This week marks the 50th anniversary since the opening of the Baha’i Temple in Sydney. As I live close to the Baha’i Temple (also known as the Baha’i House of Worship) and in the past have worked at the Australian Baha’i National Office which is adjacent to the Temple (see disclosure below), I thought I would step outside the period in which I normally research and share some of its history.
One thing that is striking about the Baha’i Faith is that Baha’is are scattered throughout the world. While the Faith arose from nineteenth century Iran, from its early days news of the new religion was carried over vast distances and people outside Iran started to turn to the Baha’i Faith for spiritual sustenance. In 1920 a Baha’i couple arrived in Sydney from the United States. Clara and Hyde Dunn lived in Australia for the rest of their lives. By the mid 1950s, when the decision to build a Baha’i Temple in Sydney was made, there was a small community of believers scattered around Australia. In 1961 there were thirteen communities with nine or more adult believers and 34 groups with fewer than nine believers (Baha’i Directory Australia: 1961 – 1962). Baha’is resided in every state of Australia plus the Northern Territory.
The expenses associated with the internal development of the Baha’i Faith are financed solely by Baha’is. In response to a question from a journalist for Sydney’s The Sun newspaper about how the Australian Baha’is could afford to build such a building, Baha’i spokesperson, Peter Khan, explained, “the funds came from voluntary contributions by Baha’is all over the world” (Oliver Hogue, 1961).
Believers identified in the above photo:
The leader of the Baha’is of the world at the time, Shoghi Effendi, initiated the building of the Sydney Baha’i Temple. The Baha’is in Iran had suffered a wave of persecution in that country during 1955 which included, among other things, the destruction of their national centre. Noting that this was likely to prevent plans to build a Baha’i Temple in Tehran, Shoghi Effendi remarked that building the Temple in Sydney as well as one in Kampala, Uganda , “would be a great comfort to the Persian believers” (Shoghi Effendi, 30/10/1955, pp. 396-7).
The Baha’i Writings specify that Baha’i Houses of Worship must have nine sides and a dome. Shoghi Effendi reiterated this in his instructions to the Australian National Spiritual Assembly. (Shoghi Effendi 30/10/1955, pp. 396-7). The Sydney architect, John Brogan, designed the Temple to these specifications (N.S.A., 1960, pp. 16-7). The Temple was built in four years.
The Opening of the Baha’i Temple
The Temple was officially opened by a woman, Ruhiyyih Khanum, thus underlining the Baha’i teachings about the equality between women and men. Shoghi Effendi, her husband, had passed away but before he died he had appointed her and others to provide guidance to the Baha’is of the world. She was thus highly respected in the Baha’i community.
Baha’is came from many countries for the opening of the Sydney Temple, the fourth Baha’i Temple to have been built in the world. There were believers from the United States, Britain and Italy. The Pacific was well represented with believers from New Zealand, Fiji, New Guinea, Tahiti, New Hebrides, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia attending. People from Singapore, Japan, Timor, Indonesia were also represented. There were even Baha’is from Pakistan, Iran and Arabia at the event (Joy Stevenson, 1961).
Baha’i Temples are open to all the peoples of the world irrespective of their ethnicity, gender or beliefs. There were so many people in Sydney wishing to attend the opening that three services were required to accommodate them all. Buses were organised from the Australian Baha’i National Centre in Paddington to travel the twenty-two miles to the Temple in Ingleside. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that 1800 people attended the two services held on Sunday 18th September.
In her speech to open the Sydney Baha’i Temple Ruhiyyih Khanum explained that the Temple was a place of worship open to all:
This building is dedicated to the three fundamental verities animating and underlying the Baha’i Faith, – the Unity of God, the Unity of His Prophets and the Unity of Mankind. Its doors are open to the peoples of all creeds, all races, all nations and all classes. Within its walls will be heard the prayers and sacred Scriptures of not only our own Faith, but of the great revealed religions of the world…
It is the hope of the Baha’is that everyone will feel free to come and pray in this Temple and share with us in its services of praise to the God we all love…
Ruhiyyih Khanum, speech at the opening of the Sydney Baha’i Temple, 18/9/1961 (Joy Stevenson, 1961).
The Baha’i Temple in the Community
The Sydney Baha’i Temple has affected the lives of many people over the years. On a functional level, it is used as an aid to navigation by sailors (‘At last, Broken Bay yields up its fishing secrets…’, 1981) and pilots (Civil Aviation Safety Authority, pp. 24, 60).
Many people have visited the Temple since it opened. I am particularly interested in the responses of those visitors who are not Baha’is. The Baha’i National Archives do not have much record of the responses of visitors to the Temple which is understandable. The media is not a good source for this either. Often I have heard responses such as Peter’s. In an e-mail to me he said, “I always found it to have a peaceful calming effect on me”.
People come as individuals for prayer and meditation like Peter. Others come as tourists, interested in exploring the unique features of Sydney – a quick search of the internet reveals a plethora of tourism websites drawing attention to it. Children have had a significant involvement with the Baha’i Temple, reading at services and participating in children’s events conducted on the grounds. A service in 2005 which I was involved in is just one example.
There are many reasons people visit the House of Worship. In 1992 local historian, Nan Bosler, visited the Baha’i Temple to do some research about it for a university assignment. In the booklet about the Baha’i Temple which she wrote, she recalled the activities conducted on the grounds of the Baha’i House of Worship for the International Year of Peace in 1986. “A conference on Peace and a banner project were two activities which I took part in”, she said. “The ribbon of banners was an exciting project which linked many parts of the world and culminated in the banners being tied together and strung from the House of Worship in Ingleside to the sea at Mona Vale”, (Nan Bosler, last page). During 1985 the Temple grounds were a hub of activity for the International Year of Peace (Hassall, p. 19).
I have two questions that I hope you can discuss in your comments:
- How can historians assess the role that a place of worship plays in a community given that many people will not record their experiences and the media records very little either. In the case of the Baha’i Temple it would be feasible to conduct an oral history survey as there will be many people who are still alive today with memories of the early days of the Temple. But I normally research the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. How would a historian investigate the role of a place of worship in a community for that period?
- Have you visited the Sydney Baha’i Temple? What prompted you to visit? Do you have any memories of the Baha’i Temple that you wish to share?
- ‘At last, Broken Bay yields up its fishing secrets, thanks to the top rods’ confidant’, Sydney Morning Herald, 16/4/1981, p. 15.
- Bosler, Nan, The Baha’i House of Worship Ingleside, (Narrabeen, NSW: Local History Resource Unit, Narrabeen Community Learning Centre, 1992).
- Civil Aviation Safety Authority, Sydney Basin: Visual Pilot Guide 2010, (Civil Aviation Safety Authority Australia, 2010).
- Effendi, Shoghi, letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Australia, 30/10/1955, reproduced in Graham Hassall, ed., Messages to the Antipodes: Communications from Shoghi Effendi to the Baha’i Communities of Australasia, (Mona Vale, NSW: Baha’i Publications Australia, 1997.
- Hassall, Graham, ‘The Baha’i House of Worship: Localization and Universal Form‘, draft chapter to appear in Carole M. Cusack and Alex Norman (eds), Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion.
- Hogue, Oliver, ‘A beautiful widow is top guest’, The Sun, 30/8/1961, pp. 32, 37.
- National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Australia, ‘Introducing the Australian Baha’i House of Worship’, Herald of the South, April 1960, pp. 15-22.
- Stevenson, Joy, ‘Dedication of the Mother Temple of the Antipodes: 14-17 September, 1961’, held in the Australian Baha’i National Archives, 1961.
I became a Baha’i in 1987 and worked as a public information officer for the Australian Baha’i Community between 2003 and the beginning of 2007.
50th Anniversary Activities at the Baha’i Temple
Those who are in Sydney this weekend might be interested in visiting the Baha’i Temple. There are many activities being held this weekend including an opportunity to visit the Baha’i National Archives on Saturday. A programme of events is available here.