by Brendan Mc Namara
The Postman Calls
Rick Drouin, the postmaster for Eliot in Maine (a small town on the eastern seaboard of the United States) is sitting in my living room, drinking tea. His wife, Nancy, and friends, Paul and Pat are talking about their travels around Ireland and more particularly how they came to find our house this morning. When just a little lost, they happened on our local postman, Dan, who guided them with typical courtesy and cheer. In the end, Rick finished up donning Dan’s post-bag and posing for photographs, mementoes that will no doubt be notice-board material in the Post Offices of both Cork and Eliot. We talked about Ireland, their impressions, where they have been, and about my trip to Eliot last autumn (I am tempted to say “Fall”), when the tall and plentiful trees all around picturesque New England had turned to deep orange and brown and dazzled the senses with their beauty.
Eliot is a quite wonderful place, a town of some 5,000 people, comprising, in the main, timber-framed houses of various designs and sizes. Although just one hour’s drive from Boston, the setting is rural and relaxed and once you exit the broad highway that carries you from Boston and the bright lights of the city, you are almost in another world. But even so, Eliot is no ordinary town off the beaten track. For here is one of the most famous Bahá’í schools of them all, Green Acre. The town has been the setting for some important events in Bahá’í history. The whole place has the feel of a museum and has a unique, affecting atmosphere. And there is an interesting connection with Ireland.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá at Green Acre
Established by Sarah Farmer in 1890 and named by the poet, Whittier, one of its early prominent supporters, Green Acre and how it evolved to become one of the most famous Bahá’í schools in the world is an interesting story.1 The most important event in the history of Green Acre was the visit of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who stayed at the large timber-framed Inn from August 16th to 21st in the year 1912. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá referred to Green Acre as “the ‘Akká of the Western World”2 and gave many inspiring and important presentations to both Bahá’ís and townspeople during His historic visit. When He arrived at Green Acre, some five hundred people had gathered to greet Him. Japanese lanterns decorated the long, winding track from the street to the Inn, perched gloriously on a promontory above the fast flowing Piscataqua River. What a sight it must have been! It was here that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had that memorable interview with a young man by the name of Fred Mortensen. In his longing to be in the presence of the Master, and not having the means to do otherwise, Fred had travelled to Eliot as a vagrant, under and on top of railway cars, all the way from Minneapolis. He has left a fascinating and amusing account of how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá quizzed and teased him about his unusual journey to Green Acre and showered on him a love and kindness that he could never forget.3
Green Acre, set up in the first instance as a centre for liberal thinking and debate, had gathered to its activities many different groups, including Vedantists, ascetics and others. To all He encountered, the Master showed kindness and humour while calling them to an investigation of truth, saying on one occasion…
In Green Acre, you must concentrate your forces around the one all-important fact — the investigation of reality…4
Walking a part of the property called Montsalvat, in the company of Sarah Farmer, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke about the raising up of the second Mashriqu’l-Adhkar of the United States on that spot and the creation of a Bahá’í university there. “The physical beauty of this place is very wonderful.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is reported to have said in one of his talks at Green Acre. “…We hope that a spiritual charm may surround and halo it; then its beauty will be perfect. There is a spiritual atmosphere manifest here particularly at sunset…”5
During His stay at Green Acre, the Master also visited other sites associated with the School and some of the Bahá’ís living around were fortunate enough to be able to welcome Him in their homes. One such resident of Eliot, Mrs Taylor, was somewhat taken aback when, while busily completing her daily chores, she looked through her window to see the Master walking up to her door. The Master had been out for a stroll and one can only wonder at what thoughts were flooding Mrs. Taylor’s mind as she offered Him a cup of tea, over which they sat and chatted.6
One of those present during the Master’s historic sojourn at Green Acre recalled that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said that He had left enough spirit there to bring life to dry bones.7 Of all the places associated with His time in Green Acre, one can still feel His presence strongly when seated in the room He occupied while staying at the Inn, now set aside for quiet prayer and meditation.
Visitors and Residents
Also present at Green Acre during the Master’s stay were Henry Culver and other members of the family, by then settled in St. John, New Brunswick. Henry, an avid photographer, was able to photograph the Master as He walked in front of the Inn. Henry wrote on the back of the original photograph that at the particular moment he had taken the picture, the Master was making the statement, quoted above, concerning the investigation of reality.8 Some of the Magee family, who had taught the Culvers the Faith when they lived in London, Ontario, were also resident at Green Acre during the Master’s stay and hosted a meal in His honour at their summer home on the foot of Montsalvat. Edith Magee Inglis, credited as being the first Bahá’í in Canada, has left a lovely account of the occasion, written some 50 years later in 1962.9
It is hard to realise that a half a century has passed since those days. In my mind’s eye, I can still see Him, a majestic Figure, strolling on the grounds; the talk in the old Eirenion building and under the big pine tree in the pine woods, explaining the teachings of the Faith and giving us glimpses of the future… Probably many of you are familiar with the pictures of the meeting held on Montsalvat. In those days, the land was clear and one had a beautiful view of Great Bay and the river leading up to it. Many Eliot townspeople attended this meeting. After the meeting, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Persians and a few of the friends went to our house, known as the Prime House situated on the Old Road. My mother, Mrs Magee and I were occupying it that summer. After tea was served, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá retired to a bedroom upstairs to rest until dinner which we were giving that evening. A couple of my sister’s friends, Louise Culver and Dorothy Carlson, were visiting us and we, earlier in the day, had gathered great quantities of fern, trailing vines and flowers to decorate the dining room. Carrie Kinney, who was familiar with Persian cooking, supervised the preparations for the meal. Finally, when all was ready, I asked one of the Persians if he would announce dinner to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. He said, “I’ll tell you what to say and you go up”. “Alright”, I said and repeated the phrase over and over on my way upstairs. Upon entering the room I spoke my piece, whereupon ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sat on the side of the bed and rocked with laughter. What had happened? Had I lost the pronunciation or had the Persian played a joke on me? I never did find out!
After dinner, a meeting was held at the house [with] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá speaking, after which He departed for the Inn. Thus ended a perfect and full day…10
Edith’s remembrances of the Master’s stay at Green Acre and His visit at their summer home are some of the many precious accounts recorded of those magical days. She herself had an eventful life, was married to noted journalist Otto Inglis (a confidant of Woodrow Wilson) and was acquainted with some prominent figures in the Ireland of her time, including Lord Elvedon, one of the Guinness family. She was also an acquaintance of Marconi, the renowned inventor, who had close family connections with Ireland. Edith visited Ireland some time before 1914 but nothing is known of her activities while here.11 When Henry Culver retired from the diplomatic service in 1924, he and his wife, Mary, went to live in Eliot. Dorothy, their daughter (who had been in Ireland as a sixteen year old), had already moved there in 1922 and went on to serve on the Local Spiritual Assembly of Eliot for many years, until her passing in 1983. The Culvers were part of a burgeoning Bahá’í community growing up around the school at Green Acre. Indeed, Eliot became a national centre for the Faith’s activities when the National Convention was held in the town in 1925 and the secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly, Horace Holley, lived there.12
The Local Archivist
Rosanne Adams is a member of the Eliot Bahá’í community and is the Eliot Bahá’í archivist. We were first in touch when I was trying to unearth some information about the Culver family and we had corresponded back and forth by email for about two years. It was a great moment when I finally met up with her and found her to be an ardent student and authority on the history of Eliot and Green Acre, and a tremendously nice person to boot. Oh! She is also a post-woman in Eliot, which is how Rick Drouin, the Postmaster, when he was coming to Ireland, ended up spending some of his holiday time in my living room, drinking tea.
Rosanne proved to be a fount of information and knowledge on the incredible history of her small, out-of-the-way town in Maine and was kind enough to show me the various important landmarks around Eliot. I can still see the scene clearly in my mind. Driving slowly down Main Street and the Old Road, we passed house after house with important associations with the Faith and a number of which were visited by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself. Little has changed over the years and it is easy to imagine those early days when the Master walked here. Mrs. Taylor’s house, Prime House (now called Winterhill),13 where the Magees hosted their dinner party for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Kate Ives’s house, the old Trolly Station and Staples cottage, all well preserved for future generations to visit, admire and drink deep of the spirit the Master has left there in abundance.
There are also places not visited by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá but yet have important historical connections; the homes of two Hands of the Cause, Fred Schopflocher and Louis Gregory, the cottage where Marion Jack lived, Glenn Shook’s house and the Culver home. And there are others: the Farmer house, the Ober farm, the house where Horace and Doris Holley lived when they were domiciled in Eliot in the mid-1920s. Both Horace and Doris served on the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Eliot with Marion Jack and Henry and Mary Culver. The Assembly was established on November 4th, 1925.
As dusk dimmed down the clear, blue autumn sky, Rosanne slowly navigated the Eliot country roads, all the time talking about various houses we were passing and their wonderful former inhabitants, their different qualities, their contribution to the development of Green Acre and their distinguished records of service to the Faith they loved. Is there any one place in the Western world, I wondered, that has such a combined record of such high service to the Cause down through the years, on the part of its inhabitants, as Eliot, the home of Green Acre?
It is of interest that a number of this marvellous collection of servants of the Faith had some connection with Ireland and not only the Culvers and Edith Magee Inglis, as previously mentioned. Doris Holley pioneered to Ireland in the autumn of her distinguished life and eventually laid her bones in her adopted homeland. Marion Jack, the distinguished pioneer whom ‘Abdu’l-Bahá called “General Jack”14 and who passed away at her pioneer post in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1954, visited Ireland sometime in the early years of the twentieth century, possibly before 1906. Marion was a noted painter and some of her paintings adorn the buildings at the World Centre of the Faith in the Holy Land, placed there by the beloved Guardian, Shoghi Effendi. One of her Irish paintings, The Fields of Kerry, was on show in London in 1911 and another titled Irish Cottage was displayed in St. John, New Brunswick in 1914.15
The web of relationships connecting the Culvers, Edith Magee, Marion Jack and Doris Holley with Ireland is indeed an intriguing coincidence of circumstance. That all should have lived in Eliot and known each other makes this little oasis on the east coast of the United States a fascinating place indeed. All of them had the inestimable privilege of attaining the presence of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
One other place in Eliot deserves a special mention and that is the cemetery where there are many Bahá’í graves. One such grave is the resting place of one of the most outstanding of the early Bahá’ís in America and a resident of Eliot, Louis Gregory. Louis was named a Hand of the Cause of God, after his passing, by the beloved Guardian, Shoghi Effendi. His tireless work for the Faith over long years, and particularly his work in the area of promoting racial unity has left an extraordinary legacy for the American Bahá’í community. Standing at his resting place, one could not help but bring to mind his noble, saintly face, feel close to his gentle, knowing spirit, as the breeze blew up and rain drizzled down. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote this testimony to Louis’ splendid character.
That pure soul has a heart like unto transparent water. He is like unto pure gold. This is why he is acceptable in any market and is current in every country.16
Louis’s wife, Louisa Mathew Gregory is buried alongside her beloved husband. Louisa was born and brought up in England and shared with Louis a loving devotion to the Master, whom she first met when they both visited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Egypt in 1911. Indeed, the Master was instrumental in bringing them together and encouraged them to marry, which they did in September 1912. Their union was the first inter-racial marriage in the American Bahá’í community and took place at a time when inter-racial marriage was against the law in many States. The union of Louis and Louisa challenged the overt racial prejudices of the time and was a strong statement of the principle of racial unity being promulgated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His tour of the United States and Canada. It was also a particular challenge for the American Bahá’í community. Louis and Louisa had a long and happy marriage, one of selfless devotion and service to the Faith.
We are a few friends together, including Jim and Jeannine Sacco who are the co-ordinators at Green Acre, when we visit the resting place of the Hand of the Cause, and stop there for a while and chat. Later, I wander away on my own to search out the Culver grave. The cemetery is not that big but there are still a lot of gravestones to check out, row after row in a tidy parkland.
With rain beginning to fall more heavily with each passing moment, I am just about to give up when Jeannine appears by my side, a big, welcome umbrella in hand. She is so good-natured and indulges me in my quest and before long we have divided up the remaining area and continue the search. And there it is, in a gently sloping area, the resting place of the Culvers of Eliot, Henry and Mary and their daughter Louise, and directly behind, that of their other daughter Dorothy and her husband.
It is an emotional moment for me, thinking of this family I have come to know, at least to some extent, the different elements and events that made up their lives, the wonderful souls they had known, their meeting with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, their connection with Ireland. The very fact of being here, it occurs to me, is something of a miracle. It is, somehow, the mysterious completion of a circle of events which began when I first became interested in the fact that this unknown family, newly enrolled in the Faith, had actually been in Ireland as early as 1906. Now I am standing at their graveside, some ninety-two years later in a place far away from the south coast of Ireland where I live and where they once lived. Are they now aware, I ask myself, the Culver family, that they have found something of a niche in the history of a country where they spent a few short years at the turn of the twentieth century? I place a rose on their grave, pray for the progress of their souls and say a special prayer for them on behalf of all the friends in Ireland. How amazing it is, I find myself saying to Jeannine, that there is this confluence of strands of history which link such disparate places as Cobh in Ireland and Eliot and Green Acre in Maine. What a wonder there is, under every stone, when it has something to do with the Cause of God.
And so, having walked the country roads again, down the long, winding track up to the Inn and stayed a while in the peaceful quiet of the Master’s room, it is time to leave Green Acre and Eliot.
But it never leaves you.
- See Green Acre on the Piscataqua, published for centenary celebrations in 1991. ↩
- Ibid. p.3 ↩
- Green Acre, pp.50–51. See also Star of the West, 14 No. 12 (March 1924) p.366. ↩
- *Green Acre, p.47. ↩
- Ibid. p.54. ↩
- Story from Rosanne Adams, Eliot Bahá’í archivist. ↩
- Green Acre, p.53. ↩
- The picture appears in Green Acre, p.54. Original in the possession of Rosanne Adams. ↩
- Will van den Hoonard, *The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada, p.21. ↩
- From a letter from Edith Inglis on the 50th Anniversary of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to Green Acre. Copy from Rosanne Adams. ↩
- Will van den Hoonard, The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada,pp.21–27. The date of Edith’s visit to Ireland is uncertain. We know she travelled on board the SS Merion, which therefore had to be before 1914, when this ship was pressed into naval service under the new name HMS Tiger and was sunk by a German U-Boat within a year. (Information from Hans Deketeke, maritime historian, Belgium, in an email to the author). ↩
- Green Acre, p.70. ↩
- Winterhill was later occupied by the family of William Sutherland Maxwell for a short time. See Green Acre, p.113. ↩
- “In Memoriam”, Bahá’í World, Vol. XII, p.676. ↩
- Information from Jan Jasion in email dated 18/08/1999. Han has since published a book on the life of Marion Jack, Never Be Afraid to Dare (George Ronald). Marion had known the Culvers in Paris and possibly visited them in Cobh. ↩
- Gayle Morrison, To Move the World (a biography of Louis Gregory), p.314. ↩