Canadian Origins

The Maxwells and the Bahá’í Faith in Canada

On the slope of Mount Royal, close to the centre of Montréal, is the only Bahá'í Shrine in Canada. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spent three days here at the beginning of His visit to the city in 1912. As He entered the house for the first time, He said: “This is My home.”

The building was also the home of May and William Sutherland Maxwell and their daughter, Mary. This family had a profound influence on the development of the Bahá’í Faith in Canada.

The Maxwells of Montréal

The twentieth century had just begun when the newly wed May and Sutherland Maxwell arrived in Montréal. The Canadian Bahá’í community at that time consisted of a few scattered individuals. May, with her outgoing nature, began making friends, drawing anyone interested into conversation about the Bahá’í Faith through visits, phone calls, letter-writing and regular gatherings. The more reserved Sutherland initially remained in the background, all the while immersed in his successful architectural business.

May Maxwell with baby Mary, ca. 1910.

By 1906, a small group of Montréal Bahá’ís had grown under May’s guidance. The group wrote to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá calling themselves a local spiritual assembly, an act that would anticipate the future growth of hundreds of local Bahá’í institutions across Canada. “In retrospect,” recalls the family’s biographer, “this little gesture was just as significant for the future of the country as all the stations and hotels that were being built by the Maxwell brothers along the route of the Canadian Pacific Railway at the same time.”

The Bahá’í Faith in Montréal steadily grew, centered on the Maxwell home. There were meetings, regular Feast gatherings, and visitors from all strata of society. The first Bahá’í wedding in Canada took place in the Maxwell house. In August 1910, the Maxwell’s daughter Mary was born.

The influence of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to Montréal in the late summer of 1912 was formative for both the family and the small group of Bahá’ís, which at that time numbered just 14. “His keynote visit would transform the loosely knit group of individuals into an awareness of themselves as a community,” an historian of the Canadian Bahá’í community has observed.

Following His visit to the West, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá penned a series of letters to the Bahá’ís in Canada and the United States, providing a vision of the future growth and development of the Bahá’í Faith within and beyond the borders of the continent. The two letters addressed to Canada marked another turning point in May’s life, initiating a period of travel to spread the Bahá’í Faith.

Within months of receiving ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s letters, May was giving talks in St. John, New Brunswick. Later, she spent time in Vancouver, British Columbia, contacting organizations, meeting individuals, and giving talks. In Vancouver, the second local spiritual assembly in Canada was soon formed. May was also instrumental in helping other Bahá’í communities, including in Toronto.

During May’s trips, Sutherland looked after the household. Despite heavy responsibilities as a partner in his architectural firm, Sutherland served on the Montréal Bahá’í Assembly, at times in the role of chairman or treasurer. In Mary’s early years he was at times the only parent at home. When May returned to Montréal there would be a sudden increase in meetings in the house and a steady flow of visitors passing through its doors. Despite Sutherland’s reserved nature, he steadily supported May’s social activities intended to spread the Bahá’í teachings.

In November 1921, May answered the phone and received the news of the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. She was devastated, descending into a period of poor health.

The development of Bahá’í administration

May and Mary Maxwell in Alexandria, Egypt, 1923.

In time May overcame these difficulties, and she was joined by Mary for a pilgrimage visit to the Holy Land in 1923. There they met Shoghi Effendi, grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and His appointed successor as Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith. May’s devotion to Shoghi Effendi grew, and her health returned.

The family’s biographer writes: “[Shoghi Effendi] sat [May] next to him at the dinner table and at every meal she received instruction in Bahá’í administration. He not only changed her thoughts from negative to positive ones, but turned them away from herself to the needs of the Cause. He inspired her with Bahá’u’lláh’s vision of world order; he enabled her to see the spiritual basis of the institutions of the Faith; he charged her to teach the North American believers about this new stage of development in the Cause.”

From the moment she returned to Canada, May shared the Guardian’s lessons with the Bahá’ís and taught them what she had learned. In 1924, May was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada, she was appointed to the National Teaching Committee. This service marked a shift in her Bahá’í activities from individual teaching initiatives to the collective work of Bahá’í administration.

Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum

One of the first Bahá’í youth groups in North America was initiated in Montréal in the late 1920s and early 30s. Mary was among the founding members and May a quiet influence behind the scenes. These youth were in touch with the needs of the times and attracted large numbers to their regular public meetings. Attendees who showed interest would be introduced to May and she would help deepen their knowledge of the wide scope of the Faith. From this group there eventually flowed a cohort of new Bahá’ís to help to further expand the Faith and establish Bahá’í institutions in Canada and further afield.

Montreal and district Bahá’í youth group (Mary Maxwell second from the left), dated early 1930s.

March 1937 brought the momentous news of the marriage of the Guardian and Mary Maxwell. She now became known as Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum. Her home became Haifa, and although she would return to Canada many times in her life, she did so as a visitor.

Bahá’í Shrines

Three years later, May died very suddenly in Buenos Aires, Argentina at the beginning of a visit to South America. Sutherland was now alone in Montreal. Following her death, Shoghi Effendi invited Sutherland to come to Haifa to assist in the work of the Faith. Here, he lent his architectural talent to the design of the superstructure of the Báb’s sacred tomb. The design of the structure was supervised by Shoghi Effendi – directing the use of both Western and Eastern styles - and Sutherland led the choice of artistic details. Shoghi Effendi named the southern door of the Shrine after Sutherland. He passed away in Montréal in March 1952, shortly before which he was appointed to the distinguished rank of a Hand of the Cause of God.

Drawing by William Sutherland Maxwell of the Shrine of the Báb with the superstructure he designed, 1944.

Soon after Sutherland’s passing, Amatu’l-Bahá decided to give the family home to the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada. The family’s biographer notes, “This building, which had been so clearly identified by the Master as His home and had for so many decades housed the spirit of the Maxwells, belonged, in her mind, to the Faith and not to her. Shoghi Effendi was deeply pleased with her decision.” Shortly after, he referred to the house in a letter to the National Assembly: “[It] should be viewed in the nature of a national shrine because of its association with the beloved Master during His visit to Montreal.”

The three members of the Maxwell family are each buried on a different continent – Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum in Haifa, Israel; May Maxwell in Buenos Aires Argentina; and William Sutherland Maxwell on the slopes of Mount Royal, not far from the house he built.

This house, now a Bahá’í Shrine, can be fairly regarded as the heart of the Bahá’í Faith in Canada.

Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum and Amelia Collins in front of the Bahá’í Shrine, 1953.

Individual profiles

May Maxwell
William Sutherland Maxwell

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.