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Jean-Baptiste Louis Bourgeois (1856 - 1930)
Louis Bourgeois was the designer of the first Bahá’í House of Worship in the West, located on the shore of Lake Michigan just north of Chicago. That architectural creation is now a historically protected site in the United States, a building of extraordinary beauty and fascinating details.
Louis Bourgeois was born in St. Célestin de Nicolet, Québec, on 19 March 1856 to François Bourgeois and Louise Richard, both of Acadian ancestry. He had shown a talent for drawing since the age of eight. Drawn towards architecture, he worked as a clerk in a church contractor’s office in Trois-Rivières. It was from the experience he gained in this office that he was able to plan the construction of the Church of Saint Wenceslas in 1892.
Louis Bourgeois faced many difficulties in his life; his young wife, Marie Gronville, mother of their three children, died young, resulting in his emotional depression, which caused his work to suffer. In debt from his wife’s medical bills, he decided to move to Montreal and apprentice with his cousin, Louis-Philippe Hébert, as a sculptor in Napoléon Bourassa’s atelier and also work on plans for a church in Longueuil. Mr. Bourassa made it possible for the two apprentices to study in Paris, France. Mr. Hébert returned to Montreal where he created monuments to such figures as Maisonneuve, Crémazie, Jeanne Mance, and Mgr Bourget. When he went back to Paris to join his cousin, Mr. Bourgeois had disappeared. And the Bourgeois family began receiving laconic messages from Mr. Bourgeois, recounting his travels in Italy, Greece, Egypt, and Persia.
In 1886, Louis Bourgeois resurfaced in Chicago. His talent eventually led to his meeting and working with Louis Sullivan, an architectural giant of the twentieth century. Later, he moved to California and befriended Paul de Longpré, the renowned French painter. There, he taught French lessons to de Longpré’s daughters, who were till then educated in English. Louis Bourgeois and one of the de Longpré daughters, Alice, would later fall in love and marry.
In New York City, in the winter of 1906 to 1907, Louis Bourgeois became a Bahá’í. He found two teachings of Bahá’u’lláh particularly captivating: the essential unity of all the religions of the world, and the organic unity between the religious impulse and artistic creation. From New York, he moved to West Englewood (now Teaneck), New Jersey, to help expand the Bahá’í community there. About two years after his enrolment in the Bahá’í Faith, he decided to send his eight-sided design for the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s Peace Palace and Library in The Hague to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá via an American Bahá’í named Roy Wilhelm. Mr. Wilhelm recalled that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá looked at the design “casually and, passing [it] back to me, commented, ‘The Bahai Temple will have nine sides.’”
When architects in the United States and Canada were invited in April 1909 to submit designs for the Bahá’í Temple before August, Mr. Bourgeois submitted a design but was not satisfied with it. Although six designs were submitted by October of 1909, he discovered that there was still time to work on his design since ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had told the Bahá’ís not to choose a submission until they raised a sizeable portion of the finances needed for the Temple. In April 1920, 15 designs were displayed at the Bahá’í convention. After much discussion, Louis Bourgeois’ design was chosen by the delegates of the convention.
On 11 January 1921, Mr. Bourgeois sailed with his wife, Alice, and his friend L.B. Pemberton to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and show Him his design for the Temple. Many challenges, tests, and difficulties faced Mr. Bourgeois up to that point, and many followed with regard to the particular demands of constructing and financing this unique structure. Despite bouts of ill health, he refused to stop working on the Temple. His faith, solid determination, and vision enabled him to persevere.
In late July 1930, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada telegrammed several Bahá’í communities informing them that Louis Bourgeois was very ill and suggesting a special meeting of the Bahá’ís for prayers for his recovery. For a time, his condition improved, but on 20 August 1930, at the age of 74, Louis Bourgeois passed away.
His remarkable Temple of Light, a Bahá’í House of Worship, was officially opened in 1953.
* Adapted from Bruce W. Whitmore, The Dawning Place (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1984), pp. 76-86.