Though I am currently writing a book about my great-aunt Leonora's life, I am always at a loss for words when trying to describe her inner spirit. I have found that the most successful way is to call to mind certain moments that remain embedded forever in my memory.
Remembering her fragile, bent figure poring over stacks of papers, I am reminded of her ever-constant toil of love and selflessness and her unwavering devotion to the motivating Cause of her life.
I remember that as our boat left the harbor at Manaus, Brazil, in 1978, on the way up the Amazon River to Belém, she made a small shadow leaning over the railing in front of a glorious topaz-red sunset. She recounted to me then how she had first arrived in Manaus by boat some 56 years before.
I also recall how, after living near her for more than four months, I began to understand the intricacies of her character, and hit upon the perfect "going away" gift. I bought her a large box of raisins and some apples, for she bought only the barest of necessities for herself such as beans, rice, lentils and eggs. She made her own yogurt, and a Bahá’í friend gave her whole wheat bread regularly. The tender excitement in her eyes as she un-wrapped those raisins was so special to me. I could have spent hundreds of dollars on some item for her and it never would have evoked the same response.
Leonora Stirling Holsapple Armstrong was born June 23, 1895, into a wealthy family. Deprived of her mother at the age of five, she spent a lonely and rather loveless childhood.
It was her maternal grandmother, Leonora G. Stirling, who gave her the spiritual guidance that she longed for and needed.
"Grandma Stirling," an Englishwoman, spent much of her life in a search for spiritual truth and enlightenment. It was not until she was 76 years old that she happened upon the ‘Bahá'í Revelation’ while in New York City. After two more years of searching for someone to teach her more, she was put into contact with Mrs. Isabella Brittingham, with whom she corresponded with for years, exchanging pieces of Tablets and prayers, thus satiating her lifelong thirst.
At this time she also began teaching her granddaughter Leonora who was 11 or 12 years old, giving her several small books to read and teaching her prayers and hymns, which Leonora and her younger sister would sing while their grandmother played the piano.
It was grandmother Stirling's zeal in "giving the message" to the clergy in their home town of Hudson, New York, and to everyone she met and every friend with whom she corresponded that enkindled in Leonora the same fire to teach everyone, no matter how brief the encounter.
When Leonora was only two years old, her parents had suddenly realized that she was exceptionally gifted. Although she hadn't yet been taught the alphabet, they overheard her reading the words on a set of blocks, and were so shocked that they took her to the family doctor.
At the age of three she was enrolled in a private kindergarten, and because her mother was a member of the local Board of Education they were able the following year to waive the age requirement for beginning grammar school.
So before her fifth birthday, Leonora had completed the first grade. She remained a top student, graduating from high school at the age of 15 as class valedictorian. Having won a scholarship to Cornell University, she took up Latin and German as well as literature, astronomy, botany, physics and chemistry. She was elected Phi Beta Kappa during her junior year at Cornell, and was graduated at the age of 19 with a B.A. degree and one-half year's credit toward a master's degree.
"For five years following graduation," she said later, "I taught Latin in high schools and did social work, the latter for about two years in Boston, where I had the opportunity to be with a number of the Bahá’ís, notably the Obers, near whom I lived for some time in Cambridge, and May Maxwell, who often came to Boston as also to New York City where, too, I was sometimes able to be with her.
"May, more than anyone else, helped me to feel the great love of Bahá’u’lláh and 'Abdu’l-Bahá, the reality of love, which I had longed to feel, and a deep bond was formed between us, which gave me the greatest joy I had known.
"Another privilege the greatness of which I could only years later come to realize, was the association with May's little daughter Mary, destined to become Amatu'1-Baha Rúḥíyyih Khánum. [The wife of the Guardian of the Faith and a Hand of the Cause of God.] Often when she was a child, I took her out for walks when her mother was ill and wished to rest. Each time I returned from Brazil I sawsee how she was developing and growing more and more like her beloved mother.
"There were others to whom 1 owed much, as Roy Wilhelm and the Kinneys, for the inspiration that I received from their great love and spirituality."
In 1919 Leonora attended the Bahá'í Convention in New York City at which were revealed the Master's Tablets of the Divine Plan, which she said first gave her the idea of becoming a pioneer.
She immediately wrote to 'Abdu’l-Bahá, telling him of her wish, and received a Tablet in reply dated July 1919. In it the Master expressed the hope that she might become a "spiritual physician," and this hope of His became her highest aspiration.
Meanwhile, a strange coincidence had given her the opportunity to work with an aunt at the New York State Training School for Girls, the same institution for which her mother and grandmother had worked. After acquiring some practice in that kind of social work she took the Civil Service examination, and having made the highest mark in the state, was named Chief Parole Agent.
Early in 1920, while reading 'Abdu’l-Bahá's Tablet to Martha Root in which He commended her teaching work in South America and stressed the importance of its being followed up by others, it suddenly seemed to Leonora that South America might be a definite goal for her. She wrote to Miss Root, expressing that idea, and received an immediate reply in which she was given the utmost encouragement and advised to go to Argentina. With that in mind, Leonora began to study Spanish.
Sometime later Miss Root received a letter from three young Theosophists whom she had met in Santos, Brazil, asking that someone come to Santos to teach them more about the Faith. She wrote again to Leonora, saying she thought it would be best for her to go first to Santos.
While she was making her plans, many of Leonora's friends and relatives began to point out the dangers of venturing into unknown jungles where she knew neither the inhabitants nor the language.
"I felt my resolution weakening," she later recalled, "when some social work which took me to the northern part of New York state gave me the sudden idea to slip up to Montreal.
"May Maxwell was ill, but on hearing of the situation sat upright in bed, and in ringing tones which still vibrate in my memory, said, 'Leonora, what are you waiting for? Go!'
" 'I will take the next boat,' I replied. I had enough money saved to pay for a second class passage down and to live at a hotel for perhaps three weeks. Roy Wilhelm gave me a letter of credit to use in case of emergency, but I hoped not to have to use it. My father, I knew, would send me money to come home, but not a penny to enable me to stay."
So it was that Leonora sailed from New York City on January 15, 1921, aboard the S.S. Vasari bound for Brazil. The people on the ship were quite friendly, and Leonora told everyone about the Faith including a young woman who was returning home to Brazil and who gave Leonora her first lesson in Portuguese.
Upon their arrival in Rio de Janeiro on February 1, the young woman insisted on accompanying Leonora to her hotel and staying there with her. It must be remembered that a young woman of good moral character never traveled alone in those times, not to mention the fact that she didn't speak Portuguese.
Leonora was most grateful for her new friend, and after 12 anxious days of waiting for word from her only contact in Brazil, Sr. Guido Gnocchi, one of the Theosophists who had corresponded with Martha Root, she embarked by boat for Santos.
She was met there by Sr. Gnocchi who helped her find a place to stay, and. in the days that followed helped arrange for her to give some English lessons. He introduced her to his friends, and together they began to work to spread the Message in Santos. She and Sr. Gnocchi translated some prayers and passages from 'Abdu’l-Bahá’s Paris Talks and typed them in Portuguese.
Leonora's teaching brought in little money, and the next two years were quite difficult—she said later there were times when she lived only on bananas. But with courage born of her faith in Bahá'u'lláh and the promises of the Master, she went forward unwaveringly.
It was through Sr. Gnocchi that she was able to give her first public talk in Rio de Janeiro. He had heard that there was to be a national Esperanto Congress in Rio, and although Leonora knew very little Esperanto, she wrote to the president of that group in Rio, asking for the privilege of making a presentation on the Bahá'í Faith in that language!
She said later that while she was eager to speak about the Faith, "I was secretly hoping to be refused, since it was very difficult to travel alone to Rio, not to mention taking part in a national Esperanto Congress and knowing so little of the language. But my request was accepted, though all this seemed greatly beyond my ability.
"So word by word, phrase by phrase, helped by a small English-Esperanto dictionary that I had received from a friend in the States, I planned my talk, for my first public discourse on the Faith!
"Afterward, to my great relief, I learned that they were able to understand my Esperanto and the Message I had brought. The president of the society became quite interested in the Faith, and took me for an interview with the newspaper O Jornal! A good article with photos of 'Abdu’l-Bahá—and me—was published on the front page of its Sunday edition!"
By the end of her second year in Brazil, Leonora, weakened by a bout with typhoid fever, wrote to her family and received enough money from her father to pay for her passage home and a side trip to the Amazon River (the latter at the insistence of her father). Her return voyage took a long time indeed! Wherever the boat stopped she disembarked, and if the atmosphere seemed promising she stayed to teach the Faith. In this way she visited the cities—and the newspapers, Theosophist societies, and Esperanto groups—of Vitória, Aracajú, Maceió, Cabadelo, Natal, Fortaleza, São Luiz and Belém, on her way to Manaus!
In Salvador, Bahia, the American consul asked Leonora to stay at his home for three months and teach English to his children, an offer she accepted. Since her afternoons and evenings were free, she secured the use of a room next door to the Theosophist society where she held firesides every day possible. Among the several young people who accepted the Faith at these meetings was Claudenor Luz who kept the room filled with seekers, and later, during Leonora's absence of more than a year, kept her work alive with much publicity and success.
After leaving Salvador, Leonora stayed for three weeks with a Theosophist family in Recife, speaking several times at the Theosophist lodge there and once before more than 600 people at the Theosophist center. She also had several newspaper interviews that resulted in good articles, often accompanied by photos. Later, in Belem, it was again a Theosophist who opened the way, and it was there that the first of the books she translated into Portuguese, Paris Talks, was published.
During her eight-day trip up the Amazon to Manaus, Leonora made many contacts for the Faith, and in every city where the boat stopped there are now Bahá'í communities that grew from the seeds she planted so many years ago.
After spending about a year in the U.S. Leonora could no longer resist the call of the Faith in South America, and so she returned, together with an eager young Bahá'í, Maud Mickle, and settled in Salvador, Bahia, where she would remain for about the next 15 years.
One of the first to accept the Faith in Salvador was Dona Antonia who kept her home open for Bahá'í meetings every Sunday morning for many years. Leonora was now teaching English, and finally was able to move from her humble surroundings to a part of the city in which she could open an English school. One of her first pupils was a young woman, Margot Glieg (later Margot Worley), who became one of the most ardent and knowledgeable Bahá'ís in that region. Mrs. Worley later served as a member of the Regional National Spiritual Assembly of South America, the Regional Assembly of northern South America, and the National Spiritual Assembly of Brazil before she was named an Auxiliary Board member.
Claudenor Luz remained an active teacher, bringing many interested persons to the meetings, many of whom became Bahá'ís. How happy Leonora must have been before she passed away, knowing that there are in that same region today about 15,000 Bahá'ís!
Soon after the passing of 'Abdu’l-Bahá in 1921, Leonora was in touch with the beloved Guardian, and carefully followed his loving guidance. Shoghi Effendi pointed out to her the relative importance of her activities: first, teaching; second, translating the Writings; and third, social service work (which she longed to do) among the many thousands of impoverished people of the northwestern region of Brazil—if, the Guardian said, there were time for this—and there never was!
Leonora moved from city to city as the need arose, establishing new localities in which the Light of Bahá'u'lláh might shine. While living in Recife she was married to Harold Armstrong, an English engineer, who became a Bahá'í after having lived for several years in the midst of her shining example. Before his death in 1973, and during their marriage of 32 years, he was able to take from her the burden of having to make a living, which enabled her to devote full time to translating the Writings, traveling on behalf of the Faith, and teaching.
Many Bahá'ís from the U.S. visited Leonora in Brazil including May Maxwell and her niece, Jeanne Bolles; Mrs. Nellie French, and Mrs. Loulie Matthews.
After the tragic death of May Maxwell, Leonora and Jeanne Bolles taught together in Sao Paulo, Santos and Rio de Janeiro. It was in Rio that they were able to meet Dr. and Mme. Barasch who had received Martha Root in their home in Austria on many occasions and who, in 1945, helped to form the first Spiritual Assembly of Rio de Janeiro with Leonora and Edward and Mary Bode.
Among the many other visitors to Leonora's home in Brazil were Amelia Collins, Philip Sprague, Rafi and Mildred Mottahedeh, Emeric and Rosemary Sala, Shirley Ward, Beatrice Irwin, Elizabeth Cheney and Virginia Orbison. When writing to "Star of the West" about the progress of the Faith in Brazil, Leonora rarely mentioned herself but always expressed her gratitude to these traveling teachers for their help and inspiration. She never wrote regularly about her own progress except to the Guardian and to her younger sister in California.
To her sister, Alethe, and brother-in-law, Carl Sigurd Högberg, Leonora was a shining example of the endless Source of strength that each of us can call on. Not only did they offer moral support in their letters, they always came through when Leonora had pressing financial needs. It was with great pride that Leonora had brought Alethe with her and Maud Mickle in 1923 for a teaching trip along the Amazon until Alethe had to return to the U.S. and Leonora and Maud to Bahia.
After living in California for more than 30 years, Alethe and her Swedish husband pioneered to Uppsala, Sweden, during the Ten Year Crusade. Mr. Högberg died in Uppsala and is buried there.
After his death, Alethe joined her daughter, Karin, and Karin's husband, Robert Leonard, at their pioneer post in Kodiak, Alaska, where she was able before her death to serve on its first Spiritual Assembly.
In 1973, Leonora was named a Continental Counsellor for South America by the Universal House of Justice. She trained her Auxiliary Board members to teach the great masses of people, and as she carefully chose those Board members for their unique capacities, she helped launch some of Brazil's most outstanding Bahá'í speakers.
Together the Armstrongs bought and sold real estate, and after Mr. Armstrong's death Leonora continued to buy and remodel houses with an uncanny sense of architecture, and always with a profit. She gave many properties to the National Spiritual Assembly as endowments including the land in the lovely hills of Petropolis at a point called "The Finger of God" that is to be the site of the future Bahá'í House of Worship in Brazil.
One of her last projects was to build two houses designed to look as one on a beautiful hillside outside her last home city of Juiz de Fora. The property was to serve as the local Haziratu'1-Quds with the second house for a pioneer/caretaker.
In 1930 Leonora had the bounty of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She had gone to Spain to study the language for her translation work, but while there was struck by scarlet fever. During the long weeks of her recovery, she received a request from the Guardian to come to Haifa. It was with absolute joy that she was able to visit the Holy Places for a brief time, and to experience in person the great strength that she had felt before then only through the loving letters of Shoghi Effendi.
Her great love, and her lasting contribution to the Faith in Brazil, was the many books she translated into Portuguese. Included were almost all of the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh and 'Abdu’l-Bahá, many of those of the beloved Guardian, and many of the more recent books published on behalf of the Universal House of Justice.
Her efforts were untiring. For example, as she supervised construction of the Haziratu'1-Quds in Juiz de Fora, she stood leaning in the doorway, balancing the galley proofs of Selections from the Writings of the Báb on her left arm while making corrections with her right hand.
Having endured several severe ailments during the later years of her life, and having recently undergone surgery for cancer, Leonora passed from this life into the next on October 17, 1980. When the Universal House of Justice learned of her passing, it sent the following message to the heartbroken friends in Brazil:
"Hearts saddened passing distinguished Counsellor Leonora Stirling Armstrong Herald of the Kingdom Beloved Handmaiden 'Abdu’l-Bahá Spiritual Mother of South America. Her sixty years valiant service Cause Brazil shed lustre annals Faith that promising land. Request memorial services Mashriqu'l-Adhkárs Wilmette Panama. Urge all communities Brazil likewise hold services. Offering ardent supplications Most Holy Shrines progress her radiant spirit Abhá Kingdom."
The memorial service in Wilmette was held at 8 o'clock Saturday evening, February 21, 1981. The Temple shone brilliantly outside, but was softly lighted inside and quietly hushed but for the whistling wind in the clerestory. Among those attending were the members of the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly and 10 of her fellow Counsellors for the Americas, many of whom read during the program.
Aunt Leonora never liked having a fuss made over her, but as the last prayer was read, in Portuguese, by Counsellor Sarah Pereira, I felt her loving presence, and thought that she highly approved of us.