Abdu'l-Baha's Visit to Montreal, 1912

By Will C. van den Hoonaard

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #104
Centre for Bahá'í Studies: Acuto, Italy
July 9–12, 2011
(see list of papers from #104)

    Based on historical records, interviews, and retracing the steps of `Abdu'l-Baha in Montreal, this paper explores the known facts and assumptions of His Visit to Montreal in late August and early September 1912. Record keeping of His Visit was sparse. There are differences and inaccuracies surrounding the reported dates of that Visit. Mainstream Baha'i publications regularly omit the overwhelming media coverage in the French language of that Visit. There were significant cultural differences in the coverage by the media in English and in French

    The visit of `Abdu'l-Baha was a keystone event in the life of the Bahá'í Community of Canada: it transformed the aggregate of individual Bahá'ís (an amalgam of liberal, free-thinking people, and, in some cases, socialists) into a community of believers, thereby altering the growth and spread of the Bahá'í Faith in that country and elsewhere. The paper presents the original state of the Bahá'ís living in Montreal, who had a faint appraisal of Bahá'í tenets and whose organizational life did not articulate itself as a community. The Canadian artist Percy Woodcock and family warned Him about fanaticism of Catholics in Montreal and tried to dissuade Him to travel there.

    The paper examines the preparations undertaken by the Maxwell family in anticipation of His Visit. Montreal experienced its most rapid expansion in its history.

    Once in Montreal, `Abdu'l-Baha lengthened his stay from 5 to 9 days, 30 August-9 September 1912. The weather was unpleasant and The Master caught a cold during the second half of the visit. Making seven informal presentations and eight public presentations, some 2,500 people heard Him speak. The most extensive press coverage of His sojourn to the West occurred in Montreal.

    The paper provides a daily outline of His visit. The most significant highlights included His talk to striking garment workers, meeting with the Principal of McGill University, and His presentations in a number of churches. Throughout the visit, too, `Abdu'l-Baha, having taken note of cathedrals in the city, urged the Bahá'ís to be like the Apostles of Christ. While the Montreal Bahá'ís numbered about fourteen souls--two fewer than when the community first organized itself in 1908--the believers were now stronger in faith and more steadfast than before. In conclusion, the paper explores the extent and nature of press coverage of French- and English-language newspapers on occasion of The Master's Visit to Montreal. First, the French-language press did not carry any advance announcements of `Abdu'l-Bahá's visit and carried reports of only two of his public addresses. The first French-language articles (in Le Canada and La Presse) appear five days after `Abdu'l-Bahá's arrival in Montreal, and climaxed in coverage on 6 September, three days before his departure.

    Second, the French-language press highlighted the so-called economic teachings of the Bahá'í Faith, while the English-language press devoted more space to present `Abdu'l-Baha's ideas of peace and His prophetic warning about the coming of a world war. We have been able to ascertain that 38 articles and/or announcements of His talks involved not only the French and English press, but also one Yiddish newspaper. The differences in the reporting by the English- and French-language press were thus striking. The English-language press, as mentioned above, was overwhelmingly more interested in war and peace and religion, while `Abdu'l-Bahá's ideas on humanity received less attention. `Abdu'l-Bahá's life and Bahá'í economic teachings created far less interest among the English-language press than among the French-language newspapers.

    Third, perhaps most importantly, the tone of the reports differed widely between the two presses. On the whole, the English-language press offered a more sympathetic view of `Abdu'l-Bahá's statements, while the French-language press, with the exception of Le Devoir, tended to be more critical.

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