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Published Tuesday, May 22, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

Bahai woman in elite group dedicating gardens in Israel

How to view event

The ceremonies in Haifa will be broadcast on KBHK (Ch. 44) from 2 to 4 a.m. and from 11 a.m. to noon on Wednesday. They will be Webcast today from 8 to 10 a.m. and tonight from midnight to 1 a.m. at

Mercury News Harriet Wolcott of Santa Cruz is home this morning -- in Haifa, Israel.

She is 96 years old and one of only two dozen or so Americans invited to grand ceremonies on the slopes of Mount Carmel. There, the founder of Wolcott's Bahai faith is interred in a golden-domed shrine that's visible throughout much of the seaside Mediterranean city. There on the mountain, 5 million Bahais have their world headquarters.

And there, today, thousands will celebrate the opening of gardens that span Mount Carmel -- an epic construction project that has taken 10 years. The gardens complete the adornment of a place that's as holy to Bahais as the sacred spots of Jerusalem are to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

It's as if the ancient Gardens of Babylon have returned and Wolcott gets to attend the opening. "It is a dream for me," Wolcott said before her departure. She and her late husband, Charles, lived in Haifa for 26 years, arriving in 1961, toughing it out through two wars, and feeling blessed to be so near the Shrine of the Báb, the Bahai prophet who was martyred in 1850 in Tabriz, Persia, and his body thrown in a moat. Rescued by some of the faithful, his remains were moved to Haifa in the 1890s.

From L.A. to Haifa

In the 1950s, Charles Wolcott was music director for MGM Studios. "Nobody leaves MGM," Variety said after he announced in 1960 that he would quit and move to Wilmette, Ill. He had been elected to the Bahais' national administrative council, which meets there. A year later, the Wolcotts moved to Haifa after his election to the Universal House of Justice, the Bahais' supreme administrative body, which sits on Mount Carmel.

"Nobody could ask for a better life than working at the world center," Harriet Wolcott said in an interview at her Santa Cruz home. She seemed enlivened by the memories: "I was 56 years old, a housewife, and the mother of two grown girls -- and suddenly I was in this other world. I was close to the holy places and the pilgrims would come and I would guide them to the sites. And Charles and I enjoyed ourselves so; sometimes we went to parties with the mayor.

"But you don't get wealthy working for religion. The House of Justice members received the same monthly stipend as the people who worked in the gardens."

Succession of prophets

Bahais claim about 140,000 followers in the United States, including about 3,000 in the Bay Area. The monotheistic faith teaches that humanity's spiritual faculties have been nurtured by a succession of prophets -- Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad among them. In 1852, two years after the Bab's martyrdom, a Bahai prophet named Baha'u'llah -- meaning "Glory of God" in Arabic -- is said to have had a vision while living in Persia and declared himself to be the divine manifestation for the modern era.

He commenced writing the Bahai scriptures, which encompass about 100 books and tablets. Regarded as revelation, their spiritual and social teachings are studied and interpreted by many Bahais. This complex theological side of the faith isn't well known outside the Bahai community, where the faith is often perceived as one that simply honors all the great religions. That view arose in the 1960s, when the Bahais attracted civil rights activists and others who admired its emphasis on the essential oneness of humankind, its rejection of racism, and its promotion of world peace.

The Bahais "main goal for the future is unification of the world," Wolcott said. "And you start with one person and you recognize the immensity of the job to be done. Other people say, `Impossible.' Bahais don't think so."

Wolcott "keeps a calendar, writes in a little diary, and tries to stay focused," said her daughter, Marsha Gilpatrick, who shares her mother's home and accompanied Wolcott to Haifa. A former schoolteacher and principal in San Jose, Gilpatrick is also active in the Bahai community. She and her late husband, Ronald, formerly superintendent of schools in Belmont and Pacifica, for years ran the Bosch Baha'i School and retreat center in Bonny Doon.


The Wolcotts grew up in Flint, Mich. Charles Wolcott was raised an Episcopalian, his wife a Presbyterian. As a young married couple, they moved to New York in the early 1930s. The managers of their apartment building were Bahais and invited the couple to a "fireside" meeting for seekers. "I was not seeking, personally," Harriet Wolcott recalled. "I was happy. My husband, he had a more open mind, I would say. He had been searching. He investigated what Rosicrucianism is, for instance. All paths lead to God, you might say."

Charles Wolcott died in 1987, and his widow hasn't been back to Haifa since 1992. She is anxious to see the gardens and to visit an old friend, and maybe she'll travel to the nearby city of Acre. Baha'u'llah was imprisoned there when Palestine was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. His remains are buried in a shrine in a garden.

"Baha'u'llah came to unite a planet through the recognition that we are one human family and that we have made many divisions," Wolcott said. "There are many paths to God. Baha'u'llah is the latest, but not the last."

Contact Richard Scheinin at (408) 920-5069 or by e-mail at

©Copyright 2001, The Mercury News

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