February 1, 2010

William Sutherland Maxwell – Hand of the Cause of God, Architect of the Arcade and Superstructure of the Shrine of the Bab, Father-in-Law of Shoghi Effendi (1874-1952)

Cablegram from Shoghi Eflendi, Guardian of the Baha’i Faith:

With sorrowful heart announce through National Assemblies Hand of Cause of Baha’u’llah highly esteemed dearly beloved Sutherland Maxwell gathered into the glory of the Abha Kingdom. His saintly life extending well-nigh four-score years, enriched during the course of 'Abdu'l-Baha’s ministry by services in the Dominion of Canada, ennobled during Formative Age of the Faith by decade of services in Holy Land, during darkest days of my life, doubly honored through association with the crown of martyrdom won by May Maxwell and incomparable honor bestowed upon his daughter, attained consummation through his appointment as architect of the Arcade and Superstructure of the Bab's Sepulcher as well as his elevation to the front ranks of the Hands of the Cause of God. Advise all National Assemblies hold befitting memorial gatherings particularly in the Mashriqu'l-Adkar in Wilmette, and in the Haziratu'l-Quds in Tihran.

Have instructed Hands of the Cause in United States and Canada, Horace Holley and Fred Schopflocher, to attend as my representatives the funeral in Montreal. Moved to name after him the southern door of Bab's Tomb as tribute to his services to second holiest Shrine of Baha’i World. The mantle of Hand of Cause now falls upon the shoulders of his distinguished daughter, Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih, who has already rendered and is still rendering no less meritorious self-sacrificing services at World Center of Faith of Baha’u’llah.

Haifa, Israel,
March 26th, 1952.

William Sutherland Maxwell was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1874. On both sides he was of Scotch descent, his grandfather having migrated from Jedburgh with his family in the early part of the nineteenth century. Other ancestors had come from Aberdeen. Both William and his older brother Edward were interested in building. Edward graduated as an engineer from McGill University, but when William left High School, he refused to follow this course as he could not study architecture there at that time. He went to Boston, at the age of seventeen, 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 went to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where he was allowed to attend as a courtesy to the Canadian Government, in view of the fact he had no diplomas and was not planning to sit for any examinations. He worked for two years in the studio of the well-known architect Paschal. It was in this studio that he met a fellow-student, Randolph Bolles, who introduced him to his mother and sister; the sister, May Bolles, was already a convinced and active Baha’i and had just returned to Paris from her pilgrimage to the Prison City of 'Akka where she had met 'Abdu'l-Baha. William's great interest at that time was art and architecture. However, he made up his mind Miss Bolles was the only woman he would ever marry. She reciprocated his sentiments, but refused to leave Paris and her teaching work for the Baha’i Faith. He had to return to Canada, entered the office of his brother Edward, but continued to correspond with Miss Bolles in the hope she would marry him. At last Mrs. Bolles wrote 'Abdu'l-Baha and laid the situation before Him. He gave His permission for May Bolles to leave France, and blessed the marriage. In 1902 they were married in London. May Maxwell introduced the Faith to Canada, her home being its first Center. She never liked the name of William for her husband, and called him by his middle name, Sutherland, all her life -a name no one else had ever used. Sutherland became the partner of his brother, and the Firm of Edward and W. S. Maxwell became famous throughout Canada; before World War I they had the biggest architectural offices in the country. The engineering and business sense of the older brother, as well as his knowledge and fine taste, combined with the genius for proportion, design and detail of the younger brother, turned out many Canadian landmarks, such as: The Regina Parliament Buildings; Palliser Hotel, Calgary; Chateau Frontenac Hotel, Quebec; the Art Gallery, Church of the Messiah, and Nurses Wing of Royal Victoria Hospital, in Montreal, as well as many other public edifices and private homes.

In 1909, May and Sutherland Maxwell made a pilgrimage together to the Prison City of 'Akka, to visit 'Abdu'l-Baha. Sutherland was not yet a convinced Baha’i. One day at table, he said to 'Abdu'l-Baha: "The Christians worship God through Christ; my wife worships God through You; but I worship Him direct." 'Abdu'l-Baha smiled and said: "Where is He?" "Why, God is everywhere," replied Sutherland. "Everywhere is nowhere," said 'Abdu'l-Baha. He then went on to demonstrate that such worship was worship of a figment of the imagination and had no reality; we must worship God through something tangible and real to us, hence the role of the Manifestations. Sutherland bowed his head in acceptance. The real seed of his faith germinated from that hour. The way this faith grew in him was a beautiful thing. He had all the profound Scotch reticence, the horror of being peculiar, talked about, or different. For years in Montreal the Baha’is were called "Muhammadans," "Sun-Worshipers," "Heretics," etc. A city composed of a large fanatical French Canadian Catholic element, and an equally conservative Protestant English-Scotch element, was determined to think the worst, with no investigation whatsoever, of the strange Oriental Cult "that Mrs. Maxwell" belonged to.

Since he built his home in 1907-8 until the present day [date of this write-up], the Maxwell house has been the center of Baha’i activity in Montreal; Mrs. Maxwell taught ceaselessly; Mr. Maxwell was the silent but willing partner. In 1912, 'Abdu'l-Baha visited Montreal, attracted there, as He said Himself, by the devotion of May Maxwell. The morning of His arrival Sutherland was waiting on the platform as 'Abdu'l-Baha's train drew in to ask Him most humbly to honor his home by being his guest. The Master accepted. He loved Sutherland very much; He told his wife once during His three-day visit in their house: "He is a very good man." He also admonished her not to neglect the father, now that she had a child. The Maxwells had been childless up until their visit to 'Akka in 1909. At that time He had assured them He would pray for them to have a child. In 1910, Mary Sutherland, their only child, had been born.

In order to appreciate Sutherland Maxwell, and the achievements of the last years of his life, one has to recognize two great factors in his nature: The first is that he was one of those souls whose nature is all goodness. This is what led the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith to attest to his "saintly life" in his obituary cable. It is a nature not uncommon amongst the Scots. He was upright, truthful, and never approached a human being except in courtesy, friendliness, and that graciousness that is the essence of the democratic spirit. In spite of this trusting attitude, he had remarkably sound judgment. This was of great help in the workings of the Montreal Spiritual Assembly, of which he was a member and most often Chairman, for decades.

The second deep strain that colored all his nature was that he was an artist through and through. His wife, in one of her letters to him (and no one knew him better or appreciated him more) wrote: "You have the charm of originality." Two things not often found together were combined conspicuously in him: an encyclopedic knowledge of all the arts, and a creative capacity for bringing new things into being. One must remember that an architect almost never has free reign for his own ideas, but is constantly interfered with and limited by his clients' desires and concepts. There was nothing he could not do with his hands in fulfillment of his mental image. When the Chateau Frontenac was built, he designed not only the lines of the twenty-story modern structure, but practically every detail of the interior: wrought-iron railings, furniture, grills, lamps, ceilings, elevator interiors, etc. He would take the chisel from the stone carver, the gouge from the wood carver, and "sweeten the lines" as he termed it. He was idolized by the workmen, needless to say. In the course of years his achievements and talents brought honors. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects; a Fellow and past president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada; an Academician of the Royal Canadian Academy and its vice-president and his water colors often hung in Academy shows; a member and past president of the Province of Quebec Association of Architects; a founding member of the "Pen and Pencil Club" and the "Arts Club" in Montreal. The honors, medals and distinctions which he received testified not only to his ability as an architect and artist, but were also a recognition of his inner qualities of character.

In 1937 the course of his life was drastically changed through the marriage of his daughter, Mary, to the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith. May and Mary, after a two-year sojourrn in France, Belgium and Germany, had proceeded to Haifa as pilgrims. They had already visited the Guardian in 1923, shortly after 'Abdu'l-Baha's passing. Mary had returned in the winter 1926-27 for another visit; but when a cable reached Sutherland, urging him to come at once in order to be present for his daughter's marriage, he was thrown into a turmoil of feeling. From that moment he added to the respect and affection he already had for Shoghi Effendi as his Guardian, a profound and tender love that grew, at the end of his life, into a thing of rare and touching beauty.

May's health, bordering all the thirty-eight years of their marriage, on invalidism, was even frailer as she approached seventy. She and Sutherland, after some months in Haifa, returned by slow stages to their home in Montreal. The signal and overwhelming honor bestowed on them created an intense desire to render greater services to the Faith. Hitherto the demands of his professional activity had kept Sutherland tied, except for attendance at a few annual Conventions and visits to Green Acre Baha’i School in the summer, to Montreal. Now they made a much prized tour together of some of the eastern cities in America, as well as visiting the 1938 Convention in Chicago. In 1940, upon arrival with her niece Jeanne Bolles in Buenos Aires, where she had gone on a teaching trip with the consent of Sutherland, May suffered a heart attack and died.

The first act of the Guardian was to invite Sutherland, now entirely alone, to come and live in Haifa. From 1940, until his death in 1952, may be said to be the true years of burgeoning in this distinguished man's life. He accepted the loss of his wife with a meekness and faith, a gratitude for all the happy years of marriage they had shared, a pride in her death at the age of seventy in the field of service-a death of which Shoghi Effendi said she "laid down her life with such a spirit of consecration and self-sacrifice as has truly merited the crown of Martyrdom." He always felt her near him.

The years he spent in Haifa coincided with some of the hardest in Shoghi Effendi's life. Quietly, unassumingly, like a rock, Sutherland stood by him; the faith, planted in his heart by 'Abdu'l-Baha, was now in fullest flower. He was a tower of spiritual strength. Gradually the Guardian referred small matters to Sutherland for his advice: a new flight of steps, a lamp post, a new entrance. To the architect of over forty years' practical experience this was pleasant child's play. He would make a pen sketch in perspective, color it and submit it to the Guardian, so he could see what the finished article would look like in situ. Shoghi Effendi was delighted. He decided to ask Sutherland to work on a scheme for completing the Shrine of the Bab. He knew that 'Abdu'l-Baha had wanted a dome and an arcade added to the original building. By 1942, Sutherland 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, not destroying or hiding any part of the previous structure erected "with tears" by 'Abdu'l-Baha, must come a worthy envelope, a case for the pearl. By 1944, the completed and accepted design, in model form, was exhibited to the Baha'is gathered on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Declaration of the Bab's Mission, in the precincts of His resting-place. A number of the elements in Sutherland's design were either suggested by or modified by the Guardian. Sutherland had the highest respect for Shoghi Effendi's taste and judgment.

By 1946-for a period of about one year--Sutherland found himself in charge of the Guardian's outside work. Mail, visitors, Government contacts, errands were managed single-handed by the white-haired man of seventy-two. He did a good job, but it was too much for him - a blood vessel broke in his ear and left him totally deaf on one side, shaken and dizzy for weeks on end,. In 1948, accompanied by Mr. Weeden, he flew to Italy and placed, in collaboration with Dr. Ugo Giachery, the first contract for the stone work of the Bab's Shrine. In spite of failing strength he continued his detailed and working drawings right up to the night when his health broke down in1949. There followed a long and serious illness, when he was condemned by the best doctors as being beyond hope of recovery. It was then that the deep spiritual attachment he had formed to Shoghi Effendi became manifest. No matter how desperate his state, he invariably responded to the Guardian. It was the Guardian's love, his determination not to let him die, that brought him back. The man condemned to die lived to visit the completed Arcade of the Shrine he had worked on with such love, and sacrificed his health for.

His age and the hard work of a lifetime had, however, taken their toll. He suffered ups and downs, recovery followed collapse, collapse recovery. It was a heart-breaking two years for those who loved him. Sutherland's cherished wish was to visit Montreal again. Arrangements were made for him to pass the summer of 1951, accompanied by his devoted nurse, in his home. He was to return in the autumn to Haifa. This plan suited him perfectly; but when Fall came, it was evident that in view of the acute shortages in Israel, he could not be fed the fresh food he needed, and which alone kept him from relapsing into violent gall-bladder upsets. He remained in Canada, longing for the day he could return to his home in the Holy Land.

It was during this winter that Shoghi Effendi bestowed upon him the inestimable bounty of becoming a Hand of the Cause of God. He understood and was deeply touched; he said "I did not do it all alone; there were so many others who helped." The humility was typical of the man. After a fall, and a relapse into his illness, he sank rapidly. It was not possible for his daughter to reach him in time; he died in the night of March 25, 1952; his nurse and his favorite nephew, Sterling Maxwell, by his side.

On the slopes of Mt. Royal, where the wind plays with the falling autumn leaves of gold and red, where the snow all winter long lays its dazzling cloak and in spring snow drops break up through the ice, William Sutherland Maxwell, in the city of his birth, lies buried.

On the slopes of Mt. Carmel an immortal monument to his abilities and his devotion covers the Tomb of the Martyr Prophet of a World Faith - the superstructure of the Shrine of the Bab. (The Baha’i World, Volume 12)