Nov. 9, 2002. 01:00 AM
Temple welcomes everyone
Baha'i house of worship near Chicago open to all colours, creeds and religions
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
WILMETTE, Ill. — The journey from downtown Chicago to the world-famous Baha'i temple in this pin-tidy suburb takes the traveler past glass and steel skyscrapers, upscale shops, fine restaurants and ivy-covered institutes of higher learning. Heading north, the urban landscape soon gives way to block after block of the shaded streets and manicured lawns of upper-class suburbia.Then, a sudden turn on a quiet road brings the full view of a majestic, filigreed dome soaring more than 30 metres in the air. Frankly, such a breathtaking structure seems out of place literally across the street from the pristine homes of Wilmette. In its unlikely Pleasantville setting, the Baha'i Mother Temple of the West evokes a sense of mystery and wonder. For the first-time visitor, the impact is visual as well as spiritual. Awe-inspiring yet utterly silent, this is truly a sacred space. It's unlikely many people would consider a structure completed in 1953 an example of great religious architecture. Like the faith itself, the Baha'i temple is new. Also, like the temple, the faith's "exterior" may seem complex at first glance, but its main tenets — spiritual and global unity, a single God, the equality of all humans — are surprisingly straightforward. The temple's distinctive bell-shaped dome and wedding-cake structure are elaborate and ornamental — almost frilly. But on the inside, one finds plain red pews, a cool marble floor and an unadorned podium. It's an interior free of elaborate displays — like the faith, which has no sermons, rites or prescribed ceremonies. The sole concession to adornment in the cavernous interior is the spectacular rotunda that stretches 42 metres heavenward, and the interlocking, lace-like patterns that snake up the walls. Plenty of windows allow sunlight to flow in from all angles. The temple took 40 years to complete, beginning with a meeting by a handful of Chicago Baha'is in 1903. Ground was broken in 1912, after which many architects submitted plans. In 1920, organizers ultimately chose Jean-Baptiste Louis Bourgeois, a French Canadian designer from the small town of Saint-Célestin de Nicolet in Quebec. Baha'i lore has it that Bourgeois was so immersed in this exciting work that he neglected other projects and ended up living in poverty for three years, supporting himself by selling flowers grown in his backyard. The superstructure, made of inexpensive but sturdy quartz and white cement, took 10 years to build. The interior of the dome alone required 387 sections. Another 20 years was needed before the temple was considered complete. Sadly, Bourgeois died in 1930, a full 23 years before the temple was dedicated. It was built at a cost of some $2.5 million, a huge sum in the early part of the 20th century, but today roughly equal to the value of some of the homes in the vicinity. What's remarkable is that the money was raised solely among Baha'is. Even today, Baha'is do not accept funds for their projects from non-Baha'is. The temple received a special honour in 1978 when it was placed on the United States National Register of Historic Places as "one of the nation's cultural resources worthy of preservation." Today, the main Baha'i centre in Montreal is named for Bourgeois. There's another Canadian connection to the religion: William Sutherland Maxwell of Montreal, the architect of the Château Frontenac tower in Quebec city and of Saskatchewan's legislative buildings, designed the gold-domed Baha'i shrine on Mount Carmel at the Baha'i World Centre in Haifa, Israel. There are just seven Baha'i houses of worship on the planet, one for each inhabited continent. They are called Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, or "the dawning place of the praises of God." Each is topped with a bell-shaped dome, and each has nine sides, with their own entrance and exit on circular walkways. The number nine has special significance in Baha'i teachings: It is the largest single-digit number, and represents completeness and fulfilment. Every Baha'i temple is marked by lush, colourful gardens, which help reinforce a spiritual feeling. All the temples are built with a similar purpose: to provide a place of worship or reflection to people regardless of colour, religion or creed. The faith's adherents are relatively small in number: There are just 25,000 Baha'is in Canada, and about 6 million worldwide. However, it is the second most geographically widespread religion on Earth, after Christianity. It is a gentle faith, having derived from the Babi movement, a breakaway Islamic sect founded in 1844 in Persia (modern-day Iran) by Mirza Ali-Muhammad, who declared himself the "Bab" or "Gate," and announced that not only was he the founder of a new religion, but the herald of a great prophet of God. Seen as a heretic, the Bab was executed by Islamic authorities in 1850. But just 13 years later, a nobleman known as Baha'u'llah (Glory of God), whose birth in 1817 Baha'is around the world will celebrate on Tuesday, announced that he was the one prophesied by the Bab. He taught a faith whose principles embrace a spiritual and global unity; that all religions (and the prophets and founders of other faiths) are true expressions of the one, unknowable God; total equality between men and women; universal education; and the value of science. A temple official is asked, in a take on Hillel of the Talmud, to sum up the faith while the questioner stands on one foot. Without missing a beat, she replies: "The unity of all humankind."
Ron Csillag is a Toronto writer who specializes in religion. He can be reached at email@example.com.
©Copyright 2002, Toronto Star (Toronto, Canada)