Mary Petit

Mary Petit – France, November 2011

I would most probably never have come across the Bahá’í Faith if I hadn’t been crammed in the underground between Oxford Street and Liverpool Street, with just enough room to read the small ads in the Daily Telegraph.  This was in 1957 and I was tired of commuting every day from Rayleigh to Regent Street, London.   My eye fell on an advertisement for a secretarial post in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.  All they asked for were ‘good speeds in shorthand and typing’ – mine were pretty good – so why not try? I thought.  At that time I had no idea what the Council of Europe was and Strasbourg was situated vaguely in the East of France.  But I liked the idea of an adventure and above all a change from my humdrum life in South East England.  So I went for an interview in London, and met a charming Belgian lady who was later to become one of my bosses in the Personnel Department.

I was the youngest of three in an ordinary middle-class family.  Going to church was part of our family tradition.  My father sometimes played the organ, my brother was a church warden, and most of our social life took place in the Parish Hall.  We were most definitely moderate Church of England, not too high and not too low!  My sister and I, however, both attended St Bernard’s Convent High School in Westcliff-on-Sea, which had a good reputation, and, in spite of having special ‘non-Catholic’ RI classes, I learned a lot about different kinds of sin, and Immaculate Conception.  Religion was not a subject which interested me very much, it was just part of our family and social life.

So, after a successful interview and shorthand and typing tests, I was accepted.  Strangely (and luckily) they did not expect me to speak perfect French.  Mine was just school level and I had never actually put it into practice.  My anxious parents came to see me off to Strasbourg.

I flew across the channel from Southend to Ostend in a Bristol Freighter plane, and then had a long train journey down to Strasbourg, arriving at 4 am on 26 January 1958.  I was 23, fancy-free, looking for fun, and certainly not looking for a new religion!

In those days the new secretarial staff started off working in the typing pool, to get accustomed to the surroundings, and the vocabulary used in the vast number of documents that had to be typed up on to stencils.  There were about 20 girls from all over the British Isles and… one from Canada.  This one was a prodigious worker, extremely meticulous and conscientious.  She was a little older than most of us and more serious.   I heard that she organised discussion meetings at her flat, inviting the girls who seemed the most interested in philosophical subjects …. but she did not invite me.  That did not matter to me too much as I was busy gadding around, going to parties, going hiking, seeing the surrounding countryside, and tasting the Riesling wine.

After about two months I was appointed to work in the Personnel Department and settled down happily as the English-speaking secretary to the Head of Personnel.  And then one day a young man, François Petit, came to visit Doris, the Canadian lady.  Apparently they both belonged to a new religion which intended to install a world government, and the young man was planning to move to Strasbourg from Paris.  He had just come back from something called a Summer School in the South of France.  He came and went over the next few weeks and he was introduced to most of the ‘girls’ including myself.  We all knew now that he had left a very good job in Paris to come to Strasbourg to ‘pioneer’ and that Doris was going to move back to Canada.

Towards the end of 1959 I was faced with a problem.  Before leaving England I had become involved in a relationship with a man much older than me.  I knew deep down that to attach myself to him would be a mistake, which was a reason why I wanted to get away.  But he was still waiting over there for me to return. Life as the wife of a bank clerk in my small town did not appeal to me at all and I started looking around for another job elsewhere.  I had met quite a few people who had worked in other international organisations, and I had a possible opening in Geneva.  So in March 1960 I gave three months’ notice.   (In view of the present employment situation this seems absurd to me now; I had a permanent contract, was an international civil servant, and paid no income tax!)

It was at the wedding of one of my friends in Strasbourg in May 1960 that I started to be really interested in François, and as the days went by we saw more and more of each other.  Then, one Sunday afternoon, on the pretext that he was going to teach me to play the guitar, he came round to the flat I shared with another girl, and, to fill in an awkward silence, I asked him the fatal question: “What is this religion of yours about?”   It must have been about 3pm when he started to tell me about the Bahá’í Faith and it was dark outside when he finished.  I remember feeling rather embarrassed as I had nothing to offer him to eat in the flat and did not like to suggest going to a restaurant.  I also remember that I felt everything he had told me was perfectly logical.  I was also impressed by his sincerity and obvious devotion to the faith.  I had never met anyone with such sincere conviction before and I felt that a door had been opened onto a different way of living, a totally different world from what I had experienced so far.  A few days later he showed me some Bahá’í books, and leafing through a text by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the words seemed to jump off the page at me.

However, this was all happening whilst I was planning to move.  I had already had a removal firm come to estimate the cost of shipping my few belongings back to England and there was just about one month to go before I left.   François was absolutely sure that I should stay and moreover that we should get married!  This was not in my original plan and it took me by surprise.  But time was short and a decision had to be made.  It was probably the most intense week of my life; I had never envisaged staying in France for good, but suddenly this extraordinary man had come in to my life… what to do?   Well, in the end I decided to stay, and went to see my boss, the Head of Personnel, who very kindly allowed me to withdraw my notice.

We had a simple Bahá’í ceremony, which our parents attended; both the French and the English were dubious about the religious aspect.  François’ mother, born Jewish and converted to Catholicism, could not accept nor try to understand the Faith, but thankfully she consented to our marriage. My parents were bemused and probably disappointed – this was not the wedding they had in mind for their daughter – no church, no organ.  But they made the best of it and enjoyed the few days they spent with us.

(François and I celebrated our 50th Wedding Anniversary in December 2010.)

But this did not mean I became a Bahá’í overnight.  I needed to know more and find out for myself.  François lent me Portals to Freedom, my first Bahá’í book, which I took on a holiday that a girl-friend and I had planned for some time before.  I read all about Howard Colby Ives whilst cruising down the Dalmatian coast in an old converted fishing boat.  Nearly 50 years later I spent a week at the Croatian summer school on the island of Rab…

I also read The Dawnbreakers which gave the history and background that I needed to know.  In my heart I knew that I believed in Bahá’u’lláh’s message – it put everything into place – no religion was better than another, it was the same message renewed for the time and the place.  It was so simple and obvious.  But I was waiting for some big revelation, a thunderbolt or one of those dreams that some early believers had had.  Also I thought that colleagues and friends were waiting for me to ‘convert’ as I was going to marry a Bahá’í.   So it was only three months after our first child was born that I finally decided to put my feet on the path of becoming a Bahá’í.  I declared in January 1962 in Strasbourg.

What I did not know at the time was the drama being played out in the NSA of France, and in the Bahá’í world.  Five members of the National Spiritual Assembly of France had given their allegiance to Mason Remey, who had claimed he was the new guardian of the Faith.  All I knew was that every time François met Doris they talked with hushed and worried voices.  François had resigned from his position of National Secretary to take up his pioneering post in Strasbourg, but he knew all the members well and had been close to some who had broken the covenant.

I did not realise when we got married that my new husband was one of the early French Bahá’ís, having accepted the Faith in Luxembourg, and had been very active as secretary in the Paris Local Assembly and then in the first National Spiritual Assembly of France.

I was privileged to meet some prestigious members of the Faith,  who came to visit us in our small council flat.  The Hand of the Cause, Dr Muschlegel, came to my declaration ceremony, bearing a candle, as a symbol for the light of the Cause.  John Ferraby also came to supper one night during a visit to Strasbourg.  Marion Little had taken up residence in Metz and we would go to visit her, and later on, in 1963 we were able to form the local assembly with Yusef Ghadimi, a member of the NSA of Iran who was later assassinated, and his wife Ginette. who had settled in Strasbourg with their daughters.

Just one of my colleagues in the Council of Europe became attracted to the Faith.  Maureen Page, who had come to work in Strasbourg at the age of 19, was a frequent visitor to our flat and after long discussions with François she eventually accepted the Faith. By this time the Bahá’í community had grown with the arrival of Iranian students – among them Aziz and Leila Mesbah, Foad and Fari Saberan – and our flat was the centre for lively meetings.  After we left Strasbourg in 1965, Maureen went on to pioneer in many countries, including Botswana and Hawaii, and is now in Atlanta.

In 1963 we attended the World Conference at the Royal Albert Hall.  I was very pregnant with our second child but I was able to commute from Rayleigh to London most days, much to the anxiety of my poor mother!  What an experience – seeing the thousands of Bahá’ís from all over the world, greeting old friends of François’, listening to wonderfully inspiring talks by Amat’u-l Bahá, William Sears, and other Hands of the Cause, hearing about the election of the House of Justice – it was another world which was difficult to share with my own family and friends.

Sometime that first winter I accepted an invitation to a get-together at the apartment of Doris Skinner, Canadian pioneer. She left Strasbourg before I declared and I did not see her again.

The next World Conference we attended was in Paris in 1976, with our three children.  François  had a lot of responsibility, not the least being a sort of body-guard to Amat’u-l Bahá, protecting her from the adoring friends.

By then we had moved to Nancy, in Lorraine, and I had a secretarial position in a language laboratory in Nancy University and François was doing well in his professional career. We had a fluctuating community in Nancy, with students settling for a few years to study at the university, and then moving on.  We organised regular meetings, deepening weekends, conferences etc.  We attended Summer Schools as a family, though at the time there were few children and youth in the national community.  François and I both served on the Children’s committee.

In 1981 the NSA of France were faced with a recurrent problem of finding a National Secretary willing and able to work in Paris on a very low salary.   At the same time there were signs of financial problems in the firm François was working for.  He decided that he wanted to get out while he could.  A Bahá’í friend had proposed a job in New Caledonia and he went out there for three months to see the possibilities, which were not very promising.  On his return he was asked by the NSA if he would accept the post of National Secretary on a salary of about a quarter of what he was currently earning.  This was a turning point in our reasonably comfortable life.  It meant being separated all week and sometimes for two weeks at a time when there was a National Assembly meeting, and a totally different lifestyle.  I had a good job, which I enjoyed, so after much thought, we accepted.  It was not always easy living separate lives and it lasted ten years.

In 1984, before the days of computers, I used my old typing skills to type the manuscript of the French translation of the Dawnbreakers – La Chronique de Nabil.   In compensation the French NSA kindly arranged for me to go on pilgrimage.  It was of course fantastic, and I was especially privileged, being invited to dine with some members of the House and Counsellors.  The French NSA had just acquired the new Hazirat’ul-quds in rue Pergolèse, Paris, and they were interested to know all about it.

I retired from my work in 1996 and received as a parting gift an airline ticket – for an amount which would get me to New Delhi and back.  Having spent all of my Bahá’í life in France I felt I would like to see other communities.  I especially wanted to see if there really were 8,000 people per day visiting the House of Adoration, the famous Lotus Temple in New Delhi.  I applied to be a volunteer for six weeks without really knowing what I was going to do.  It was only when I arrived that I realised how very hard the volunteers had to work, standing up all day, six days a week.  I was then 61 and a bit older than the average Bahá’í volunteer.  We ‘girls’ were all lodged in a big house, sharing rooms, and were transported to the House of Worship early every morning, and brought home in the evening.  It was an unforgettable experience, greeting the crowds of people who flocked to the Temple day in and day out.  We were divided into different teams, changing positions every two hours.  Greeting the visitors, lining them up and counting them through the doors, keeping them quiet inside the Temple, and distributing pamphlets and answering questions about the Faith when they came out.  I had never felt so free to talk about the Faith, even French tourists expressed interest!  We had just Mondays free and I was able to visit New Delhi as a tourist myself.  I also went off for a few days to see the Taj Mahal and Rajastan.  But nowhere did I see as many visitors as at the Bahá’í House of Worship.

The last big event I was able to attend was in 2003 in Madagascar for the Indian Ocean Congress celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Faith.  This was organised jointly by the Assemblies of Madagascar, La Réunion, Seychelles and Mauritius Islands.  It was a joyous, lively and noisy occasion, lots of singing and dancing and moving tales from early believers.  Jyoti Munsiff was present to talk about the adventures of her mother.  After the Congress some of us went on a teaching trip to Antsirabé about 150 kilometres south of Tananarive.  There were two assemblies in this small town and a Bahá’í Centre.  It was so easy to talk about the Faith; the people were curious and listened with interest.

So now all these years later I wonder what would have happened if I had not seen that job offer in the Daily Telegraph.   Would I have met the Faith somewhere along life’s road?   Who knows!


Mary Petit

France, November 2011

Francois and Mary Petit

Francois and Mary Petit