May Ellis Bolles was born in Englewood, New Jersey, on 14 January 1870, the daughter of John B. Bolles and Mary Martin Bolles, American in descent through many generations. Her early years were spent in the Englewood home of her maternal grandfather, who had distinguished himself in New York banking.
May Bolles first met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on 17 February 1899, when she made a pilgrimage to Palestine with a group of American believers. She recorded that moment in her own words:
Of that first meeting I can remember neither joy nor pain nor anything that I can name. I had been carried suddenly to too great a height; my soul had come in contact with the Divine Spirit; and this force so pure, so holy, so mighty had overwhelmed me.
She met her future husband in October 1899 while living in Paris with her mother and brother. William Sutherland Maxwell was studying architecture at the École des Beaux Arts. Of Scottish descent, he was born into one of Montréal’s old and established families. On 8 May 1902, May Bolles and William Sutherland Maxwell married in London, England.
They moved to Montréal, where May Bolles Maxwell became well known for her wide civic interests. Prior to 1912, she supported a children’s court for Montréal, and her efforts were crucial to maintaining the Colborne Street Milk Station. In about 1914, she brought a Montessori teacher from New York to her home in Montréal to start one of the first schools of this type in Canada. Her home became known as a vibrant hub, a focal point for the Bahá’ís, and a refuge for travellers visiting Montréal. Many people enrolled in the Bahá’í Community after learning of the faith in the Maxwell home.
In 1912, the Maxwells received news that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, after spending five months in the United States, was coming to Montréal and had accepted their invitation to stay with them. Late at night on 30 August 1912, the Maxwells and Louise Bosch met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s train from Boston. He went directly to the Maxwells’ home and stayed there for four days. The Montreal Daily reported on this story for a full week. In addition to numerous interviews with groups and individuals, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave seven public lectures.
In a tablet He addressed to Canada, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá praised May Maxwell for making most of the arrangements for his historic visit. The Maxwell home in Montréal is now designated a Bahá’í Shrine, the only such site in the Western world.
Despite health that bordered on infirmity, she devotedly served her fellow believers — local and national — from 1902 until 1940 and offered them a unique and spiritual relationship.
She bore a special relationship to Canada as well. A series of letters from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sent to the Bahá’ís of North America from 1916 to 1917 released in her an energy that never faltered. She made essential contributions to the early Bahá’í communities of St. John’s, Brockville, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver. The establishment of the Spiritual Assembly of Vancouver was a direct result of her stay there in July 1926.
Her home was the locus of the earliest Bahá’í activity in Canada, and she came to be regarded as the spiritual mother of the Canadian Bahá’ís, a community that now comprises more than 30,000 members. Her years of selfless service continued until, shortly after arriving in Argentina in 1940, May Maxwell passed away in Buenos Aires while doing what she loved most: sharing the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith.
Early Canadian Bahá’ís
The Bahá’í community has a rich history of members who have contributed greatly to their society as well as to the early development of the Bahá’í community in Canada and the world.