posted Sunday, September 2, 2007
Mrs. Laura Rumney Davis: The Mother of the Toronto Bahá’í Community
That afternoon, as I left my home at 6 Emery Circle in the Township of Etobicoke, and made my way south down Royal York Road to that familiar address at 44 Chestnut Park in affluent Rosedale, I was keenly aware that I was about to visit a “historic” individual in the Canadian Bahá’í community. It was at 44 Chestnut Park that important developments in early and mid Toronto Bahá’í history had taken place. I was going to visit Laura Davis, the mother of the Toronto Bahá’í community. This distinction was sufficient in itself to merit a visit, but Laura had also made the pilgrimage to Haifa while the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, was still serving as head of the Bahá’í Faith.
Laura Rumney Davis was a “second generation Bahá’í” but this phrase has to be used advisedly. Laura’s personal papers have it, in two different documents, that her mother, Violet Rumney, became a believer shortly after Laura. Laura Davis heard about the Faith in 1919 in Toronto at the home of Bahá’í Dr. Albert Durant Watson, from that model and scion of all Bahá’í teachers, Miss Martha Root, and declared almost immediately. Laura shared the news with her mother who declared within a week. Both mother and daughter had been former Christian Scientists, although Laura’s mother had belonged to a number of Christian denominations during her spiritual search.
Laura and Violet and Laura’s husband Victor became, along with only a handful of other faithful believers, pillars of the early Toronto Bahá’í community. Their steady activities spanned about 40 years, from 1936-1976. Laura was an enthusiastic amateur poet and once belonged to Dr. Watson’s Toronto literary circle, a circle that included the famous Canadian poets, Bliss Carman and Sir Charles G. D. Roberts. Her presence there was probably more as observer than participant. Her school chum, Margaret Lawrence, was Dr. Watson‘s private secretary and it is likely that Laura was invited to the circle through Margaret. (For the biography of Laura’s life, readers should consult Marlene Macke’s instructive manuscript Take My Love to the Friends: The Life of Laura R. Davis. Will van den Hoonaard’s The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada: 1898-1948 (1996) also contains pertinent information).
Always eager from the time that I first declared my faith in Bahá’u’lláh in 1962 to meet anyone who had made the pilgrimage when the “the sign of God” was still alive, I felt fortunate that I was about to meet a pilgrim who had looked upon the “priceless pearl.” Dame Laura Rumney Davis, who lived in comfortable surroundings when I met her, had been granted the rare privilege of sitting at Shoghi Effendi’s table in 1955 and hearing him expound the Bahá’í teachings and his perceptions of world events. I have since come to realise that meeting with historic individuals, and the making of historic events, are closely tied. Both went hand-in-hand with meeting the Guardian.
Following the interview, I made no notes, but as near as I can tell, the visit with Laura would have taken place circa 1965. Laura would have been about 70 years old; I was about 19. I recall climbing the steps to Laura and Victor’s spacious, red brick Georgian style home with its arched portico entrance. Although I had met Laura when I was still a child and young teenager, those occasions had been only brief hellos at conferences, conventions, public meetings or summer schools. This was our first real meeting. I rang the bell in anticipation.
The Act of Incorporation (1949): Dame Laura Rumney Davis
“Dame” is used before Laura’s name when it appears, for example, in the act passed by the Canadian Parliament to incorporate the National Spiritual Assembly on April 30, 1949. However, Bahá’ís did not address Laura Davis as “Dame Laura.“ So the reader should not be mislead by this title. In the incorporation act, the title was honorific and meant simply a mature, honourable, married woman. In Great Britain the title was granted by the crown as the female equivalent to the knight. Author Marlene Macke did not discover the title even once in Laura‘s private papers. It is, consequently, more likely that Laura felt that prefixing the title “Dame” befit the dignity of the Bahá’í Faith rather than her own. Although Laura, as a middle-class Canadian of her time, was certainly aware of class distinctions and stations in life, she was far from being snobbish. Despite the comfortable surroundings in which she and Victor lived at 44 Chestnut Park, the Davis’s were not, as one might suppose, wealthy. At her fireside meetings, she mixed freely with people from all classes and walks of life. In our interactions, she presented a curious mixture of reserve, dignity and a spontaneous, child-like innocence.
Laura greeted me at the door and welcomed me into her home. Always eager to share her impressions of the Guardian, the blend of bubbling enthusiasm, ready laughter with a gracious manner, typical of those Canadians of British ancestry belonging to her generation, was soon in evidence. Her speech– particularly the more open “a” vowel — had traces of English diction that were not so marked as to qualify as the overtly British “Canadian Dainty“; it was nearer to mild, mid-Atlantic.
We sat down in that spacious living room whose walls had witnessed some 50 years of fireside talks, declarations, LSA, NSA and committee meetings, and visitors of note, a space that someone has described as a “museum.” It is an apt description if one considers that the early beginnings of personal spiritual histories, and certain chapters of Canadian Bahá’í history, written by many hands, were first sketched in that room. My aunt Edna Halsted Nablo (b. 1931), my mother Joyce’s youngest sister, had declared her faith at 44 Chestnut Park and had waited nervously later, hoping and praying that the consulting LSA would accept her. (It happened on rare occasions that one’s declaration was not first accepted). Although I do not remember her speaking about it, my mother Joyce must have been welcomed in 1952 by the Toronto LSA in that same room.
The conversation began. I can regrettably recall only one or two specific details of our talk that afternoon but what I do remember, I remember clearly. (The reader is referred to Ms. Marlene Macke’s biography which gives a much fuller account of Laura’s pilgrimage). However in our conversation, she referred to what North American Bahá’ís used to call in the 1960’s and 70’s the “catastrophe.” Other pilgrim’s notes also contain references, sometimes contradictory, to this fearful event or events . Now all Bahá’ís know that pilgrim’s notes, even though Shoghi Effendi urged the friends to read them because they contain “valuable information,” he did not deem to be authoritative. And with good reason. So they are presented here only as a matter of anecdotal interest. One “note” from Laura did not come from Shoghi Effendi directly, but it interested me as much as the Guardian’s reported comments; it bore eloquent testimony to Shoghi Effendi’s decisive influence on Mrs. Davis herself. I refer to Laura’s unconcealed love for Shoghi Effendi.
But to begin with the catastrophe: Laura told me that Shoghi Effendi had said that some of the larger cities of North America — his reported remark applied mainly to the cities of the U.S.A. — would be “vapourised.” That was the word he used. As I recall, she named New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh. The other note concerned a powerful energetic force as yet undiscovered in the earth which Shoghi Effendi did not name.
Her Unconcealed Love for Shoghi Effendi
But what struck me more than Laura’s pilgrim’s notes was her loving appreciation of Shoghi Effendi. When Laura left Haifa, the Guardian said to her: “Take my love to the friends.” While Shoghi Effendi often expressed this desire to other pilgrims, Laura took his directive as her marching orders for life. It was an unconcealed, open love, a love that was youthful, unblushing and ebullient. “You know,” Laura said, beaming at me through her glasses, “I tell Victor that I love Shoghi Effendi more than I love him.” This declaration was followed by school-girlish, innocent laughter. In this extroverted love, that some interlocutors might have found overstated, Laura clearly took pride. This love Laura wore proudly, as one might wear a badge of honour. But I could not help wondering how her husband Victor might have felt about being so completely eclipsed by Shoghi Effendi. I was somewhat reassured to learn of Laura’s deep and settled love for Victor. But that was another kind of love. Victor must not have enjoyed being introduced, as he once was, as “Laura Davis’s husband.” In any case, their marriage was solid; it was a working partnership.
I gathered from her remarks that Shoghi Effendi was quite conscious of the state of Laura’s mind, for he commented on it, as was his manner, in a rather direct way: “You know, Mrs. Davis,” Shoghi Effendi reportedly said, “the purpose of the pilgrimage to Haifa and Bahji is to pray in the holy shrines and not to meet the Guardian.” Although Laura reported the Guardian’s words to me, as she did to others, I still wondered if she were fully conscious of Shoghi Effendi’s intent. For he read just as incisively individual personalities as he did the ethos of nation-states. However, it is to her credit that Laura, in all honesty, reported this observation.
The reader should not interpret this observation as a criticism. Many a male pilgrim had also “fallen in love” with Shoghi Effendi. Referring to the Guardian, Hand of the Cause of God, Mr. William Sears, said in of his talks: “He looked into my eyes and all the world became as ashes.” For William Sears, as for other men, no less than for Laura Davis, the heart of the pilgrimage was to be in the Guardian’s presence. After all, love is not, nor should it be, whether it be purely spiritual or human, or its various shades of in-between, entirely rational. Laura’s love for Shoghi Effendi was, not only the source of all her pride and joy; it fed, long after the pilgrimage, the fountain of her spiritual effervescence and contributed to the considerable services she rendered to the Faith over the rest of her lifetime. For Laura Davis possessed that singular quality that was typical of that favoured generation that had known either ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and/or Shoghi Effendi–devotion, a devotion that was expressed in action and a life of service.
She died in 1990 at 95 years of age, “being old and full of days” (Gen. 35:29), having surpassed the proverbial three score years and ten by 25 full years . Her defining personal qualities were an unusual blend of purity of heart, child-like innocence, youthful enthusiasm, cheerful optimism, a ready smile, a touch of grace and dignity, combined with a high seriousness in her approach to the Cause—and, of course, and above all, that unbounded love for Shoghi Effendi. She was keenly aware that she had been accorded a rare privilege. And in that Haifa moment, she attained her deepest desire. She had been ennobled.
 Another distinguished Bahá’í, Winifred Harvey, told me, unlike Laura’s account, that Shoghi Effendi said to her pilgrim group: “The catastrophe is not what the Bahá’ís think. It will be spiritual, social, economic and religious.” It is admittedly hard to reconcile such contradictory views of the “catastrophe” except to suggest that the Guardian was, at different times, reading a alteration of human affairs according to a Divine Will that was, in a sense, changing Its Mind according to a divine wisdom. Or perhaps, he was giving, at different times, a number of possible readings of future outcomes.
 Marlene Macke discovered in her archival research Laura’s correct birthdate. The above affirmation, based on Ms. Macke’s research, gives her correct lifespan as 95 instead of 90 years.
Mrs. Laura R. Davis, Personal Interview
Marlene M. Macke, Take My Love to the Friends: The Life of Laura R. Davis (MS)
Will C. van den Hoonaard, The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada: 1898-1948 (1996)