Island of faith holds jubilee

September 19, 2003
Florence Bagley (1914-1990).

PALERMO, Italy — It all began with the decisions of one woman in Massachusetts and a family in Michigan.

When they decided to take the teachings of the Baha'i Faith to Sicily 50 years ago, they initiated the next phase in the religious history of this Mediterranean island.

Centuries ago it had been an outpost of Islam, but it was a tight-knit community with a strong allegiance to the Catholic Church when the first Baha'is arrived in 1953 as part of a ten-year plan to take the teachings of the Faith around the world.

From 19 to 21 September 2003, as the Baha'is of Sicily celebrated the golden jubilee of the arrival of the Faith on their island, they could rejoice that Sicily now has 11 Local Spiritual Assemblies and that Baha'is now live in 44 localities there.

In 1953, however, there were no Baha'is in Sicily.

Arriving there was something of a shock for Emma Rice, who, at 55, had left her comfortable family estate in Hamilton, Massachusetts, in the United States.

"Her first impressions of Sicily were horrifying, for she was confronted with poverty, unsanitary conditions, illiteracy, and what she felt to be cruelty previously unknown to her," her 1985 obituary by Anne Gordon Atkinson reveals.

Participants at the jubilee. Slideshow
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Participants at the jubilee.

But she found strength in prayer and quickly made friends. In fact, just after Mrs. Rice's arrival in Sicily, a chambermaid in her hotel in Taormina caught sight of a picture of 'Abdu'l-Baha in Mrs. Rice's hotel room, and within two months both the maid and the hotel's laundress had become Baha'is.

Mrs. Rice plunged herself into Sicilian life. She learned the local songs and dances, and the language. She went to festivals, christenings, graduations, and pageants.

A week after Mrs. Rice came to Sicily, Baha'is from Michigan, Stanley and Florence Bagley, arrived with their three teenage children.

They met a local person who introduced them into Palermo society and soon gained local friends.

For their services in Sicily, the members of the Bagley family were designated by Shoghi Effendi as "Knights of Baha'u'llah," as was Mrs. Rice.

At the golden jubilee celebrations held in Campofelice di Roccella near Palermo, there were 300 guests from 15 countries.

Guests of honor included a former member of the Universal House of Justice, Ali Nakhjavani, who spoke about the Ten Year Plan, and his wife, Violette Nakhjavani, who gave some moving recollections about Madame Ruhiyyih Rabbani, the widow of Shoghi Effendi.

The jubilee was an occasion to recall how the community grew over the years.

Through the activities of the Baha'i pioneers and other arrivals, and with visits by Hand of the Cause Ugo Giachery (1896-1989), the Faith grew. The first Local Spiritual Assembly formed in 1957.

Dr. Giachery was born in Palermo, Sicily, but had later moved to the United States where, in the 1920s, he met his wife, Angeline, and became a Baha'i. In 1947, Dr. and Mrs. Giachery settled in Italy as pioneers of the Faith.

Dr. Giachery went on to win renown as an able assistant of Shoghi Effendi in the projects to build the superstructure of the Shrine of the Bab, and the International Archives Building, both on Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel.

He provided innumerable services to the Faith. In August 1968, he was the representative of the Universal House of Justice at a conference attended by some 3,000 Baha'is in Palermo. The conference commemorated the centenary of Baha'u'llah's arrival in the Holy Land.

At the jubilee, Italian Baha'i Mario Piarulli, 82, shared with participants his memories of Dr. Giachery.

"Dr. Giachery and Mrs. Giachery were like my father and mother. They were the first Baha'is I met," Mr. Piarulli said.

"Whatever I know, concerning the meaning of life, the way life should be conducted, I learned from them," he said.

Mr. Piarulli, 82, has recently finished writing a book, "The Ambassadors of Baha'u'llah" (Gli Ambasciatori di Baha'u'llah), which he dedicated to the memory of Dr. Giachery.

Another author present was Rino Cardone, a journalist, who launched his recently published book "The Countless Pearls of Sicily" (La Sicilia dalle Infinite Perle), in which he describes the history of the Baha'i Faith in Sicily.

A highlight of the jubilee was a teleconference between the participants and Hand of the Cause Dr. Ali-Muhammad Varqa, who was in Haifa, Israel.

Dr. Varqa, who has been a regular visitor to Sicily, also sent a special letter for the occasion, which read in part:

"Following the 50 years of hard effort and activities, you have been successful in creating a community, which could be presented as a model of integrity, harmony, and fellowship that generates the sweet fragrance of divine love in all parts of the islands of the Mediterranean Sea."