Baha'i group pays homage to a heroine
SOFIA, Bulgaria — Towering trees sheltered ornate headstones that were almost hidden in the dense vegetation of an old cemetery in this eastern European capital.
In this lush setting, a group of Baha'is from 15 countries slowly made its way along a path towards a grave of historic significance.
As the Baha'is turned a corner, they came upon a scene that was in complete contrast to what had come before. It was a small lawn cemetery in immaculate condition and enclosed by a low wall.
This is the British military cemetery where British Commonwealth servicemen from two world wars, and some civilians, are laid to rest. In its neat precincts is the dignified grave of one who bore the nickname of "General Jack."
This is not the tomb of a great soldier but rather of a spiritual hero of the Baha'i world community.
It is the resting place of Marion Jack (1866-1954), who is acclaimed for her selfless role as a "pioneer," one who moves to another country to help establish and develop a Baha'i community.
The belief in the oneness of humanity and the conviction that world unity is the key to a lasting international peace has inspired many Baha'is to pioneer to ensure that the teachings of Baha'u'llah are available to all peoples on the planet. The one acknowledged as the greatest of those pioneers is Marion Jack.
Half a century after her passing, the group of Baha'is gathered around her grave. They placed bouquets on the headstone.
"I had a strong feeling of respect and gratitude," Inga Daniels, a Baha'i from Iceland, recalled later.
"A woman who demonstrated such courage and perseverance in her role as a Baha'i pioneer is not only important to the history of the faith in Bulgaria, but is an example for anyone who likes to be of service to a worthwhile cause -- being at her grave was truly inspiring," said Ms Daniels.
Like the others in the group, she had come to the cemetery after participating in a Baha'i conference held in Sofia 30 June-3 July 2005.
The Baha'is bowed their heads as several among them recited prayers, including one by Baha'u'llah for those who have passed away: "Cause them to enter the garden of happiness, cleanse them with the most pure water and grant that they may behold thy splendors on the loftiest mount."
Those with some knowledge of the life of Marion Jack spoke quietly to the gathering about the one whose epitaph, inscribed in gold letters, begins with the words: "Immortal heroine."
Born and raised in Canada, Marion Jack had become a Baha'i while an art student in Paris. In 1908 she spent some months in Acre where she had the privilege of being with 'Abdu'l-Baha. He admired her sense of humor, joviality, and spiritual certitude, and He gave her the affectionate nickname of "General Jack."
During her stay in the Holy Land, she taught English to some of His grandchildren and met another of them, the young Shoghi Effendi. Some of her paintings done at that time are now on display in the Baha'i holy places in Israel, including the Mansion of Bahji.
Inspired by the guidance of 'Abdu'l-Baha , Ms. Jack took the message of the Faith to Alaska 1919-20. More than a decade later, when revisiting the Holy Land, Shoghi Effendi, then the head of the Faith, asked Ms. Jack, 65, to go as a Baha'i pioneer to Bulgaria. She went there directly from the Holy Land, arriving in 1930.
In cooperation with just a handful of other Baha'is, she helped establish thriving Baha'i communities in places such as Sofia and Varna.
In that first decade of her stay in Bulgaria, she lived through the world economic depression sustained only by a meager pension that afforded her basic accommodation and food. Then, during World War II, her living conditions became immeasurably worse.
Shoghi Effendi suggested she leave the country for Switzerland. However, he accepted, with great admiration, her plea to remain at her post. She had told him there was nobody there at the time who could replace her as a Baha'i pioneer.
Living in a city subject to aerial bombing and facing the possibility of internment by a pro-Nazi government, Ms. Jack demonstrated persistence, fearlessness, self-abnegation, and generosity.
During the Stalinist-style political era that followed the war, she suffered from inadequate food, heating, and clothing. She lived in dank rented rooms -- once in a damp cellar with no windows.
Among the other difficulties she faced were serious health problems, an inability to master the Bulgarian language, theft of her belongings, extreme cold, plagues of bedbugs, and the irregular arrival of her pension. Yet she remained cheerful and steadfast. Shoghi Effendi said there was never a "more inspiring pioneer."
When she passed away, aged 87, on March 27, 1954, he urged the building of a suitable grave that was destined to "confer eternal benediction" on Bulgaria. It would, he said, become in the future a place of visitation, a prediction that is being borne out by such visits as the one last month.
An extract of the tribute Shoghi Effendi paid her on her passing appears on the headstone of her grave: "Immortal heroine...Greatly loved and deeply admired by 'Abdu'l-Baha. A shining example to pioneers...Her unremitting, highly meritorious activities...shed imperishable splendor on contemporary Baha'i history...Shoghi."
Marion Jack's legacy lies in a Baha'i community now established in 100 localities throughout the country -- and in beautiful paintings adorning the meeting chamber of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Bulgaria and some of the walls of the Baha'i holy places in Acre and Haifa.
(For more information on Marion Jack, see the book "Never Be Afraid to Dare" by Jan Teofil Jasion, George Ronald, Publisher, 2001. http://www.grbooks.com).
(Editor’s Note: A change was made to paragraph 16 on 6 June 2017 to reflect that Marion Jack went to Bulgaria in 1930, not 1931.)