George and Elsie Bowers on their return from the Holy Land

I was born in Liverpool in November 1927. I was 34 years old in 1961 when I first heard of the Bahá’í Faith. I was married to George Bowers and had two children, Eric and Jackie. We had lost our first child at 3½ months old in an epidemic of gastro-enteritis.

My family were not church goers and in those days you didn’t ask your parents questions but looking back I think there might have been some ‘cross religion’ because my mother’s parents were Irish. We children all went to Church of England Sunday School, which I loved. I considered myself Church of England but seldom went to church after childhood. George had been brought up Catholic but had lapsed, having been disenchanted with the Roman Catholic Faith at a young age.

I had always thought my father an easy going man but when I won the scholarship to go to High School, he said I wouldn’t be going. I argued but he wouldn’t change his mind. He said my sister had gone down that route, attending school until she was sixteen. He had had to pay for all her books and extras like clothes, and he was not doing it again. So I went to the ordinary senior school. I then left school at fourteen when the school was bombed. Later at the age of 45 I studied for O-levels and A-levels.

When the war began I was eleven and at school in the West Derby district where we lived at the time. We children were not evacuated, since we were thought to be in a safe area, but when I was fourteen the school had to be closed because the area was being bombed every night. One of the girls in my class had been killed and a lot of other people injured. We were not attacked as severely as other parts of Liverpool but we slept in the air raid shelter for eighteen months. You got used to it. Most of us fell into a routine and you didn’t think anything of it. There was just my mother, my sister and myself. My brother was in India by then and my dad was on air raid duties most nights.

When I left school jobs were scarce. There was little to choose from – office, factory or a shop. I was lucky to be employed in an office for six years.

I met my future husband, George Bowers, when I was 15 ½ years old as the result of the civic-mindedness of a local man. He persuaded the manager of Sayers confectionary factory to rent him the canteen for a couple of nights a week to provide somewhere for young people to go, to keep them off the street because of the great danger from air raids. As a result, twice a week there was disco dancing to records – no alcohol. The age limit was about eighteen because all the boys were being called up. It was here that I met George who was seventeen.

George joined the Royal Navy soon after we met and our meetings were infrequent but we always kept in touch.George was on the training ship HMS Glendower based at Pwllheli, North Wales. For the first six months he was allowed home for a few days every three months, but as the war went on and things got worse, men came home for two days and then they were off to Africa or somewhere like that. Many weddings took place in those two days. George was on patrol duty on the Atlantic convoys taking supplies to Russia. Later he served on several of the smaller aircraft carriers and then went on to the Duke of York which was the flag ship of the British Navy at that time. They went round Australia and New Zealand a lot because they were working with the American fleet, and all round the Pacific as well. When the war finished, the Duke of York sailed with the USS Missouri into Tokyo bay for the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, so George was there to see history being made. He came back to ‘civvy street’ in 1946. Meanwhile I was still at Mosers, earning twelve shillings and sixpence a week.

By then it was inevitable that we would marry. We had learned about each other by letter and I received many. George would write as often as he could and I would write back. I don’t think either he or I ever thought he would be killed; people didn’t think like that. Men would come home for two days and get married and go off to war again, and a woman didn’t seem to imagine she could be a widow two days later. George was in a lot of sticky situations but like most servicemen, didn’t talk about it. We were engaged in 1947 and married in 1948. I was twenty and George was twenty-two.

In the event, our wedding was at St Christopher’s Church of England. George’s dad attended but not his mother, Mabel, because she was a Roman Catholic and would not enter a Protestant Church, although she did come to the reception. She later became a Bahá’í when she was sixty-five and was very staunch. She pioneered to Dun Laoghaire when she was 69 to help form a Local Spiritual Assembly. George used to say Catholics made very strong Bahá’ís because they were used to the discipline.

In 1962 George was able to set up his own business as a painting and decorating contractor.

In the early sixties we were living in an apartment in Knotty Ash in Liverpool and shortly had new neighbours, Hagar Wall – Lou Turner’s mother, John Turner her husband and her son John. We were friendly with Lou and John and used to have a night out at the local pub occasionally. None of us were serious drinkers but we enjoyed each other’s company. One day Lou asked me if we would go to a Fund Day at their church and after trying to avoid the issue we agreed to support them. We found they were Spiritualists which in those days was decidedly strange. On a Tuesday night the Spiritualist Church had a kind of study group with speakers involved with various interests and beliefs, such as hypnotism and the Jewish faith, which we used to attend occasionally. There was tea and biscuits afterwards, all very normal, no weird people – well John, who was church President, and Lou, seemed very normal to us.

One day Lou Turnerwas coming out of her front door and George and I were going into ours (they were next to each other). She was very excited and said, “You should have been at the meeting last night. It was wonderful.” She asked us to hang on a few minutes and ran inside to get a pamphlet. It was open when she gave it to George. It was open at the principles of the Bahá’í Faith, a belief we hadn’t heard of until then. He looked at it and said, “I have been looking for this all my life.”He never wavered in his certainty from that day forward. I was taken aback. It was a great shock. It was as if God had touched my heart that day – the feeling “This is it!” a frightening sensation in a way.It was, of course, a Bahá’í pamphlet. At the time I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

It turned out that Aldie Robarts, son of Hand of the Cause, John Robarts, who was the chairman of the Liverpool Spiritual Assembly at the time, had been on pilgrimage and had taken a lot of slide photographs of the Bahá’í World Centre. The Spiritualist church had written to ask Aldie to give a talk on the Bahá’í Faith and show the slides. In fact, it was Madeline Hellaby who gave this talk. That was the talk Lou was telling us about. Years later, Madeline said “I knew Lou’s excitement from her demeanour that night”.

Shortly after, nine people were studying the Faith in Liverpool and seven of them became Bahá’ís.

Over the next few weeks we attended firesides at Bill and Madeleine Hellaby’s home and George was entranced by Bahá’u’lláh’s message. In a short time we were attending firesides all over the north of England. I had great misgivings but I knew by George’s character that this was not a passing phase.

One evening when we had been out with our friends, I was feeling really ‘bolshie’ and tired of all the discussions about the Bahá’í Faith. George went to bed and was unconscious within two seconds. Somebody had told me to read the Tablet of Ahmadand so, as I sat on the side of the bed, I decided to say it.

That night I had a vivid dream.  The next morning when I awoke I didn’t have any further queries or doubts about the station of Bahá’u’lláh. I had in any case always believed in the return of Christ. After this I began seriously to read about the Bahá’í Faith.

Apparently George had been waiting for me to make the decision before declaring himself as a Bahá’í. We now both declared our Faith in Bahá’u’lláh on 1stJuly 1962 at the Hellabys’ home and were members of the Liverpool community. While learning about the Faith we did a lot of travelling to other communities, deepening our knowledge and meeting the other friends. This was such a wonderful time, teaching others about the Faith while we were learning about the Faith ourselves.

Occasionally, we had visits from Hands of the Cause John Ferraby and William Sears; visits also from Adib Taherzadeh and David and Marion Hofman.

There was no reaction at all from our family when we declared – not a flicker, no questions, nothing, except for George’s mother, Mabel Bowers, saying, “God forgive you, that’s all I can say, God forgive you George Bowers”. He always left a Bahá’í prayer book at her house but she never made any comment. One time she said to me “You know that prayer book? I take it to church with me”. She was a very spiritual person. Later, when she became a Bahá’í, she told me she still went to church on a Sunday. I said that was alright but did she take communion? “O my God no!” she exclaimed.

By that time Lou Turner had declared, as had her son John and her mother Hagar Wall, but not her husband John. He felt he couldn’t because he was committed to a five-year term as President of his church. He was meticulously correct in everything he did. He did become a Bahá’í when his term ended.

In 1963 the Universal House of Justice was formed for the first time  and we were privileged to go to the Royal Albert Hall in London with about 6,000 other people for four or five days to attend the Bahá’í World Congress. Although John Turner senior was not a Bahá’í he was an incredible man and he offered to look after the children. We all took turns and I remember one day I sat there all afternoon with two babies on my knee. The sessions at the Albert Hall were absolutely marvellous, with the introduction of the members of the first Universal House of Justice.

I couldn’t go to all the talks and unfortunately was unable to go to the public talk given by Hand of the Cause, William Sears. Mr Faizi, also a Hand of the Cause, told us that some of the early Bahá’ís were poor and walked from India and Persia to Akka just to wave a handkerchief at Bahá’u’lláh. They had nothing, absolutely nothing, no money or worldly goods. Some of those families became very prosperous and were actually present at the World Congress.

We went on pilgrimage in 1965 at a time when the pilgrims slept in Bahji for two nights as guests of the Universal House of Justice. We all had our meals together and every night one of the House members came and ate with us, which was the first time we got to know them.

In 1967 George became a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the UK and served until September 1975 when we were both invited to Haifa to join the staff. George had attended the International Conventions in 1968 and 1973. Hooshmand Fatheazam, member of the House of Justice, had taken him for an informal look around some of the World Centre properties in Haifa. A couple of years before, John Wadehad asked the Universal House of Justice if George could go and help out but they had said it wasn’t the right time. So we were staggered to receive a letter inviting us both to go that September. At the time, because I hadn’t had much education I went on educational courses, which I loved. A chance had arisen for me to do ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels in a course at a college, and go on to teacher training. I had finished the O levels but not the A levels. When the letter from the House of Justice arrived, I told the headmaster where I was going, to which he responded “Are you mad, going to Israel?” I let him know I was perfectly happy at the prospect.

In Haifa George was to form a new department to be known as the Works Department and I was to act as Secretary. We had three Arabs workers with us, two Christians and one Muslim. They were lovely people and were devoted to the Faith. It was a pleasure to work with them. I was known to them as “Mrs George”. There were only about seventy Bahá’ís in Haifa at that time. We were all faced with something of a daunting task. Francis Johnson (an American) joined us for a few weeks helping us with various aspects of the work. House of Justice Member Mr Amos Gibson was to be the co-ordinator of the Works Department and one of the first tasks entailed clearing the whole site for the building of the Seat of the House of Justice and also finding housing for the new staff. The gardens were enormous and there were lots of huge ornaments etc., to be cleared. It was sad but uplifting to see the preparations, knowing what the new building would stand for. George was also asked to look into the replacing of the tiles on the Shrine of the Báb but this was not done until many years later. Local labour was used, mostly Arab, and a few Druze from nearby villages.

The organisation of the Department entailed the upkeep of the accommodation for homes of the House of Justice members and the staff. George frequently met Mr Gibson (our co-ordinator) to discuss and plan this. First it was necessary to organise janitorial cleaning for the offices and necessary new departments which would have to be set up. George requested that Mr Gibson consider Tony Conroy then living in the London area for the position. Subsequently, Tony and his wife, Kaff, arrived and the Janitorial Department went to work – small beginnings!

As to our own lives, we were only two in the Department and as time went by it was obvious we needed more staff and George suggested to Mr Gibson that he might consider youth for set periods. At that time Mr Gibson received a letter from Rúhíyyih Khánum who was on an extensive travel programme in the Solomon Islands. She mentioned a Mr Bruce Hancock from New Zealand was coming for a short (3-day) visit and said maybe he could replace some cobbles at the Ridván Garden where Bahá’u’lláh used to sit. He could do this while he was there, as he was a plasterer by trade. This work however was not done until his parents came to Haifa, some years later.

Bruce Hancock arrived, first of the youth for our new Department, quickly followed by Craig Jones, also from New Zealand. Bruce’s and Craig’s 3-Day Visits lasted many years and they both acquired a wife during their time in Haifa. This was the beginning of great things. Two youth, Gerry O’Mahoney and Gerry O’Brien, arrived from Ireland. Over the next years the Department flourished as new staff arrived to work in the other departments being set up and then there were the staff to be accommodated who would be working in the new House of Justice building when it was finished. So the World Centre grew from about seventy when George and I first arrived to seven hundred in our close to twenty years there and our retirement in 1994.

It must be said the work the boys were doing was hard – building in the blazing sun from 6.00 am in Akka, where the House of Abbud was being renovated, and also in Haifa. There are so many others I should pay tribute to – their hard work and enthusiasm which made it a privilege to work in Haifa. This I consider as a tribute to all the youth, and many others, who volunteered to work in Haifa (not always easy work and with no fixed hours).

On the eve of his first day, George told Gerry O’Brien he would be starting work at six the next morning at the House of Abbud in Akka.  Gerry asked George, didn’t he know Irish people didn’t start work until 10.30 am? Nevertheless he was there at 6 o’clock. At day’s end he swore he would not be going back but of course he did. He was working on the roof in the fierce summer heat. I admired him greatly because it was gruelling work. Many youth were employed just for the Works Department, then later others arrived.

In the meantime the work on the Seat of the House of Justice was going ahead and other staff members were needed. George had at that time been working with Mr Borah Kavelin (House of Justice Member) acquiring the necessary accommodation for the increasing number of staff. I was asked to transfer to the Finance Department and become one of their staff. I had had considerable experience of working with money in the UK so I was happy to do that. It was strange getting used to the Israeli methods and presidents’ names on denominations of bank notes.

During those years we experienced many special times, the opening of the Seat of the House of Justice and many other changes. Sadly and inevitably, there were deaths – Hand of the Cause Mr Paul Haney, Ethel Revell, Fujta, Mr Amos Gibson (House Member).

And the years went on when we were able to see the Faith growing.

In our nineteenth year the Universal House of Justice announced to the staff   they were putting a retirement plan in place and the age of retirement would be sixty. Plans were put in place to be implemented throughout the World Centre. It was time for us to move on and we found a house in Congleton back in England to rent for a year and made ready for our departure.

While it was very sad to be leaving, we could begin to look for somewhere permanent to live and it was exciting to think we would be able to teach the Faith again. However, saying goodbye to our many friends and neighbours was very hard. On the other hand we were delighted to find that there were two Bahá’í families in the Congleton area. One family with four small boys were English and the other family with two boys were Iranian. What a joy to have Feasts again and also to talk freely to new acquaintances!

How difficult that was to leave Haifa!  We had lived in our apartment for almost twenty years and had lovely neighbours and friends among both Jews and Arabs – mostly through connection with the workshop, where the iron work was prepared. How we were sad to leave our Spiritual Home! This was a privilege not everyone can experience – there was the sacrifice, not seeing our family very often which was hard, but on reflection there was never a day’s regret and I think so often of those young people (mostly men) who came to the new Works Department – never a complaint.

After we returned to the UK George and I were appointed to the Auxiliary Boards for Protection and Propagation. There were very few Bahá’ís in North Wales so this did not keep us very busy. We were able to visit the South Wales community and had many lovely weekends there when we stayed with the Melville family.

When the time drew near to leave the house in Congleton, we were looking for an area where we could teach and managed to find a house to rent in Hope, North Wales. We were both very happy there and quite near to our son and daughter-in-law living in Chester. Sadly, George’s health was failing and he passed to the Abha Kingdom on the Ninth Day of Ridván 2002.

After consultation with the family we found an apartment for me in Chester near my son, Eric, which is ideal. Here I am able to be independent and yet near enough to the family if in need. There is also a very active Bahá’í community in Chester.

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Elsie Bowers

Chester, May 2018

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