There are many wonderful websites with information on the Bahá’í Faith, the youngest of the world religions. www.bahai.org has information on what Bahá’ís believe and do, and on the religion’s history. This is a wonderful site on the life of Bahá’u’lláh. The Bahá’í Reference Library has a wide selection from the authoritative Holy Writings. And finally, here is a link to the website of Bahá’ís of the United States, where you can find contacts to Bahá’ís all over the country.
History of the Bahá’í Faith in Ithaca
Based on a brochure written by Ithaca native Leslie Harris Alexander, who we miss dearly.
The Bahá’í Faith, which originated in Persia in 1844, was woven into the fabric of Ithaca’s history with the appearance of three early Bahá’í teachers in 1897. The first, a Syrian doctor, visited Kansas City, New York City, Ithaca, and Philadelphia, where he interested many people in the Bahá’í teachings. That same year, two prominent early American Bahá’ís, Lua and Edward Getsinger, also visited Ithaca, and by 1898 there were 23 Bahá’ís residing in the city.
Those early Bahá’ís were attracted to the contemporary teachings of Bahá’u’lláh (Arabic for “Glory of God”), the prophet-founder of the Bahá’í Faith. These teachings include the oneness of God, the unity of His prophets, the oneness and wholeness of the human race, the equality of women and men, and the essential harmony of science and religion. Bahá’ís throughout the world strive to translate Bahá’u’lláh’s unifying teachings into action through personal transformation and community development. In over 150 years, the Bahá’í Faith has spread to over 200 countries and territories, becoming the second most widespread of the independent world religions.
When a local Bahá’í community reaches nine adult members, a governing council is formed. As there is no clergy or priesthood in the Bahá’í Faith, these councils, called Spiritual Assemblies, are elected annually and guide the affairs of the Bahá’í community. The first mention of a local Assembly in Ithaca was in 1910 in an early American Bahá’í journal, the Star of the West. It met regularly on Friday evenings at the home of a local dentist on South Cayuga Street, a site which is now a parking garage.
In 1912, several Ithacans traveled to New York City to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh, who was traveling through Europe and North America. Hettie B. Townley, a Bahá’í nurse, was one of the few fortunate Ithacans to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and mentions this visit in her diary. It is clear that the Ithaca Bahá’í community began with a firm and dynamic foundation through this illuminating contact with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
At the beginning of the 20th century, three Cornell University students became Bahá’ís, beginning a pattern of Bahá’í involvement on the Cornell campus which continues to the present. Cornell Bahá’í alumni have achieved distinction through service to the Bahá’í Faith and humanity at large, both in the United States and abroad.
One such Cornell alumna was Leonora Stirling Armstrong. Leonora was only 13-years-old when her grandmother introduced the Bahá’í Faith to her in 1908. A brilliant student, she entered Cornell University on scholarship, and graduated with Phi Betta Kappa honors. Upon graduation, after reading a series of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s tablets, Leonora decided to take the first step in what turned out to be a lifelong path of service: she sailed for Brazil. In early 1921 Leonora arrived in Rio de Janeiro, a lone American woman not knowing the language, with no friends and no job, and an accumulated savings amounting to two weeks of modest accommodation. The first Bahá’í to settle permanently in Latin America, she labored tirelessly for 60 years and sowed the first seeds of the Bahá’í teachings in that region.
Leonora Armstrong exemplified the life of service to humanity as encouraged by Bahá’u’lláh. Although she described herself as timid and lacking confidence, as a result of her Herculean efforts tremendous success was made in translating Bahá’í literature and disseminating knowledge of the Bahá’í Faith throughout Latin America. Her personal efforts in areas of social service earned her the title “Nurse of the Poor” in the press, and her tireless work was honored by the Brazilian Parliament after her passing. Leonora is considered one of the most outstanding and distinguished Bahá’ís in the West.
Recent Bahá’í History
The 1970s saw an increase in Bahá’í activities, in the city as well as on the Cornell campus, including the formation of a Bahá’í college club and activities with local Native American Bahá’ís. In 1973, some of the Bahá’ís of the greater Ithaca area formed a Bahá’í theater group, “The Crystal Theater.” This group attracted a wide array of participants by presenting plays on the Faith in downtown Ithaca, at Ithaca College, and at the Bahá’í Arts Festival in 1974.
Also in the 1970s, a number of Bahá’í students were living in the Cornell affiliated Center for World Community. This organization sponsored a symposium on the issue of world unity through nonpolitical means, in which Bahá’ís participated. In the 1990s the Bahá’ís helped start the Ithaca Institute for the Healing of Racism, an area in which members continue to be active. A big celebration was held in the fall of 1997 to commemorate 100 years of the Bahá’í Faith in Ithaca.
Today the Bahá’í community of Ithaca is composed of about 60 members from a beautiful array of backgrounds from places around the world. With their friends and neighbors, Bahá’ís are striving to build communities where children, young people and adults can together develop their God-given capacities and apply these as they forge new paths towards a world free of prejudice and war, one animated by love, justice and peace. Learn more about the local activities here.