Methodist Church, as well as the Maxwell home on Pine Avenue and the Windsor Hotel, but for the range of issues he addressed and the excitement he stirred among the Baha’is and the many prominent and ordinary citizens he met.
He spoke about the oneness of religion, the importance of eliminating prejudices, the principles required for world peace, the need for individuals to investigate truth for themselves, to avoid superstition, and to recognize the unity of science and religion, the need for social and economic justice, and the demands of world peace. He predicted the imminent outbreak of World War I, and several times expressed his joy at visiting Canada, calling it “a prosperous and delightful land”. Though warned that the people of Montreal were superstitious and fanatical, he said that, on the contrary, he found the people of Montreal and Canada very open and welcoming. After he returned home, in what is now the State of Israel, he wrote that Canada’s future, “whether from a material or spiritual point of view, is very great.”
The first Baha’i community in Canada was established in Montreal in 1902 by May and William Sutherland Maxwell. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit was a turning point in the development of that small community and represents an event of immense significance for Baha’is. He 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 government and a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire. The Young Turk Revolution put an end to his house arrest, and made those historic visits possible.
While large commemorative events have been held, the most important focus of the centenary has been the dedication of 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 an emphasis on the importance of the application of knowledge to the well-being of the world, of 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.