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Yerrinbool Bahá'í School and the Australian Bahá'í Community

by Fazel Naghdy

published in 75 Years of the Bahá'í Faith in Australasia
Rosebery: Association for Baha'i Studies Australia, 1996
Introduction

Yerrinbool Bahá'í School is located in the bushland, in the small village of Yerrinbool near Mittagong, NSW. It is about one and half hours drive from Sydney along the Hume highway. This Institution was officially opened in May 1937 as a property intended to hold "Bahá'í summer schools." One hundred delegates and observers attending the national Bahá'í convention in Sydney were present at the opening ceremony. The original property had been purchased by Mariette and Stanley W. Bolton.

Since its foundation the Yerrinbool Bahá'í School has evolved significantly in many aspects including size, accommodation, role in the community and function. This evolution has been in parallel, with and proportional to the growth and maturation of the Australian Bahá'í community.

This paper aims to review the development of the school and identify future directions for growth. The paper will attempt to:

  • Illustrate the role of Yerrinbool Bahá'í School in the development of the Australian Bahá'í Community.
  • Highlight the Vision of the Guardian for the School.
  • Review the evolution of the school and identify various stages of its growth.
  • Outline the strategic plan set for the school towards the year 2000 and beyond.

Support of the Guardian

A unique historical and spiritual feature of Yerrinbool Bahá'í School has been its links with Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith. Since its inception, the development of the school and its progress were closely observed, guided and encouraged by the Guardian. This association has not only directed the school through its initial stages of growth, but has provided a clear vision and direction for the development of the school in the future. The Guardian welcomed the news of the formation of the Australia's first summer school, and urged the Bahá'ís, in a letter addressed to Hyde Dunn in 1937 "to help by every means in their power to further the interests of that institution." If maintained and developed, Shoghi Effendi pointed out, it would be "of invaluable teaching help to the Cause..."

The first summer school was organised by a committee appointed by Sydney local assembly and was held from 8-23 January of 1938. At that time there was no building on the property, hence the meetings were held in the local community hall and participants were billeted with various Yerrinbool residents.

In a letter written on his behalf, the Guardian, showering the organisers of the summer school with his love and praise, reflected on his vision for the school which was just born:

"It is his fervent hope, and his heart's ardent prayer that you may continue extending support to this first Bahá'ís Summer School in Australia and New Zealand, so that it may develop and flourish and become a centre for intense and nation-wide teaching activity throughout that land. The friends should realise that it is their responsibility to maintain, nay assist in continually developing the scope of this vital national enterprise." (Letter of the Guardian to Mr. Bolton in 1937)

At the end of the letter, he added with his own hand writing:

Dear and valued co-worker:

I am so cheered and heartened by your most welcome message. I feel deeply grateful to, and proud of, you and your valiant co-workers for this notable and historic step you have taken. Future generations will befittingly extol the work you have so nobly and splendidly initiated. I wish to congratulate you from the very depths of my heart.

    Affectionately and gratefully
    Shoghi

According to the Guardian, Yerrinbool School was a "National Institution" and hence it was essential that it be managed by a National Committee. In his letter of 1943, he advised the National Spiritual Assembly to shift the responsibility of managing the school from a local to a national committee. He repeatedly emphasised this view in his numerous communications on this matter including:

  • 18 April 1942 to NSA of Australia & New Zealand
  • 22 January 1944 to Mrs. Bolton
  • 10 December 1944 to Mr. Bolton
  • 12 December 1944 to NSA of Australia & New Zealand
  • 13 May 1945 to NSA of Australia & New Zealand

The early Australian Bahá'í Community consisted of a handful of believers scattered around this vast continent. If one of the aims of the Guardian in supporting Yerrinbool school was to create a national focal point in order to expedite the development a national community, then he succeeded.

The dawn breakers of the Faith in Australasia were closely associated with Yerrinbool Bahá'í School and the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Australia and New Zealand was itself born very close to Yerrinbool School.

The summer schools at Yerrinbool soon became an annual event where Bahá'ís from different parts of Australia took the trouble to attend. Those who could not attend physically used to send telegrams and participate with heart and soul.

In 1941, the Guardian, in response to the introduction of the first winter school, unveiled further his vision for the school:

He was delighted to hear of the increased work of the Yerrinbool School and that you have inaugurated a winter session successfully. This no doubt greatly strengthens the Cause in Australia and is a big step towards its fulfillment of the ideal state for all these Bahá'í schools, which, if of course, to become gradually regular Bahá'í educational institutes, open a large part of the year. (Letter of the Guardian to Mrs. Bolton 30 July 1941)

Academic Evolution of the School

From then on the evolution of the school began. Until 1959, summer and winter schools were the major events taking place at the school. The two hands of the Cause Mr. Collis Featherstone and Clara Dunn were among the regular attenders of summer schools. The programs of the school reflected the needs and challenges the community was faced with. Also up to the passing of the Guardian, summer schools were an occasion for the study of his major letters to the Bahá'í world.

In 1960 for the first time a number of educational sessions for children were included in the school. In 1963 and 1964, the first two children's camps were held.

After the Youth convention in 1969, a youth conference was held at Yerrinbool in 1970. From then on the conference pioneered to different cities every year and is still being held.

The year 1973 saw the emergence of intensive deepening institutes at Yerrinbool. A youth deepening institute also started in 1975. This is still an annual event in the calendar of Yerrinbool school.

Among the goals of the Seven Year plan was a call for greater use of the Yerrinbool School. The auxiliary Board Members initiated annual institutes for assistants around 1983. The studies conferences were also held in Yerrinbool between 1982-84. Following the formation of the Association for Bahá'í Studies, the ABS conference was held once more at Yerrinbool in 1985. It then moved out to various universities.

Interaction Between the School and Community

From the brief review carried out so far it can be concluded that the evolution of the school has been organic, concurrent and closely correlated with the evolution of the Australian Bahá'í Community. This connection has been interactive, dynamic, and systematic but not accidental.

The school has had a key role in:

  • Creating a National bond and Identity
  • Generating Love and Unity
  • Spiritual Empowerment
  • Deepening and Training
  • Reflecting growth
  • Providing a Common Goal of Development for Early Bahá'ís
  • Providing a Medium for Experimentation
  • Encouraging and stimulating initiatives
  • Nurturing initiatives

The Australian Bahá'í Community is facing new challenges as we approach the end of the century. There is a great need for well-trained and capable individuals to take up the responsibilities and carry out the tasks at hand. Expansion of the community is vital and cannot be achieved without spiritually empowered individuals and experienced teachers. The Bahá'í community is developing a higher profile in the wider community and this requires more individuals who can link the teachings of the Faith with the contemporary social issues. The School now should respond to these challenges and provide solutions while following its main goal envisioned for such institutions in the Bahá'í Faith.

In a letter written to NSA of US and Canada, the Guardian wrote:

... as a centre for the preparation and training of prospective teachers and pioneers, and for the commingling and fellowship of various elements in the Bahá'í community.... (and) its development into that ideal Bahá'í University of the future, which should be the aim of every existing Bahá'í summer school to establish in the fullness of time. (29 July 1939 to NSA of US and Canada)

Combining such vision with the statements made by the Guardian on the Yerrinbool Bahá'í School, considering the needs of the community and challenges facing it and taking into account the opportunities that new technology offers, provides a framework to plan for the future development of the Yerrinbool Bahá'í School.

School in the Year 2000 and Beyond

The Mission Statement defining the function of the school in coming decades reads:

The Yerrinbool Bahá'í School will provide a range of services and technologies to facilitate the study of the Faith, spiritual empowerment of the individuals and teaching of the Faith, and where possible, will make access to these services independent of the School Property.

This vision statement places the Yerrinbool School in the context of an Institution independent from the physical entity of the school. The buildings will, however, play a major role in fulfilling this mission.

Based on this statement, two major goals have been defined for the school:

  1. To develop YBS as a national centre for systematic study of the Faith
  2. To develop YBS as a national centre for developing the human resources and methodologies needed for teaching in Australia and the South Pacific.

In order to facilitate the achievement of the major goals, three minor goals have also been defined:

  1. Enhancing the effectiveness of the management structure of the school.
  2. Systematic development of the YBS property.
  3. Systematic development and marketing of YBS as a Convention Centre.

In designing these goals the self-sufficiency of the school in terms of human resources and finances has been an important factor.

In a vast country such as Australia, the school can play its role as a national institution when it provides an open learning educational system in addition to its conventional residential programs. Technology now is right to exploit and implement this approach. Initial investigation has started to explore the feasibility of using methodologies such as distance learning, computer assisted learning and multi-media.

There are also plans in hand to provide a comprehensive electronic library in addition to the existing conventional library. There will be also access to other Bahá'í and non-Bahá'í resources available on the Internet and world wide web from the school. There will also be a Bulletin Board encompassing all the distance learning students of the school. This will be a forum for tutoring of the students by faculty members and group work and discussion.

The services of the school, such as electronic library, various computer-based educational courses, papers etc, will be available on-line through remote access.

The good news is that these plans are not all words on paper. Work has already started. On the educational side a number of distance learning programs have already started and others are on the drawing board.

The Three Year Certificate Program in Bahá'í Studies started in 1994 in collaboration with Association for Bahá'í Studies Australia. This is targeted at youth and adults over 18 years of age. The program is mainly distance learning with 10 days residential school for each year. The program has had its first intake this year and there are currently 31 students enrolled in this program.

The other distance learning program is Education for Peace. This program has been designed for Junior Youth of 14-16 years of age. The program aims to assist junior youth to become peace makers. The design is based on the message of the Universal House of Justice, "The promise of World Peace." It lasts for two years mainly as a distance learning program with one week residential school each year. The program has had its second intake this year and there are currently 21 students in the second year and 28 students in the first year.

The Hyde Dunn Teaching Institute is another program which is being developed in collaboration with National Bahá'í Teaching committee.

This institute aims at:

  • spiritual enrichment of the human resources needed for sustained, large scale expansion of the Faith in Australia and
  • facilitating the systematic planning of teaching projects and involving the participants in the teaching institute.

Property Development

The property itself has gone through a great deal of evolution. The total size of the land is 16 acres made up of:

  • 3.5 Acres donated by the Boltons in 1936
  • A block of land donated by Albert Styles in 1949
  • 9 Acres donated by Miss Thelma Perks soon after

Five acres of the land has been developed so far.

As far as the buildings are concerned, a great deal of development has taken place. Specific examples:

  • Residence 1936
  • Hyde Dunn Memorial Hall 1943
  • Annexe 1947

Further development took place in the 70's and 80's. Other facilities were gradually built for the school include sleeping cabins, well equipped kitchen and dining room, and children's room. In 1994, a master plan for complete re-development of the school was approved by the National Spiritual Assembly. This plan which is expected to be completed by the year 2000 includes:

  • Modern dormitories and ensuites
  • A modern library and seminar rooms
  • A lecture hall accommodating 300 people
  • Another hall accommodating 100 people
  • other facilities

The first stage of the buildings is near completion and funding for the second stage has been provided by the National Spiritual Assembly and is due to start shortly.

Conclusion

As a conclusion to this paper, a letter of the Guardian written on his behalf to Mrs. Brooks in 1939 will suffice:

"The summer school is but one of those institutions which you have established with such a rare spirit of devotion, such magnificent loyalty and such assiduous care. The foundation you have laid is broad, solid and unassailable. The rising generation who will build upon it, will extol your virtues, ennoble your tasks, preserve the record of your acts, and transmit to posterity the great tradition which you are now so happily and nobly establishing. My heart brims over with gratitude for all that you are achieving, and is filled with hopes for all that you will achieve in the near and distant future. Perseverance, fidelity, redoubled effort, will enable you to reap a rich harvest and attain your shining goal." (Message of the Guardian, 12 July 1939 to Mrs. Brooks)

There is no doubt that we are the rising generations the Guardian has been referring to.

Acknowledgment: All the historical information used in this paper is obtained from Graham Hassall, Yerrinbool Bahá'í School, 1938-1988, An account of the First Fifty Years, CPN Publications Pty Ltd, Canberra, 1988, online at bahai-library.com/hassall_yerrinbool_1938-1988.
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