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Emeric Sala (1906 - 1990)
Emeric Sala was elected in 1948 as one of the first nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada. He had earlier been one of the first young people to join the Bahá’í community in Montreal in the 1920s, going on to serve the Bahá’í community through his writing and teaching talents, and spending the last several decades of his life serving the Bahá’í community in Africa and Mexico.
Emeric Sala, with his 6-foot, 4-inch frame and size 14 shoes, always towered above the crowd. He was equally a spiritual giant. The poor Hungarian immigrant boy who knew no English grew up to become best known for his book, his lectures, and his stirring public addresses. He overcame all handicaps, burst the boundaries of nation and conventional thought, and devoted his talents and energies to serving the Bahá’í Faith.
Emeric Sala was born on 12 November 1906. His birthplace was an obscure Hungarian village called Havas Dombrovica, which roughly translates as “snowed-in village.” He was the first of four children born to a Jewish lumber inspector and his wife. His parents later moved to Herrmannstadt in Sibenbuergen, now Sibiu in Romania, where he spent his school years.
After the First World War, and still in his teens, Emeric Sala felt intensely alienated by the prevailing militarism and lack of personal freedom as well as the social and religious prejudices in the strife-torn Balkan countries. He was drawn to the United States, but there was no immigration quota for him. So he made his way to the German seaport of Hamburg where he landed a job as a ship’s helper and set sail for the west coast of Africa. The ship returned to Hamburg and then sailed for Montreal, Canada. When he arrived in 1927, not quite 21 years old, he jumped ship and went into hiding. For work, he dug ditches and washed dishes in a small hotel but was soon fired because he broke too many dishes.
Apart from his native Hungarian, Mr. Sala spoke Romanian, some German, French, and Italian, but he did not speak a word of English. Learning the language became his obsession. Rather than just read books, he wanted to hear people talk, so he attended every free lecture he could find. One public meeting in which May Maxwell proclaimed the Bahá’í Faith intrigued him and eventually led to his enrolment as a Bahá’í in 1929. He was a founding member of the first Canadian Bahá’í Youth Group in Montreal. They held classes, and soon the attendance reached about 60. It was the first organized Bahá’í youth class in the Western Hemisphere. One member of the Montreal youth group was a charming young woman by the name of Rosemary Gillies. In 1934, she and Mr. Sala were married.
The English language, once his handicap, now became his strength. He owned a small import business and had occasion to travel coast to coast, giving talks in cities on the Bahá’í Faith whenever he could. In 1937, at the encouragement of May Maxwell, he extended a European business trip to include Haifa, where he had the privilege of spending an evening alone with Shoghi Effendi. Upon his return, Emeric Sala teamed up with Siegfried Schopflocher to purchase the first Canadian Bahá’í property at Beaulac, north of Montreal, in the Laurentians, where the country’s first Bahá’í summer and winter schools were held.
In 1945, as the world emerged from the global convulsion of the war and many people were searching for a new order in the affairs of humanity, Mr. Sala published This Earth One Country. Both Emeric and Rosemary Sala were elected to the first National Spiritual Assembly of Canada in 1948, and they continued to serve until 1953. That year, they responded to the Guardian’s call for Bahá’ís to arise, teach the Faith, and serve humanity around the world. Mr. Sala handed his business to his brother, and the couple sold their charming home on the bank of the St. Lawrence River in St. Lambert, Québec, with plans to settle in the Comoro Islands off the east coast of Africa.
Despite their plans, the French authorities refused to grant them residence status in the Comoro Islands, so the Guardian asked them to settle in Zululand instead. There, they befriended many Africans who came to refer to Rosemary Sala as “our mother” and would often come into their home through the back door when it was dark. Ms. Sala founded school libraries and organized shipments of books from North America. After returning to Canada briefly in the late 1960s, the couple left again, this time for Guadalajara, Mexico, and then travelled extensively through Central America.
Rosemary Sala died in Mexico on 24 January 1980. Emeric Sala continued to serve in Mexico, later remarrying. His second wife, Donya Knox, became a Bahá’í, and together they travelled through America, China, India, and Europe. Mr. Sala passed away on 5 September 1990, a few weeks after Ms. Knox’s death.
* Adapted from Bahá’í World, Vol. 20, 1986-1992, “In Memoriam,” pp. 993-5.