I was born in 1929 in Battersea, London and when I was five my mother and father did the unforgivable – as far as their families were concerned – they paid £35 deposit on an Ideal Home house in the village of Feltham! I passed the 11+ exam and went to what was then Twickenham County School. At eighteen I went to work as secretary to the editorial director of a group of trade magazines in Fleet Street where I worked until I married Philip Spath.
My parents had a belief in God, but due to their experiences with the Roman Catholic church in the past, we did not attend a church. My mother was an Irish Roman Catholic and had been sent to an RC school (quite different from the convents we know today). She and her sisters experienced the nuns’ cruelty in various ways. Then, when my mother married my Dad, who was not Roman Catholic, she was excommunicated from the church! I was taught to say prayers and just knew that there was ‘God’. In those days most churches had a youth club and being a member of such a club I went to confirmation classes and was confirmed. I was still not thinking very deeply about spiritual things, but just having ‘faith’. After I married in 1951 my husband Phil and I regularly attended the Church in Hanworth, which had been built on the site of my youth club. Later, in 1958, we moved to Weybridge, where I began my ‘search’.
One Sunday, in the early 1970’s, I was at morning service in St. Michael’s Church, Weybridge. I had attended this service for the previous 25 years since being confirmed, and never had any problems. However, on this day when I was saying the Apostles’ Creed – “I believe ….” – the thought went through my mind that Jesus didn’t say this.
For quite some time I had been having a weekly discussion with our local curate, with both of us expressing personal thoughts and ideas on the ‘church’. He had decided to go back to Theological College. On that Sunday I decided that I would have a look at other religions. The result was our family changing to the United Reformed Church, where there was an amazing pastor who helped me with my search by providing me with many books on the Christian and other faiths. As part of the Youth Group at this church my son organised talks, and mentioned that a speaker was going to talk on “The Bahá’í Faith” and by chance he happened to be our neighbour – Sydney Barrett.
This was a very humble, gentle man who was patient with all my questions over many, many months. He took me to firesides all over Surrey. I particularly remember going to the Hinton family in Epsom and to Ron and Thelma Batchelor in Leatherhead. I believe I finally declared in 1972.
My husband, Phil, continued to attend the United Reformed Church and he was very supportive of my Bahá’í activities, helping our local Group with exhibition material and coming with me to Bahá’í meetings and other activities. Waverley became an LSA and in 1984 Phil surprised me at a Feast in Hugh and Donna Adamson’s house by saying he was a Bahá’í. (He was tested not long afterwards when he was offered Grand Lodge Rank as a Freemason! We hadn’t realised there was a conflict here. After consulting with many people – including Sidney Barrett – Phil resigned from the Freemasons.)
I served as chairman of Waverley LSA and Phil was the treasurer. We had many activities, including public meetings and firesides. During this time I was asked to serve on the National Teaching Committee when the committee travelled throughout the UK meeting with the regional teaching committees and eventually served as the secretary. In this position I had the privilege of contacting the Bahá’ís in all parts of the UK and realised that there were many isolated believers who felt ‘alone’. After Phil died in 1989 I asked to be relieved of my duties on the NTC so that I could travel throughout the UK visiting these lovely people. I found that Bahá’ís who had no LSA nearby to help, really appreciated being visited and made to feel they were remembered.
I spent quite a bit of time in Wales, staying in both the North and the South. My longest journeys were to Scotland, where I visited Oban, Fort William, Inverness, Skye and Mull. I had the bounty of chauffeuring Meherangiz Munsiff in both Scotland and Wales, and took Olya Roohizadegan to Scotland. Being with these two ladies was quite an experience. I went to Wales on another teaching trip with Karen, a Canadian Bahá’í lady. Initially she wanted to see all the castles – but after three, changed her mind. She had the ability to recite Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings by heart, which was wonderful.
As Secretary of the NTC I was responsible for organising travel teaching in England, Scotland and Wales, which back-fired on me on one occasion when an Australian Bahá’í said he would go anywhere I wanted on condition that I volunteered as a guide at the House of Worship in India. This I did! I spent four weeks ‘guiding’ at the House of Worship in Delhi and living in a house with women from all over the world. I had many interesting experiences during this time. Then I travelled to Lucknow, where Mr and Mrs Gandhi arranged for me to introduce the Faith at a number of their school assemblies. Due to staying longer than anticipated my train reservations were completely ruined. I finished up with quite an adventure en route to the Indore Institute (Bahá’í Vocational Institute for Rural Women) when I experienced amazing kindness from a stranger who took me to his house in Bhopal for the night when the train was diverted in a big way. (I had travelled with his daughter-in-law on the previous train, and he found me in the only space on the train – outside the toilet!). It transpired that he had met Janak McGilligan and contacted her and put me in a taxi to Indore the next morning. That was a time when I just knew I was being looked after.
My time spent with Janak and Jimmy was a joy – to be part of helping with the various skills they were teaching the village women, and to be with Jimmy in his garden showing me all the vegetables and fruit he was growing. From there I went to Gwalior school, and experienced being chased by monkeys as I went back at night to my room – in a sultan’s hunting lodge. Gloria Faizi was staying at the school at the time and I was invited to have some meals with her.
When I arrived back in Delhi they had arranged for me to talk at the house of an American Embassy official. That was fairly daunting, but not half as frightening as being taken on the back of a motorbike through the Delhi traffic by an elderly gentleman who thought he was some kind of dare-devil stuntman, or for those old enough to remember, Evel Knievel.
Slovenia was another country I visited for ‘travel teaching’. I did many talks there and at one Conference met two teenage sisters – not Bahá’ís – who were horrified that I was staying in a ‘house of ill repute’ in Maribor and persuaded me to go home with them. Each time I visited Maribor after that I stayed with their family. (The young American boys who had booked me in to the original house had had difficulty finding accommodation for me as I arrived on the day the Serbs bombed Ljubljana, and everywhere was full with refugees). In Ljubljana I was made welcome by David Gardner and his family from Canada. On one occasion I stayed in a flat owned by a Persian Bahá’í. From there I travelled a few times to Croatia – Pula and Opatija, where I had a great Italian chauffeur from Calabria called Carlos. They had organised nine days of proclamation and teaching the Faith, when we had soldiers who were part of the war at the time looking for answers.
I did visit Malta, but it wasn’t very successful. However I was fortunate to be on a trip to Belarus, which was organised by Lois Hainsworth, and we were the guests of the local Minsk Women’s Soviet. We arrived in Moscow, en route for Minsk, on the evening that Mr Yeltsin stood on the tank in Red Square. The restaurant where our meal had been booked was closed. We had a few snacks with some local Bahá’ís and got on the train for our journey to Minsk. Once there we received the most amazing hospitality and kindness from people who had so little. Our visit was very well organised and we met with local mayors and other dignitaries as well as a large pig farm run as a co-operative, where we were presented with an abundance of food, and entertained by many dancers and musicians. At each occasion we were able to give a presentation on the Bahá’í Faith. One time – I believe it was at the Music Academy – we were being asked for advice on raising money, as one of their gifted cellists needed a new instrument. This had usually been automatically provided by the State and they were horrified when we suggested the young person give recitals to raise money. We also visited a hospital, which was a harrowing experience as they had no money to buy drugs for treatment of children with leukaemia.
Most of my travelling was done in the nineties and early ‘noughties’. The last long visit was to Simon and Clare Mortimore in Swaziland. I did nothing in the way of ‘teaching’ while I was there but I learned a great deal about the working of an LSA in a non-western community. The local Bahá’ís brought their personal problems and troubles to the Local Spiritual Assembly. It made me realise how much less ‘sophisticated’ people really understood the station of the Assembly.
During this time I was invited to be an assistant to Mike Gammage, who was an Auxiliary Board member. I was responsible for communities in Hampshire – Portsmouth, Havant, Fareham and Hart. I enjoyed this very much. Mike sent us pieces of news and literature which enabled us to keep in touch with the communities and always to have something to share with them. We seem to have lost this ability to communicate with local Bahá’ís.
In the early nineties I had the bounty of both my mother and younger daughter, Lisa, declaring their belief in Bahá’u’lláh. Lisa decided that the Bahá’í Faith was the only thing that made sense to her – and I had no difficulty with that. My mum, however, was different. When she moved to Cranleigh I persuaded her to go back to her roots – the Roman Catholic church. She came with me to Bahá’í meetings and talks, and never seemed to be listening. However, after a talk by Don Rogers, she said “I want to be a Bahá’í”. I couldn’t believe she understood what it meant, and having questioned her, asked Mr Rogers to speak with her. There she was, at 89 years of age, accepting Bahá’u’lláh.
I have been on pilgrimage three times. The first one was with Phil, my husband, in 1986, then I went on my own a few years later, and finally I went on pilgrimage with my daughter Lisa in February 2006. Although I found the experience on the first two occasions something special, I cannot say that I had any ‘spiritually moving’ happenings. On the last visit when the terraces had been completed, everything was equally beautiful, but due to a problem with my knee I found it physically challenging.
When in 2001 the administrative boundary changes took place, and as a result some Spiritual Assemblies which had comprised people from many small towns and villages were unable to form having fallen below numbers, I somehow lost my ‘get up and go’ – maybe it was just age! However, I still feel blessed in every way and hope that maybe I’ll have more opportunities to serve this wonderful Faith.
Surrey, March 2012