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William Sutherland Maxwell (1874 - 1952)
The architect William Sutherland Maxwell played an enormous role in the birth of the Bahá’í Community of Canada. Faithful companion and supporter of his wife, May Maxwell, the “mother” of the Bahá’í Community of Canada, he had a very successful career as one of Canada’s pre-eminent architects in the early decades of the twentieth century and went on to serve Shoghi Effendi, leader of the Bahá’í Faith and husband of his daughter, Mary, at the Bahá’í World Centre during the last part of his life.
William Sutherland Maxwell was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1874. On both sides he was of Scotch descent, his grandfather having migrated from Edinburgh with his family in the early part of the nineteenth century. Both Sutherland Maxwell and his older brother Edward were interested in building. Edward Maxwell graduated as an engineer from McGill University, but Sutherland Maxwell went to Boston at the age of 17, and the extraordinary ability he had for both drawing and design soon became apparent, and he was given ornamental details of important buildings to work up into their final form.
In 1899, he moved to Paris to attend the École des Beaux Arts, to which he was admitted as a courtesy to the Canadian government, considering he had no diplomas and was not planning to sit for any examinations. He met Randolph Bolles, who introduced him to his mother and sister; the sister, May Bolles, was already an active Bahá’í and had just returned to Paris from her pilgrimage to Haifa where she had met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. On 8 May 1902 May Bolles and Sutherland Maxwell were married in London, England.
They moved to Montreal in 1902 and their home became its first Bahá’í centre. Sutherland Maxwell and his brother became partners, and the firm of Edward and W.S. Maxwell became famous throughout Canada. Prior to World War I they had the biggest architectural firm in the country. Together, they turned out many Canadian landmarks, including the Legislative Building of the Provincial Government of Saskatchewan; the Palliser Hotel in Calgary; the central tower of the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec; the Art Gallery, Church of the Messiah, and Nurses’ Wing of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal; as well as many other public edifices and private homes.
Two things not often found together were combined in him: an encyclopedic knowledge of the arts and a creative capacity for bringing new projects to life. And his achievements and talents earned him many honours over the years. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects; a Fellow and president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada; Academician and vice-president of the Royal Canadian Academy; president of the Province of Quebec Association of Architects; and a founding member of the “Pen and Pencil Club” and the “Arts Club” in Montreal.
In 1937, the course of his life was drastically changed by the marriage of his daughter, Mary Maxwell, to the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith. This overwhelming honour bestowed on Sutherland and May Maxwell created in the two of them an intense desire to render greater service to the Faith. Together, they toured some of the eastern cities in America and attended a Bahá’í convention in Chicago in 1938.
In 1940, upon arriving with her niece in Buenos Aires, where she went on a teaching trip, May Maxwell suffered a heart attack and died. The years spanning from 1940 until his death in 1952 may be regarded as the true years of burgeoning in this distinguished man’s life. He accepted the loss of his wife with meekness, faith, and gratitude for all the happy years of marriage they shared. Upon May Maxwell’s passing, the Guardian’s first act was to invite Mr. Maxwell, now entirely alone, to come and live in Haifa.
The years Sutherland Maxwell spent in Haifa coincided with some of the hardest in Shoghi Effendi’s life, and Mr. Maxwell was a tower of spiritual strength. Gradually, the Guardian referred small matters to Mr. Maxwell for his advice: a new flight of steps, a lamp post, a new entrance. To an architect with over 40 years of practical experience, this was pleasant child’s play. He would make a pen sketch in perspective, colour it, and submit it to the Guardian so that he could see what the finished article would look like. Delighted with his talents, the Guardian asked Mr. Maxwell to work on a scheme for completing the Shrine of the Báb.
By 1942, Sutherland Maxwell submitted to him studies for the Shrine. It was not an easy task; a square fortress-like stone building, one story high, already existed half-way up a steep mountain. About this and above this, while not destroying or hiding any part of the previous structure, erected “with tears” by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, had to be built a worthy envelope, a case for the pearl.
The years continued, as did Mr. Maxwell’s service to the Guardian, which, besides assisting with architectural matters, included helping with mail, visitors, government contacts, and errands. In 1949, his health broke down. Sutherland Maxwell’s cherished wish was to visit Montreal again. Arrangements were made for him to pass the summer of 1951 in his home, accompanied by his devoted nurse. He returned to Canada, but his poor health would not allow him to return to the Holy Land after his visit. That winter, Shoghi Effendi bestowed upon him the inestimable bounty of becoming a Hand of the Cause of God. Sutherland Maxwell understood and was deeply touched; he said, “I did not do it all alone; there were so many others who helped.” Such humility was typical of the man. He passed away in the spring of 1952.
On the slopes of Mount Carmel, an immortal monument to his abilities and devotion covers the Tomb of the Martyr-Prophet of the Bahá’í Faith -- the superstructure of the Shrine of the Báb.
Visit “The Architecture of Edward & W.S. Maxwell: The Canadian Legacy,” a website sponsored by McGill University.
Read the biography of William Sutherland Maxwell written by Dr. John Bland, Professor Emeritus of Architecture at McGill University.
* Adapted from Bahá’í World, Vol. 12, 1950-1954, “In Memoriam,” pp. 657-62.