March 16, 2022

A Treasure Trove from the Ottawa Bahá’í Community Archives

My home is the home of peace. My home is the home of joy and delight. My home is the home of laughter and exultation. Whosoever enters through the portals of this home, must go out with gladsome heart. This is the home of light; whosoever enters here must become illumined.
— ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

As a special gift to the Ottawa Bahá’í community, Heather Harvey, one of the organizers of the “Big Ideas” presentations – which have covered everything from international justice to the search for truth in a polarized world to building a sustainable planet – captivated her online audience with stories and documents related to the development of the Ottawa Bahá’í community from 1940 to 1960.

A retired teacher and local historian, she prefaced her talk with fascinating glimpses of the Bábí Faith (the precursor to the Bahá’í Faith) being mentioned in the Ottawa newspapers in 1852, as well as an article on the Bahá’í Faith and its teachings written by Dr. Frank Crane and published on April 3, 1917 in the midst of World War I.

The Ottawa Bahá’í community, however, didn’t really get rolling until Heather’s aunt, Winnifred Harvey, moved into town. Born to a farming family in the small village of Rapid City, Manitoba in 1911, this brilliant young woman with an interest in Oriental thought began her career in the rapidly expanding civil service in Ottawa. She arrived in May 1940 just as the Nazi war machine was beginning to cast a long shadow across Europe.

Winnifred had first heard of the Bahá’í Faith from Rowland Estall in Winnipeg and was very attracted to its teachings – such as the equality of men and women, the agreement of science and religion, and that there is only one God, one world and one people – but would not officially become a Bahá’í until she went to visit some Bahá’í ladies in Montreal that summer. Following a spiritual experience on her return, Winnifred embarked on her new life not only as a civil servant, but as a Bahá’í eager to build the Faith in her new community.

She then introduced the Faith to her friend and coworker, Lucille Giscome. Charles Murray, originally from Prince Edward Island, was a chemist fluent in Mandarin who then moved to Ottawa to help out the nascent Ottawa Bahá’í community. Other Bahá’ís instrumental in developing the community in Ottawa, Eastview (Vanier) and later on in Kingston also followed, which included Helen Andrews, Roger White, Andy Andrews, Mary Andrews, Katherine Ferguson, Edna Hughes, Gladys (nee Young) and Garth Harvey, Chuck and Mary Keedwell, Lou and Louise Boulder, and Marion and Irving TreDennick. By 1955, there were 20 Bahá’ís in Ottawa.

The first Local Spiritual Assembly was formed in 1948 and its members were: Françoise Rouleau, Kenneth McLaren, Winnifred Harvey, Edna Hughes, Charles Murray, Gladys Harvey, Marion and Irving TreDennick, and Katherine Ferguson. That same year, the Canadian Bahá’í Community established its own national governing body as well.

Vibrant and joyfully spreading the world-unifying message of Bahá’u’lláh to Ottawans, these early Bahá’í teachers were a happy group of people. Given the fact that Bahá’ís are forbidden from proselytizing, they organized firesides (information meetings on the Faith), had Halloween parties and weenie roasts, Scottish dancing evenings and dawn prayers followed communal breakfasts in their homes. Heather showed fascinating photos of women in stylish hats and dresses while men in wide-legged pants wore their hair pompadour-style.

Decades before the advent of the computer and the Internet, the Ottawa Bahá’ís were very active in promoting the Faith, placing some 426 ads in local newspapers from 1940-1957, as well as writing radio scripts that were read by visiting travel teachers, particularly on CKOY, as well as articles that appeared in periodicals such as the Ontariana (YMCA), Liberty, a family magazine, and Canadiana. There were public talks and meetings on the Bahá’í Faith given at various venues, including the Château Laurier and the Experimental Farm, for both seekers and Bahá’ís eager to deepen their faith. Since long-distance phone calls were expensive back then, one of the main modes of communication to those outside the city was by telegram. This was particularly helpful when the Ottawa Bahá’í community took Kingston under its wing, helping to establish the Bahá’í community there. In fact, every other weekend Winnifred Harvey took the two-hour bus ride to Kingston to teach the Faith: what a firebrand she was!

There were a number of ‘firsts’ in the Ottawa Bahá’í community as well. Larry Rowdon and Margaret Wallace had the first Bahá’í wedding in Ottawa in January 1952, followed by the first wedding of Ottawa residents Garth and Gladys Harvey in August 1952. The first Bahá’í funeral was held for Charles Murray in 1955. The first Bahá’í in Vanier was Leona McManus.

If Ottawa, which now boasts more than 1,200 Bahá’ís, is today one of the leading and most active Bahá’í communities in North America, it is in no small part due to the efforts, dedication and infectious joy that was spread by its founding members, beginning with Winnifred Harvey’s herculean efforts. To Winnifred and all the others who helped to develop the Ottawa Bahá’í community, we offer our endless thanks. And kudos to Heather Harvey for sharing her discoveries with us!

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