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May Maxwell (1870 - 1940)
May Maxwell is regarded as “the mother of the Bahá’í Community of Canada.” With her husband, William Sutherland Maxwell, she established the first Bahá’í community in Canada in the city of Montreal, arriving there in 1902.
May Ellis Bolles was born in Englewood, New Jersey, on 14 January 1870, the daughter of John B. Bolles and Mary Martin Bolles, American in descent through many generations. Her early years were spent in the Englewood home of her maternal grandfather, a man distinguished in the New York banking world. She had one brother, Randolph, whom she loved deeply and whose attraction to the Bahá’í Faith, as evidenced in the year before his death in 1939, gave her supreme contentment.
The first foreshadowing of her encounter with the Bahá’í Faith occurred when, at 11 years of age, she experienced in her sleep a sunlight so brilliant that for one day her eyes were blinded. A majestic figure came to her in Eastern garb, beckoning her from across the Mediterranean with a particular gesture. She thought He was Jesus, but when her friend Ms. Lua Getsinger later heard of the dream, she said, “This is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.”
Paris was an early pivot in her destiny. Two visits there as a child, including a period in a Convent school, were followed by a residence of some 11 years, undertaken because of Randolph’s architectural studies at the École des Beaux Arts. It was 1898 of this sojourn that became forever memorable. In November of that year, Mrs. Phoebe Hearst, a close family friend, brought her party of American tourists to the Bolles’ apartment on the Quai d’Orsay. The tourists were actually en route to meet with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Haifa, and May Bolles, sensing a hidden fire in Lua Getsinger, won an invitation from Mrs. Hearst to join this pilgrimage. They were the first Americans to go.
Because of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s imprisonment, they travelled to Haifa in small groups. May Bolles first met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on 17 February 1899; her own words record that imperishable moment:
Of that first meeting I can remember neither joy nor pain nor anything that I can name. I had been carried suddenly to too great a height; my soul had come in contact with the Divine Spirit; and this force so pure, so holy, so mighty had overwhelmed me.
William Sutherland Maxwell, a Scotch-Canadian of an old and established family of Montreal, and a young student of architecture in the École des Beaux Arts, met May Bolles through her brother in Paris, not long after his arrival in October 1899. After 17 months he returned to Montreal to begin his profession, engaged to be married, but waiting upon news of May Bolle’s readiness. This came at last; they were wed in London, England, on 8 May 1902, and his patience, he himself said, had an enduring recompense.
They returned to Montreal where, through wide and active civic interests, the name of Mrs. Maxwell came to be distinguished among her fellow citizens. Prior to 1912, she supported a Children’s Court for Montreal, and her efforts were chief in maintaining the Colborne Street Milk Station. In about 1914, she brought a Montessori teacher from New York to their home in Montreal to start the first school of this type in Canada. Her home in Montreal became known to locals as a place of joy, a centre for the Bahá’ís and a lodge for travellers visiting Montreal. Many people enrolled in the Bahá’í Community after learning of the Faith in the Maxwell home.
In 1912, the Maxwells received news that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had accepted their invitation to stay with them and was coming to Montreal after spending five months in the United States. Late at night on 30 August 1912, the Maxwells and Mrs. Louise Bosch met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s train from Boston. He went directly to the Maxwells’ home and stayed four days there. The columns of the Montreal Daily Star had for a week been heralding this great event. Besides daily interviews with groups and individuals, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made seven public lectures. May Maxwell’s share was strenuous in this historic sojourn, for she made the major part of His arrangements; but He accorded her immortal praise in a Tablet he addressed to Canada.
Through all the years of undeviating service to the Faith on the North American continent, and despite health that bordered on invalidism, from 1902 until 1940 she bore to her fellow-believers, whether in local or national community, a unique and spiritual relationship. And this relation was one she bore in special measure to Canada as well. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Tablets of the Divine Plan released in her an impetus which never faltered. St. John’s, Brockville, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver all were cities in which, “like unto a gardener,” she brought forth “growth through the outpourings of the cloud of guidance... heaping up piles of crops and harvests.” The establishment of the Spiritual Assembly of Vancouver was the direct result of her stay there in July 1926.
With her home as the focal point of the earliest Bahá’í activity in Canada, she came to be referred to as the spiritual mother of the Canadian Bahá’ís, a community which now amounts to approximately 30,000 people. Years of her selfless service to humanity continued until, shortly after arriving in Argentina in 1940, May Maxwell passed away in Buenos Aires while doing what she loved most: teaching the tenets of the Bahá’í Faith.
* Adapted from Bahá’í World, Vol. 8, 1938-1940, “In Memoriam,” pp. 631-42.