Tablets of the Divine Plan - Heading the Call:
The Early Travels of the Mother of the Bahá'ís of South America, Leonora Stirling Holsapple, 1921 to1927

By Kristine Leonard Asuncion Young

Presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #137
Bosch Baha'i School: Santa Cruz, CA
May 26–30, 2016
(see list of papers from #137)

    The little-known story of the Mother of the Bahá'í of South America, Leonora Stirling Holsapple [Armstrong], who, having witnessed the unveiling of the Tablets of the Divine Plan in New York City as a 23 year old young woman in April 1919, and receiving a Tablet from Abdu'l-Bahá, and with subsequent advice and support from May Maxwell and Martha Root, pioneered to Brazil in January 1921.

    This is the story of a unique young women raised as a Bahá'í in the early 1900's American Bahá'í community; about the practice of obedience and faith; of the transformation of a timid young woman into a humble spiritual giant. It is a story of obedience to the call of Abdu'l-Bahá in His Tablets of the Divine Plan, of stalwart perseverance, and unstinting service. Through examination of the aspects of her many tests and difficulties, her continued inspiration in her two Tablets from Abdu'l-Bahá and her obedience to the Covenant through correspondence with Shoghi Effendi, the future book will attempt a presentation for future generations of Bahá'í, the record of her humble and selfless example.

    This year's paper will focus on the teaching trips Leonora made by ship between 1921 and 1927, visiting some ten countries and 17 cities, many of them in which she was the first person to bring the Message of the Bahá'í Revelation. Leonora continued to be the sole Bahá'í pioneer on the continent of South America for many years at the request of the Guardian, and the first translator of Bahá'í literature into both Spanish and Portuguese, until her passing in Salvador, Bahia in 1980.

    In April of 1919, Leonora Stirling Holsapple, a shy, studious girl of 23, was in the audience at the unveiling of the Tablets of the Divine Plan. She was moved greatly and proceeded to write to 'Abdu'l- Bahá for guidance upon how to go about fulfilling her desire to be of service. His reply took almost a year, but meanwhile she was guided to write to Martha Root, who advised her to go to Argentina. Leonora immediately began studying Spanish. Shortly before her departure, Martha told her of three enthusiastic Theosophists who lived in Santos, Brazil, and were receptive to learning about the new Revelation; thus she changed her plans to Brazil —a country where she had no friends, no relatives, nor knew the language.

    Leonora's father was totally against the idea of his eldest daughter leaving America alone on a ship to an unknown country. He threatened to disown her if she did so, and her relatives cast all sorts of doubts and aspersions. "Martha gave me every encouragement, but family and friends did not — what could a young girl do entirely alone in a strange, far-off country (far-off, indeed, it seemed thirty years ago, [now 95 years ago] with no planes or radios, and few boats) —what madness could prompt her to take such a "leap in the dark"? The only one who was thrilled at her devotion was her maternal grandmother, also named Leonora, who was the first in the family to learn of the Bahá'í Revelation in 1906, and who had met `Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912 when he travelled to America. Leonora's courage wavered as she contemplated the vastness of her proposed adventure, but one day when she was required to travel on business to northern New York, she decided to slip up to Montreal. It was to- ward the end of 1920 when she made this visit to May Maxwell in Montreal and laid bare to May her conflicting emotions. May was ill in bed, but "Her luminous eyes turned full upon me —with fire in them, it seemed to me - and in ringing tones that still re-echo in my heart, she exclaimed: 'Go! What are you waiting for? Go!' 'I will take the next boat,' I replied. My passage was reserved the next day. I dared not wait to save up more money, lest again love of dear ones cause me to waver." Her boat left New York City on 15 January 1921, and after total trust in Bahá'u'lláh, Leonora began her first return voyage to the United States in the spring of 1922. Taking a journey of over six months, she stopped in various ports along the east coast of Brazil, the north coast of the continent, and shared the Bahá'í message with many. By 1927 she would make four such trips.

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