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Harold and Florence Fitzner:
Knights of Bahá'u'lláh to Portuguese Timor

by Graham Hassall

published in And the Trees Clapped their Hands: Stories of Bahá'í Pioneers, ed. Clair Vreeland, pages 320-332
Oxford: George Ronald, 1994

Seated in a semi-circle around an open fire on a winter's night, Harold Fitzner and Florence Parry first absorbed the stories told them by Hyde and Clara Dunn. That was in 1927. Miss Bertha Mochan had invited them to the Dunn's apartment at Strangeways Terrace, North Adelaide, which some thirty people attended. The Dunns read prayers, read from the Bahá'í Writings, answered questions, and provided an impressive supper. They told stories of how they had met Abdu'l-Bahá in California in 1912, and how had they responded to the call for pioneers he raised in his "Tablets of the Divine Plan" by moving to Australia in April 1920. Harold and Florence began to attend the Dunn's meetings regularly. Sometimes they put the light out to let the glow of the fire be their light. "Mother" Dunn told them stories which were always thrilling to hear. At times "Father" did not attend these meetings as he had to go to salesman's conferences at his company's office. "Right through the period of our association with dear Mother and Father Dunn we kept in touch with them", Florence later wrote, "When in Adelaide by personal visits and when they were away from Adelaide we always wrote to them regularly". (Florence Fitzner, The Story of the Hands, 65)

Neither Harold nor Florence had been particularly active in their Churches. For a time, Florence had even investigated the Theosophical movement. Her family was Church of England, while Harold's was Catholic - both became extensively involved in the activities of the Adelaide Bahá'í community upon accepting the Faith. The Dunns had come to Adelaide to revive the city's Local Spiritual Assembly. They had established it in 1924, but its members were not able to keep it functioning after the Dunns departed Adelaide.

When the Adelaide Assembly was re-formed, Harold was elected its secretary, a post he was to hold until January 1950. Florence also served on the Local Spiritual Assembly, and assisting its children's classes, and visiting the sick and the elderly as part of the Local Assembly's community program. In 1931 the Fitzners assisted in the planning of Mrs Keith Ransom-Kehler's visit to Adelaide, just as they were to assist with the planning of the visit by Miss Martha Root eight years later.

The couple married on 14 May, 1931, and their only child, David, was born in June 1933. There were not more than one-hundred and fifty Bahá'ís spread throughout Australia and New Zealand when the National Spiritual Assembly was formed in 1934. The great need at that time was for the Bahá'ís to teach their Faith, not only in the cities, but in the numerous surrounding towns. Frequently Florence and Harold drove to small country towns on weekends to make friends where-ever possible, or to find a venue at which to give a public meeting. Meetings usually took place on a Saturday night, and Sundays were spent on the return journey. The Fitzners made regular visits to Port Pirie, Kingston, Kapunda and Nuriootpa. On a typical visit to Kapunda, a town of German immigrants in the Barossa Valley, Harold and Florence would visit the Country Women's Association Office before having lunch and reciting prayers in the grand-stand at the local sports oval. During one trip on which they were accompanied by Clara Dunn, the Fitzner's car rolled three times before coming to rest on its wheels, the engine still working hard. There were no injuries and the weekend proceeded as planned.

About 1941 Harold placed a Bahá'í advertisement in a newspaper which brought him into contact with Elliott Perryman, a lost friend who then lived in a town two-hundred miles from Adelaide. Sometimes accompanied by Collis Featherstone, Harold commenced a regular weekend bus trip to visit Mr Perryman, who became a Bahá'í a few months before his passing. The determination which Harold and Collis Featherstone displayed, in making such efforts to visit one single enquirer about the Bahá'í Teachings, was to constantly recur in both mens' later endeavours for the Cause.

During 1943-45 and 1947-48 Harold served on the National Spiritual Assembly, and for many years he was involved in the production and despatch of the Australasian Bahá'í journal Herald of the South. There was also constant activity at the Fitzner's home at Joslin in Adelaide. Jim Chittleborough, Stella Childs, Avilda Reid and many others first heard about the Bahá'í Faith at the Fitzner's firesides. Harold was often so audacious as to invite to a fireside whoever happened to be seated next to him on the evening tram.

The Adelaide Bahá'í Eric Bowes wrote that Harold Fitzner was "not a fluent speaker in the platform sense of the word", but that he was, nevertheless, a "fluent reasoner and a convinced propounder when it came to impressing his listeners". When speaking of the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh his voice "rang with the note of conviction". Of the night that Harold was invited to speak to the Johannson family about the Bahá'í Faith, Avilda Reid recalled:

"...one cold winter's night there was a knock at the door and there was Mr Fitzner with a beautiful smile on his face, he was illumined. We invited him inside and he sat down and very soon he began to tell us about the Faith. We were very impressed with the message, my mother and I, and during the time that he was telling us of the Faith there was an elderly friend of my father, a Swede who was not the least interested in religion - he was an agnostic - who every now and then would burst into laughter because he thought it was such an amazingly funny story. But we were definitely fascinated by it and during the time that this man made fun of the story Harold took no notice ...his face was illumined and he was giving the message of Bahá'u'lláh." (Avilda Reid, interview, 29 May 1983)

From all accounts Harold and Florence devoted their energies above all else to making known the Bahá'í teachings in and around Adelaide. They became Bahá'ís several years before the National Spiritual Assembly was established, and shared with many of the first Bahá'ís a cautious attitude toward the National Body. Certainly, the delegates who travelled to the first convention in Sydney in May 1934 - as representatives of the Adelaide, Auckland, and Sydney Local Spiritual Assemblies - did so at the express wish of the Guardian, but just as certainly, many were sure, the Local Assemblies, rather than the national body, were more experienced in administering their widespread Bahá'í communities.

Furthermore, because the Bahá'í communities were so thinly scattered not only across the vast Australian continent, but divided as well by the Tasman sea from the Bahá'ís in New Zealand, the unity so much desired by the friends was often forged after reflection on the tempestuous episodes in which they occasionally engaged. During National Convention in 1946, for instance, which Harold attended as one of Adelaide's three delegates, he stood in his place immediately after the election for the new National Spiritual Assembly and accused unidentified Adelaide delegates of "electioneering", clearly a contravention of correct Bahá'í procedure. A virtual "revolt" by four delegates, consisting of heated exchanges on the convention floor, a refusal by the four to accept the incoming National Assembly, and a flurry of telegrams between National Assembly members and Shoghi Effendi, had, apart from the personal animosities which ensued, a somewhat chastening effect on all the Bahá'ís involved. Harold was among these. The incident was one of those rarely reported events through which the struggles in which individual Bahá'ís were engaged were openly displayed. Shoghi Effendi attributed it to the "extreme zeal and immaturity" of the community. The immediate effect of the commotion at this convention was a desire for greater representation at convention the following year. The Guardian agreed, and determined that the number of delegates be increased from nine to nineteen.

Matters once more came to a head in 1949 when the National Assembly decided to divide the original Adelaide Bahá'í community, which comprised all members in the Metropolitan area of the city, into Bahá'í communities based on municipal council divisions. This step had already been taken in North America, and Shoghi Effendi had requested the Australian and New Zealand National Spiritual Assembly to similarly implement the ruling. Adelaide Assembly, on the other hand, stressed to the National Assembly another of the Guardian's pressing instructions, to legally incorporate and strengthen the Local institution.

Tension between the local and national bodies mounted, as many Adelaide believers resisted the National Assembly's directive. Harold and Florence joined the majority in appealing the matter directly to Shoghi Effendi. A jointly signed letter sent in December 1949 argued that the city's tramlines were not laid out in the suburbs in a manner that would have allowed them to move to Bahá'í meetings freely, and that the members, because they would no longer be in an Assembly area, would be deprived of the right to vote for delegates to the annual national convention. Furthermore, they continued,

...the Spiritual Assembly of Adelaide thus comes to an end after twenty years of concerted effort, with nothing to replace it but the vague hope that an Assembly may be formed eventually in the Payneham area, the Adelaide by-laws lapse, the headquarters of the Bahá'ís in Adelaide close down owing to lack of members to support it...(Adelaide LSA to Shoghi Effendi, 14 December 1949)

What pent-up emotions lie behind these grasping arguments? One must surely sympathise with the Adelaide Bahá'ís in their confusion, unable at that time to perceive the vastness of the Bahá'í administrative system, beyond the limitations of their own city boundaries. The Guardian's response was rational, disciplined and visionary, and his instructions conveyed through his secretary, made the position amply clear:

...The Guardian does not consider that local difficulties, such as tramlines ect, can be allowed to stand in the way of a national policy, which is what this change is - a new national policy given your National Spiritual Assembly by the Guardian himself.

Because of the national character of the change involved there was no necessity for your National Spiritual Assembly to consult any local assembly. It is the right and duty of the National Spiritual Assembly to manage the national affairs of the community at large. Likewise, he does not feel that any of your members should feel that they are having their vote taken from them...judging from the many letters he has received from Australia dealing with administrative details, he feels the friends there are attaching too much importance to it. Administration is to facilitate teaching work primarily. it is not something to be over-elaborated and become a source of dissension amongst the believers...he hopes, that now he has frankly pointed out to you what must be done, you will do it not only with minds at rest as to the wisdom of the National Spiritual Assembly's plan, but also with hearts thrilled by the challenge of this opportunity...to build up new assemblies, new groups, and give more of your Adelaide members a chance to become active in both the teaching work and on the future assemblies. (28 December 1949)

The Guardian never wavered in expressing his love and appreciation for the Adelaide Bahá'ís. In a later communication, for instance, he concluded by stating:

...I wish to assure you of my profound appreciation of your exemplary devotion to the interests of our beloved Faith and of the spirit that so powerfully animates you in safeguarding its institutions...(14 November, 1950)

Clearly, the Adelaide Bahá'ís had acted out of genuine concern for the interests of the Faith. How often the Adelaide Bahá'ís who received these letters must have reflected on their implications, and searched their own consciences for the strength to align themselves with the pattern for the Bahá'í community desired by Shoghi Effendi. Some, for whom the test was too severe, withdrew from the community. Others, including Harold and Florence, instantly obeyed.

The announcement by Shoghi Effendi late in 1952 of marvellous plans for a "Ten Year World Crusade" drew the Australasian Bahá'ís out of their insular concerns, and into wider perspective and purpose. As one of the twelve National Assemblies that existed in 1953 and participated in the initial phases of the Decade long plan, the Bahá'ís of Australia and New Zealand were asked to send pioneers to seven "virgin" territories and to six "consolidation" territories. Of the virgin territories four were in the Pacific Islands (the Admiralty, Loyalty, New Hebrides, and Society Islands), while three were in Southeast Asia (Cocos and Mentawei Islands, and Portuguese Timor).

Abdu'l-Bahá had mentioned Timor, Java, Celebes and Sumatra in his message to the Bahá'ís of the United States and Canada dated 11 April, 1916, and Shoghi Effendi had identified among other areas to be opened in the Southeast Asian region Brunei, Mentawei Islands, and Portuguese Timor. All six consolidation territories allotted to the Australian and New Zealand Bahá'ís were in the Pacific region (Bismark Archipelago, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Guinea, New Zealand and Tasmania).

Some details of the plan were already known to the Australian Bahá'ís when they travelled to attend the fourth Inter-continental conference of the Crusade, in New Delhi, India, in October 1953, and Harold and Florence had determined before their arrival at the conference that they would seek to enter Portuguese Timor. They were among the many who made their decisions to pioneer known at the conference.

At this time, only Portuguese could obtain visas for entry to the colony. The granting of entry permits for non-Portuguese citizens was therefore highly unlikely. Yet against such odds, the Fitzners began their campaign to obtain entry. Harold wrote to the Australian consul in Dili on 9 July 1953, only to receive a "discouraging and disappointing" reply in October. He then commenced a lengthy exchange of letters with the Australian consul and with the Department of External Affairs before departing for New Delhi. The campaign for entry continued in India, where Harold and Florence were told when they visited the Portuguese Consulate in Bombay that their application could only proceed when lodged in Australia.

They were visited, following their return to Adelaide, by Australian security officers who were curious to know why an Australian couple, upon the age of their retirement, were so desperately attempting to gain entry to a poor, remote, neglected and all but forgotten Portuguese-speaking colony. Shoghi Effendi advised that if Timor seemed impenetrable, they should consider pioneering to one of the other goals. Already, Irene Jackson had attempted to enter Portuguese Timor, and having found it impossible to do so, had moved to Fiji. Harold did write letters of enquiry to the government officials for Cocos Island, Loyalty Islands and even the Chagos Islands, but none of these met with success.

Providentially, the Australian Department of External Affairs sent an application direct to the Governor of Timor in November, and just as miraculously, the authorities finally granted visas for temporary residence. Permission to enter Portuguese Timor had at last been obtained. Chief clerk at the North British Mercantile Insurance Company, Harold explained to his manager that he wished to retire early, so as to move as soon as possible to Timor. Although somewhat bewildered at this, the company consented, despite his being five years short of eligibility to receive his full pension, it agreed to pay 90% of his present salary from the date of his retirement, 21 March 1954. Harold also resigned from the Asian Teaching Committee, which had been established at the commencement of the Ten Year Crusade by the Australian and New Zealand National Spiritual Assembly to co-ordinate the movement of pioneers to the goals in Asia and the Pacific.

When informed that permission to enter Portuguese Timor had been granted, Shoghi Effendi wrote to Harold and Florence through his secretary:

Dear friends, your letter of May 25th has been received by the beloved Guardian...He is deeply moved by the spirit of devotion which animates you both in your longing to arise and serve at this time. We know that the state of the heart of the believer attracts the divine outpouring and the granting of the visa to Mr Fitzner to enter Portuguese Timor, after so much effort, is clearly an evidence of the working of this great spiritual law. He hopes that soon Mr Fitzner will be able to get firmly established in Timor, and that Mrs Fitzner will be able to go out and join him there...he will ardently pray for your services...

Harold spent the remainder of March combing Adelaide's libraries for information on his adopted land. In one, he asked about translations into "aboriginal languages", only to be told that there was no point in making such translations, since Aboriginal races were dying out, and in twenty years time would be extinct. Influenced by this advice he wrote to Collis Featherstone that it was thus "foolish to worry about translations" for the Timorese, adding "many of the tribes in New Guinea are also dying out".

The Australian Bahá'ís knew so little about the non-Western and truly indigenous peoples living in their region. Ironically, it was they, rather than the tribal peoples, who had most recently migrated. The families of both Florence and Harold came from Europe. When she was six years old, in 1912, Florence's whole family had moved to Australia from Wrexham, Wales. After her schooling at Port Pirie, Florence boarded in Adelaide while she trained in dress making, designing and needlework at the South Australian Teachers College. She subsequently taught these crafts at a variety of schools in and around Adelaide, including the School of Mines (now an Institute of Technology), the Adelaide Teachers College, and the Presbyterian Girls School. Harold's grandparents and their ten children had arrived in Australia from Upper Silesia in 1855. His father Ernest travelled through the South Australian towns of Eununda, Mildura, Morgan and Sutherlands, earning his living as a saddler. Harold, one of four children, was born in Eununda in November, 1892.

With preparations complete Harold left Adelaide on 4 April by train for Perth. He stayed for five days there with the Fitzner's long-time friend Mrs Miller, who had become a Bahá'í during Clara and Hyde Dunn's first visit to the capital of the Western state in 1924. Harold's ship embarked, first for Singapore and then Jakarta, where he was met by Persian Bahá'ís, including Mr Payman, who had already been in Indonesia four years. A new cultural world had now been entered.

After a few days spent with the Bahá'í friends in Jakarta, Harold travelled by train to Surraleya, then by plane to Kupang, the capital of Indonesian Timor. On ...he flew to his final destination, Dili. Florence remained in Adelaide until the end of the school year, and arrived in October. She was teaching at Nailsworth Girls Central School, and did not want to depart her students in the middle of their final school term. A Portuguese Bahá'í, Jose Marques, arrived from Lisbon on 28 July 1954, and all three were named Knights of Bahá'u'lláh. One of more than one hundred remote lands listed by Shoghi Effendi as "virgin territories" had now been opened to the word of Bahá'u'lláh. But arrival marked merely the introductory phase to a period of serious emotional, spiritual and material struggle.

Timor was at the time divided almost equally into two parts, half belonging to Indonesia, the other half being a Portuguese Overseas Province, covering 18,900 square kilometres, and supporting a population of approximately half a million people. Most were Timorese, but there were also Malays, Indonesians, some 8-12,000 Chinese, 60,000 "misturas" (mixed race), 2,000 Portuguese, 200 Arabs, and three Australians. Later the Fitzners discovered that the leaders of the Arab community were interested in hearing about the Bahá'í Faith (although no report of such a meeting has been preserved). Harold explored his new environment for two weeks before filing his first report to the Asian Teaching Committee:

I have been in Dili over two weeks, and I have been able to survey the position. The town itself is not very big, two long streets, one facing the sea and harbour and the other at rear. The first street has business places - customs and administration buildings ...the second street has Chinese and Portuguese shops and dwellings... everything is very dear...a small cake of lux soap is 1/5...biscuits 32/- for 4 and 1/2 lb tin - hotel is two pounds per day ...accommodation is well nigh impossible for Europeans. I have the only room available at the hotel, about the size of one of our Australian bathrooms. The food is Portuguese, very oily, buffalo and goat's meat, and fish (which is plentiful) but does not seem to have any taste... (to the Asian Teaching Committee 16 July 1954.)

The quality and cost of housing were also noted: a four or five room plaster house cost about 1,000 to 1,500 pounds, and a brick house close to 5,000 pounds. Harold had travelled to the interior of the island by road, and reported roads so rough that he felt upon his return "like jelly all pounded up". He felt that employment prospects were impossible, unless he learnt to speak Portuguese, or established a business of his own.

Very few residents of Dili spoke English. There were one or two Dutchmen, and two Germans with whom Harold conversed in "broken english", while there were a few Portuguese present on temporary visas who spoke English more fluently, but he reported to the ATC that he had "not met one Chinaman yet" who could speak English, adding that they "all talk in Chinese and some Malayan". The Timorese themselves Harold found to be "very friendly", but he evidently did not initially hold them in high regard, reporting

...they are lazy and probably thieve when they get an opportunity. We will have to plan carefully to get the message to them, as they only speak a little Portuguese and their own Timorese language. (16 July 1954)

Most were Catholic. As 80% of the Timorese lived in hamlets spread across the territory, secluded from Dili and other towns, the Fitzners indeed found that it was difficult in later years to contact the Timorese. As well as being the predominant religion amongst the people, Catholicism had been the official religion of the Territory since the coming of the Portuguese. In 1940 a concordat had been signed between Portugal and the Vatican, whereby Catholicism became institutionalised. By some accounts, the administration was by the 1950s,

...bureaucratic and undynamic, most of its officials accepting uncritically the dubious social and political goals of the Salazar regime...in a sense, the state perceived the central role of the church as giving a moral legitimacy to Portugal's revamped colonial order and its historic 'civilising mission'. (J.Dunn)

Yet the church held its influence within the administration and within the education system. The social pressures on the population were sufficient, the Fitzners felt, that they would fear losing their jobs were they to become Bahá'ís. The Catholic Bishop was a member of the ruling cabinet, and Portuguese officials, who had no experience of other religions, viewed the Fitzners with "distrust and opposition". Harold wrote in July:

The Police asked my religion and I told them Bahá'í but they could not understand. I then explained we believe in all Faiths, ect, but he wrote down Protestant-Bahá'í. They only know two religions, Catholic and Protestant. I will go carefully and keep you posted... (2 July 1954)

It was about this time that Harold spent a night in jail. There had been much confusion over the status of the Portuguese pioneer Jose Marques, who, since he could not obtain a job in the period after arriving in Dili, had appealed to the Australian National Spiritual Assembly to assist him financially. The presence of a continental Portuguese in Dili, having no employment, but receiving regular payment from Australia, drew the suspicion of Timorese authorities on both Marques and Fitzner. It was all a "ghastly mistake", Florence wrote to the Featherstones in November, not long after her arrival, "and of course Harold and I are his friends so we are classed together. We have heard that they want us to go back to Australia". (29 November 1954)

About August 1955 the authorities intensified their investigations. They insisted that Marques leave the Territory, and when he cabled the Bahá'í World Centre for advice they intercepted the message, searched his accommodation, seized his Bahá'í books, and interviewed Harold for four hours. The situation was delicate. By October Harold was expecting news of their deportation, and his reports to the Asian Teaching Committee were filled with requests to find other Bahá'ís ready to replace them until they could re-enter. The Fitzners' application for permanent residence was denied in November and Harold, feeling his worst fears had been confirmed, commenced plans to leave Dili on a Royal Australian Airforce Flight to Darwin the following January.

Then quite unexpectedly, news came in December 1955 that they could stay, after no less a personage than the Bishop of Timor, Jaime Guolard, intervened to prevent their deportation. By chance, Bishop Jaime had viewed the references that Florence was carrying detailing her teaching experience in Adelaide, and had recognised on one the hand-writing of the mother-superior of Loretta Convent, whom he had met while in Adelaide during the second world war.

But permission to stay, obtained with the good Bishop's kindness, was accompanied by the strictest of conditions: the Bahá'ís had to promise the Governor, Colonel Themuda Barata, that they would not contact the Timorese. The pioneers interpreted the regulations placed upon them to mean that no active prosletyzing was allowed, such as going into villages to gather people together to tell them about the Bahá'í Faith, but that they were still permitted to invite into their own home friends who, should they enquire about matters of religion, they were at liberty to inform of the Bahá'í teachings. The Fitzner's apparent failure to tour amongst the villages in later years, despite Shoghi Effendi's directive to all Crusade pioneers to focus their efforts to the greatest extent possible on the teaching of "the natives of the virgin areas where they have settled" may have resulted from this initial prohibition.

Only after months of uncertainty did the Fitzners learn details of a rift between the Governor of the Colony, who displayed friendliness toward them, and the administration in Lisbon, which had been pressing for their expulsion. With this final obstacle removed, they were finally able to concentrate their energies on settling in, establishing an income, and building a Timorese Bahá'í community. Marques was also permitted to stay. By February 1956 he had obtained a government job. In June 1957 he married Miss Menezer, and in 1958 moved to Turascai, about 100 miles from Dili.

When Florence arrived she and Harold established English-language instruction classes. By April 1955 there were nine students learning english. They came to the Fitzner's house in the mornings, between 8am-12pm, and after a siesta, from 2pm-5pm and again 6pm-8pm. The hours were long, but rewarding. Harold wrote of their daily routine:

In between lessons we have callers, who wish to consult us - Bahá'í friends, and others, some whom are sick and want our prayers, or want food or money, or assistance in arranging business agencies, or help to fill in forms for visas for Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore ect. - sometimes we have tourists who pop in for tea - all these friends are interested in our work, and want to know about Bahá'í - weekends are devoted to Bahá'í work, calling on friends, the Saturday evening firesides, Sunday morning youth classes, ect., writing letters, which would now seem to come from all over the world. We have many Bahá'í friends who have migrated to other countries, and quite a number of pupils who are now living in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Australia, Formosa, and even in the U.S.A. (How we Try, 4)

Their students also travelled as widely as Mozambique and Angola, and in 1958 two former students were working as nurses in Darwin and in Brisbane.

When the Fitzners arrived there were just 39 primary schools in the colony, of which 33 were Catholic. Until 1962 there were only Catholic schools in the island's interior. By the 1960s there were only 10,000 students obtaining primary education, and there was just one high school, for 200 students. A technical school was first established in Dili in 1965, and an agricultural school was opened in Bacau in 1966.

A legislative Assembly was only established in the territory in 1963, and not until 1971 were 10 of its members elected, rather than appointed. The first reasonable wharf was not constructed in Dili until 1964. The first sealed airstrip, capable of landing 707's, was completed in 1963, at about the same time that major roads were first sealed. Despite Portuguese Timor's underdeveloped political, social and economic institutions, however, Harold and Florence interpreted their surroundingss rather idyllically.

But Timorese society was very different to Australian society, and it was difficult to teach the Timorese about the Bahá'í Faith. Harold commented that they were dealing with "people who are in a semi-civilised state, with in most cases no education, and a very limited vocabulary, even in their own tongue". He felt that Bahá'í pamphlets were best prepared "almost in kindergarten language". "Timor is really a beautiful island", Florence wrote at one time,

and indeed at the present time one could hardly imagine a more peaceful, law-abiding country - all races, classes and creeds mingle together in good fellowship. Drunkenness is rare, fighting hardly ever occurs, and theft is also a rarity. Food sometimes is difficult, on account of short supplies, but a lot of tinned goods are being imported from Singapore, Hong Kong, and Australia - the native people seem to make up shortages with their home grown native food - beans, mandiola, vegetables, ect... (How we try to teach, 2)

To Florence, Timor was "God's island". The people were "living in a very primitive way - growing grain and fruit ect, for their daily needs and meeting once a week (usually on Sundays) at the local market to sell or barter their wares". (How we try, 6) Yet Timor was an island of suffering. After centuries of colonial domination, the Timorese attacked the Portuguese garrison in 1912 and all but wiped it out. When the Portuguese recovered and subdued the Timorese they had completely conquered the people for the first time since landing in the 1520s. Some inroads were made by the Europeans when various chiefs converted to Catholicism in the seventeenth century, but in the rugged interior groups such as the Belunese maintained their resistance.

During the second world war 400 Australian soldiers (the "Sparrow force") contested possession of Timor with 11,000 Japanese troops. By September 1945 the battle had claimed over 60,000 Timorese lives. The Portuguese had re-established control in 1950, just four years before the Fitzner's arrival. In that brief and turbulent period Indonesian nationalists had liberated their archipelago from Dutch colonial masters, and the colonial empires in Africa and Asia began to crumble before Nationalist movements.

Ironically, it was within the institution of the Catholic church that revolution was hatched in Portuguese Timor. The Jesuit training college at Siobada, and the seminary at Dare, Nossa Senhora de Fatima - the highest institutions of learning in the colony - were the centres of criticism of the colonial system and of social conditions in the colony, and were responsible for educating much of the Fretelin leadership which was to later struggle in vain to establish an independent state. SEARA, a Catholic newspaper established in the 1960s, was closed down by the administration in 1973 because of the critical manner in which it pursued such topics as traditional marriage law, censorship laws, the debate on scientific humanism and Christianity, the morality of violence, and principles of education. The Portuguese empire was crumbling: India claimed Goa in 1961; in 1963 armed struggle for independence began in Guinea and Cape Verde; and in 1964 the Mozambique Liberation Front and Fretelin were both established. A similar fate was overtaking "idyllic" Timor. On 7 June 1959 an anti-Portuguese group, Permesta revolted at Vatolari on the island's south coast, only to be crushed, and the survivors banished to Angola. Activities of the secret police (PIDE - policia Internacional de Defense Do Estado), although described as "poorly informed, clumsy and generally ineffective" (Dunn, 32) began to intimidate the population.

Within this growing turmoil, however, Harold and Florence methodically consolidated their position. Although quite isolated from other Bahá'í communities physically, they received communications from Bahá'ís in diverse places. The Honolulu and Lisbon Local Spiritual Assemblies, Bob Meissler of Sao Paulo in Brazil, and Grace Saunders, each wrote letters; Bill Motteram sent books and literature from Adelaide; Carl Scherer supplied literature in Portuguese from Macau; the Adelaide based Asian Teaching Committee corresponded frequently, and supplied copies of the U.S. Bahá'í News, Geneva News, as well as their own production Koala News; while the North American Asian Teaching Committee sent copies of its publication Newsgram. Comfort came also from the Muhajirs, a Persian couple at that time pioneering in somewhat similar conditions elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago, the Mentawei Islands.

In addition to all this moral support from around the world, the Fitzners relied on the encouragement given by Shoghi Effendi, architect of the Crusade. One letter of 1955 concluded:

May the Almighty guide every step you take, and fulfill every desire you cherish, for the promotion of His Faith - assuring you of my deep and loving appreciation of your high endeavours and historic services, and of my fervent prayers for your success in the days to come. The light of your spiritual teaching will bring the far distant areas close together, because it will create a bond of unity which knows no separation. The persecutions in Persia seem to have opened new doors of spiritual confirmation - and if the friends will seize their opportunity they will be surprised at the results they can now achieve. Now is the appointed hour for the spread of the Faith throughout the world.

Another letter from Shoghi Effendi explained:

The beloved Guardian has deeply touched by these contributions, as they link the Faith of Timor with the Holy Land. He will pray fervently for each and every one and for the success of their labours, that the seeds they sow will grow, and bear rich harvest!

You should weary not in well doing but continue on, steadfast, feeling assured of the blessings of Bahá'u'lláh.

The environment in which the Fitzner's now lived was far from peaceful. Yet despite the many forms of restriction and the growing unrest in the colony, the Bahá'í community slowly grew. In March 1955 Miss Irene Nobae De Melo Benaox, a young Portuguese nurse aged 24, was the first in the colony to embrace the Cause, having studied it for eight months. She later married the Administrator of Dili. Other declarations included Nevis, a solicitor and director of the Economic Department in Dili, in April 1957. In that year the Bahá'ís of Portuguese Timor joined the Bahá'ís of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaya, Sarawak, the Philippines and Indonesia, as communities under the guidance and direction of the Regional Spiritual Assembly of Southeast Asia. In October a Chinese youth, Young Kie Kong joined the community.

Other declarations quickly followed. By February 1958 there were eleven adults and seven youth in the community, allowing the first Local Spiritual Assembly to be formed in Dili at Ridvan (21 April) 1958. A photo of the five men and four women Assembly members appeared in The Bahá'í World 1954-63 (p1031), and in Bahá'í News for May 1959 (p8). Additional declarations in 1958 included twenty-two year old Charlie Chung and Portuguese army sergeant Inacio Berrego (October), and Jose Guimaraes (November). Declarations in 1959 included Francisco Alves, and Mr and Mrs Ornelas (July). The latter couple became Bahá'ís following an incident in which Harold found the husband sick and unable to moved, prayed for his health, and witnessed is immediate recovery. In 1959 Young Kie Kong moved to Manatutu, thus opening up a third Bahá'í centre.

Those who became Bahá'ís endured misunderstandings and intolerance just as the Fitzners did. In July 1959, for instance, Harold report to the Asian Teaching Committee that one of the Portuguese Bahá'ís had come to a meeting "very distressed and said he was being persecuted by his chief because he was a Bahá'í; he was given work to do, ect". (22 July 1959) Azevido, the first Bahá'í in the Dili Hills, was harassed and questioned by the police, and died the following day. (Jorgic,4) His widow was sick, without a pension, and the family, through the combination of poverty and social duress, withdrew from active participation in the Bahá'í community. By August 1966 there were 57 Bahá'ís in Portuguese Timor, with a further two memberships pending. There were 20 Chinese, 23 Portuguese, 12 "misturas", and two full-blood Timorese. Two additional pioneers arrived from Portugal and moved to rural goal areas. Rodriga Periera managed a coffee plantation at Ermera, while John Lopez became a cattle farmer at Suai. Bahá'ís were now to be found at Dili, De Cusse, Babohara, Baucau, Cova Lima, Ermera and Suai. Harold acted as English-language secretary, and Laoo De Silva as Portuguese-language secretary.

With the Bahá'í community expanding, the need for a local Haziratu'l-Quds became increasingly evident. The Fitzners approached the Australian National Spiritual Assembly early in 1959 for assistance in purchasing a suitable house in Dili, which cost equivalent of 1,500 pounds. They had heard that funds to assist the various pioneers had been pledged at the 1957 National Convention in Australia, but upon enquiring about it, found that most had already been earmarked to assist Bertha Dobbins establish a school in Port Vila in the New Hebrides. With no alternative open to them, they mortgaged their own house to raise sufficient capital, while generous Australian Bahá'ís also assisted with contributions.

In 1962, with some income finally saved, Harold and Florence were able to leave the one-bedroom dwelling that had been their home for six years, for a larger home built to accommodate their specific needs: lounge and dining rooms, three bedrooms and three bathrooms, and a "school-room" in place of a garage. Subsequent additions included another garage, a separate class-room for Florence, and a four-roomed cottage at the rear for the "house-boys". In addition to English-language instruction, Harold commenced teaching accountancy. One tourist later published a travelogue of his experience in Portuguese Timor, describing Harold as "perhaps one of the most extraordinary men" he had ever met. (Vondra, Timor Journey, 95,98)

In 1966 Goro Jorgic, a member of the Australian National Spiritual Assembly, visited the Fitzners and the Bahá'í community in Dili, and subsequently wrote about the procession of teachers, doctors, administrators, professionals and even soldiers who passed through Harold and Florence's house. "The secretary of the Indonesian consulate and his wife revealed to me the similarity of the principles of Bahá'u'lláh to Indonesian official five principles", Jorgic subsequently wrote, adding "the Governor expressed the appreciation for English teaching services rendered by Mr and Mrs Fitzner...the wife of one of the directors of the public service upon study of English with the Fitzners eventually obtained a Cambridge certificate, enabling her to teach at Mozambique High School in Africa".

The Fitzners returned to Australia on several occasions, but did not attend the important Bahá'í gatherings in Southeast Asia. They were in Australia for dental and medical attention in October-December 1956 and were unable to obtain visas to enter Indonesia to attend the Jakarta conference. In 1958 they were unable to attend the Djakarta conference due to Harold's illness. In any case, the Consul indicated to them that he would not issue a visa for their travel, so as to "protect" them from anti-Bahá'í Indonesian authorities (the Bahá'ís were free to organise activities in Indonesia at that time, but Bahá'í institutions were later banned by President Sukarno under a ruling that affected several religions simultaneouly. The ban continues to the present time).

Most visits to Australia were due to Harold's illness. In 1957 was rushed to hospital in Darwin after collapsing in Dili, and he collapsed once more in a Darwin street. But these traumas did not keep him from his teaching activities: the following month he held conversations about religion with Rev. Pearce of the United Church, and forwarded to the Asian Teaching committee the address of George Ellis from the remote and accurately named Northern Territory settlement, Rum Jungle. Harold was suffering headaches and splitting blood, and attributed this to a malaria attack, but nine days of observation in hospital in Darwin did not find the cause. He left hospital and, determined to do some additional effective teaching, decided to advertise in a local paper. The advert appeared the following day, listing the twelve principles, and attracted three responses, including Sergeant Ted Holmes, who became a Bahá'í, and later introduced Ruth Sinclair to the community. The Fitzners wrote of their activities to the Guardian, who replied late in 1957:

The teaching work which was done in Darwin during the period of illness indicates the manner in which the Cause can be served and victories won, whether they are weak, whether they are young, whether they are old. What is necessary is for the heart to be turned toward the Holy Spirit and the proper attitude of dedication and conservation, raise the Call of the Kingdom then there will be many listeners, and many who will receive eternal life. He knows that you will win many victories for the Faith in that far off but most important territory.

Harold and Florence were once more in Darwin for a week in March 1958, during which time they contacted some of Frank Saunders' friends in Alice Springs. At this time Ruth Sinclair declared. One afternoon the Fitzners visited Sergeant McLeod, who had became a Bahá'í in Queensland through meeting Jim Heggie shortly after the second world war. Other travels included a visit by Florence to Wanganui in New Zealand in 1959. She also attended the London World Congress in 1963.

Harold died on 3 February 1969. He had been bedridden with cancer of the stomach for six months. He told Florence he wished to be buried on a hill, and was thus buried in the Chinese cemetery overlooking Dili the morning after his passing. A small group of friends, and the Australian consul in Dili, Max Berman, attended. Florence decided to stay in Dili. She continued to work 8am-7pm. There were changes, however. Harold's pension ceased at his death. Florence also had to endure the loss of status that came to widows in Timorese society. In the eyes of some Timorese students, it was no longer necessary to pay their tuition fees.

When Florence went on pilgrimage and then to Australia for a period of rest in 1947, a revolution occurred in Portugal. The war in Angola, Guinea and Mozambique had come to absorb 50% of Portugal's budget, and on 25 April, unwilling to continue the struggle, the Portugese Armed Forces overthrew the Caetano Regime in Lisbon. Timor itself then became politically unstable, as some Timorese wished for continued Portuguese rule and some for independence. Indonesia invaded, and after a brief one-sided war against the independence fighters, incorporated the former Portuguese colony as part of Indonesia. Florence lost a 13 room house, and her new Toyota vehicle. Unable to return to Dili, she settled in Unley, South Australia. In 1978 she travelled once more, to New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa, and died two years later, on 7 September 1980.

With the revolution in Portugal and subsequent invasion of Portuguese Timor by Indonesia its Bahá'í community dissolved. Some members felt the colony offered them no future, and had emigrated, in the 1960s, to Australia. Charles Chung, Joao Evangel Periara and Carlos and Manuela Rego moved to Sydney. Others moved to Darwin, and to Mount Isa in Queensland. Jose Marques moved his family to South Australia. Presumably, other Bahá'ís returned to Portugal, while yet others remain in Timor. By coming under Indonesian law, the small Bahá'í community in Portuguese Timor became illegal, and of necessity ceased to exist. A generation of Bahá'ís in Australia and Southeast Asia are aware of Harold and Florence Fitzner and of the sacrifices they bore in order to take the call of Bahá'u'lláh to Portuguest Timor. But who can know the measure by which their suffering and sacrifice can be assessed?

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