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TAGS: Abul-Qasim Faizi; Agnes Alexander; Ali Akbar Furutan; Amatul-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum; Biographies; Clara Hyde Dunn; Collis Featherstone; Enoch Olinga; Jalal Khazeh; John Robarts; Leroy Ioas; Rahmatullah Muhajir; Ugo Giachery; William Sears
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Hands of the Cause of God:
Personal Recollections

by Bill Washington

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Chapter 3

Clara “Mother” Dunn

Mother Dunn was already in her mid-eighties by the time I became a Bahá’í – quite old and frail but with a keen mind and a twinkle in her eye – and I was fortunate to be able to meet and listen to her on a number of occasions over the next six years. At that time Mother Dunn was living in a small apartment at the National Headquarters, 2 Lang Road, Paddington. The building had originally been a doctor’s residence and there were two rooms alongside the main entrance which had been used as office and consulting room. This was where Mother Dunn’s small flat was. It had its own entrance, giving her some privacy, and could be accessed directly from inside the main building – it was an ideal set-up for her. In later years she moved to Adelaide where she stayed with Eric and Marjorie Bowes, but she still used the ‘flat’ whenever she needed to be in Sydney.

Along with other youth at the time, I used to go to the National Headquarters whenever I was passing through Sydney and always called in to see Mother Dunn. So on a number of occasions, I had the pleasure – and great privilege, though I did not realise it at the time – of being with her briefly, and listening to her talking about the early days of the Faith in Australia. She seldom spoke about her life in the United States and how she became a Bahá’í, but this we all learned from the precious interview that Hand of the Cause Collis Featherstone arranged for her to record on tape her learning of the Faith from Hyde Dunn in the small country town of Walla Walla, Washington State, and how she travelled by train to San Francisco to meet with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. But she did speak a great deal about Father Dunn and how she ‘helped him’ to establish the Faith in Australia – that was how she always put it.

On one occasion when I was visiting her and we – several of the youth and I – were preparing to leave, she asked us all to say a prayer. When it came to my turn, I had to confess that I had no book with me. She said that was okay and I could say one by heart – which almost made my own heart stop, because at that time I had not memorized any prayers. I told her this, and she said, “Well, say the Báb’s prayer” – that was what we knew as the Remover of Difficulties, a very short prayer. I had to admit that even that one I had not memorized. “Not even that one, George!” – so she handed me a book, which I searched through quickly for the shortest possible prayer. She always called me “George” – she thought it highly amusing that I had the name of Washington, and yet I was not American.

Prayer, and the way Mother Dunn used prayers, was perhaps the aspect of her life that most people remembered, and were very much affected by. To her, prayer was truly ‘conversation with God’ in the fullest sense – not a little ‘chat’ with Him whenever we really need help, but rather she was deeply aware that our prayers are addressed to God and must be uttered with that in mind. Whenever she recited a prayer in a gathering of the friends it was not like someone well versed in oratory, reciting a memorized passage with feeling and fervour. It was an expression of the awe and utter dependence that she felt within; it was an outward revealing of the feeling that was deep inside her. It was truly a revelation of the inner self, as though she were reciting the prayer in the ‘privacy of her chamber’ but allowing others to be present, to share in her expression of devotion.

In saying the prayers she seemed fully aware that these words came from a divine source, and she never hurried. Each phrase was voiced with deep feeling; she seemed to caress each word lovingly in the knowledge that these words had been sanctioned by the Manifestation for use in the presence of God, for addressing our innermost feelings to our Creator. Others have likened her prayers to the performance of a skilled musician, or an orchestra where the players are themselves transformed by the beauty of the music and pass this transformation on to the audience.

Listening to her reciting the prayers of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, one could also feel her tremendous reliance on the power of prayer – using prayer as a means of accessing that divine power which could alone achieve the goal that Father and Mother Dunn had set out to achieve in pioneering to Australia. Each time we heard her pray, it was an object lesson to us all, a lesson in spiritual attitude and reliance on God, and it was a lesson that many of the early believers had learned well. In those early days, there was a reliance on the power of prayer that seems to have diminished with the growth of the community and the passing of time. The early believers of the Australian community really ‘used’ prayer and relied upon it – prayer and the Greatest Name – and this they had learned from Father and Mother Dunn. I was privileged beyond measure to witness this from its source, during the closing years of Mother Dunn’s life.

Of course, this was something she had learned from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself, and I noticed that she always seemed to use the prayers of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, prayers from the Tablets of the Divine Plan which had been the call for them to come to Australia. Whenever the community gathered in Sydney, if she was present Mother Dunn was always asked to say a prayer and inevitably she would choose a prayer of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The prayer commencing with the words: “O Lord! My haven in my distress …” was one that she often used and it came to be known amongst the early believers as ‘Mother Dunn’s prayer’. This is a prayer that we have recorded in her own voice – thanks to the diligence of Collis Featherstone – and it is a very precious archive, one that I cannot listen to today without its conjuring up Mother’s face in my mind. Her voice was quite characteristic – broad American with a slight Irish brogue. There was another from those same tablets that she called Father Dunn’s prayer – she said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had revealed it specially for Father Dunn – and these, generally, were among the favourite prayers of those early believers.

Mother Dunn also held her hands, palms upwards, in her lap whenever she was praying – this she had probably seen ‘Abdu’l-Bahá doing, and she had unconsciously followed His example. And many of the early believers had also copied her action. Sharing an evening of prayers with a group of local believers in the New Hebrides in 1958, I suddenly noticed that all were sitting with their hands in their laps, palms facing up. As one of those very early believers, Bertha Dobbins had picked it up from Mother Dunn and had unwittingly passed it on to a new generation of Bahá’ís. Such small actions are the source of rituals; it is no wonder that the Guardian warned us against the adoption of traditional rituals in our Bahá’í life.

Mother Dunn also had a deep sense of humility. Whenever she spoke of her past experiences, her stories were always told as a bystander – it was Father Dunn who had achieved this or that success; she had only helped him; she had stood beside him. It was Father Dunn who had brought the enquirer, it was Father Dunn who held a fruitful fireside or spoke at a public meeting where someone had declared. She had been there merely to support him. And yet in those very early days, when Father Dunn had been too ill even to seek employment, it was Mother Dunn who had earned their keep, ensuring they had the means to remain in their pioneering goal. Her humility was perhaps best expressed in her response to the news in February 1952 that she had been appointed a Hand of the Cause – her cabled reply to the Guardian said that she was “humbled to the dust”. She told the friends around her that she had never expected anything like that.

Mother Dunn had a delightful sense of humour and a very keen wit – she was, after all, of Irish descent. Bertha Dobbins once told me that Mother used to perch herself on the arm of the chair where her husband, Joe, was sitting and stroke his hair, or what was left of it – always making sure out of the corner of her eye that Bertha was watching. She loved to tease people, but did it in a kindly way. She spoke jokingly of her own “forgettery” which seemed to improve as time passed. Later on, her memory did start to slip, as I will relate further on, but she always retained that sharpness of mind that made her a delight to listen to, and the youth always took the opportunity to be with her whenever they could.

She was also a great ‘knitter’ and would often talk with the friends visiting in her room while knitting a woollen scarf – nothing too complicated – usually in red and green, scarves which she was continually giving a gifts to the friends. She was often in bed when she greeted visitors, or wandering around in her dressing gown, quite relaxed. Books were also scattered across her bedside table, sometimes open where she had been reading, with several calendars pinned to the wall behind the bed-head – not that she needed a calendar in those days but she liked the pictures that came with them.

Her acquisition of the title ‘Mother’ came about in a serendipitous way. One of the early believers, writing a letter to Clara Dunn, had addressed her as “Dear Mother” – and she recalled a dream she had once had that she would be widely called ‘Mother’ some day. She wrote at once to the Guardian asking him if they should allow the friends to call them ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’, and his reply eased her mind: “Yes, you are as their parents”. They were, indeed, spiritual parents of the entire community of the continent, and their family was destined to grow much larger, through the Pacific islands and beyond.

There is one story of Mother Dunn that is quite precious, and speaks volumes for her kindness and deep consideration for others. She attended the first national convention in New Zealand as the representative of the beloved Guardian – the convention that gave New Zealand its own National Assembly, separating it from Australia – and she was accompanied by her two Auxiliary Board members: Collis Featherstone and Thelma Perks – this was Ridván 1957. Thelma had accompanied her on the flight from Sydney to Auckland – she often travelled with her as her companion and also financed a great deal of her travel and living expenses during her later years; she had the resources and had no family of her own. Thelma and Mother Dunn were staying at the same hotel, with Thelma occupying the room next to Mother’s and on retiring that night she told Mother that if she needed anything during the night she should call her, insisting that whatever and whenever it was, she must call her.

First thing in the morning Thelma went to Mother’s room to check how she had slept – and found her lying underneath a rather large wardrobe. This was before ‘built-in’ furniture and the wardrobes were usually large and free-standing. During the night Mother had wanted to close or open the window – one of those old sash-cord windows that are often hard to move, and needing a little more leverage, she had hauled herself up by clinging to the wardrobe, lost her balance and had pulled the wardrobe over on herself. Pinned to the floor she could not move, so spent the rest of the night beneath the wardrobe. As she said to an agitated Thelma in the morning: “I didn’t want to disturb you, dear.”

That was quite typical of Mother Dunn: she would go well out of her way to help someone but would never expect anyone else to help her. She was kindness personified. Photographs of her arriving at the Convention the following day show Mother Dunn being helped from the car by Collis Featherstone and Manoochehr ‘Ala’í; she could barely walk unaided and suffered her injured back in silence throughout that convention.

As Mother grew older she became increasingly more frail and her memory deteriorated a little. At one gathering in Sydney, I remember, she was asked, as usual, to say a prayer to close the session. She rose to her feet, and began: “Mary had a little lamb; its fleece was … that’s not right, is it, Collis.” Collis rose beside her – he was chairing the session – and gently placing his arm across her shoulders, said: “No, Mother – it’s ‘O Lord! My haven in my distress …’ ” – and she was off with the prayer, reciting it faultlessly.

Collis was always by her side, and she relied completely upon him. When she appointed her Auxiliary Board members at the National Convention in 1954, she rose and explained that the Guardian had asked her to appoint two individuals to assist her in her work, and placed her hand on the shoulder of Collis Featherstone who was sitting beside her, chairing the session, and said: “I appoint Collis, and Thelma Perks, standing at the back of the room.” Collis had listened intently to the clarification of the functions of the institution of the Hands of the Cause and their auxiliary institutions by the Guardian while they were on pilgrimage, and had studied all he could find about the Hands of the Cause. With a deep appreciation of Mother Dunn’s station, he had served her with love and devotion from the time of her appointment in February 1952, and she knew that she could rely on him in any situation.

Thelma also had for many years been a companion and support for Mother Dunn, accompanying her on many teaching trips. She had heard of the Faith and met some early believers in New York; she had promised May Maxwell that she would look up the Dunns when she returned to Sydney, which she did and was much attracted to the Faith. It was not until 1947, however, that she actually declared, although she had been helping Mother Dunn even before then, and her support increased with the years, while the Australian Bahá’ís were pursuing their Six Year teaching plan.

Mother Dunn was able to travel to Haifa for the first Conclave of the Hands of the Cause in November 1957 but was too frail at attend the Conclave the following year. It always seemed unfortunate that Mother Dunn did not live to see the dedication of the House of Worship in 1961 but she was present at the dedication of the site ceremony, as part of the Continental Conference in Sydney, March 1958, when she placed a small casket with soil from the sacred Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh and some plaster from the Báb’s cell in the prison of Máh-kú in the ground beneath the spot where the centre of the main auditorium now is. Present also at that ceremony were four other Hands of the Cause: Charles Mason Remey, appointed representative of the Guardian, Zikru’lláh Khadem, Agnes Alexander and Collis Featherstone. And as work on the construction of the House of Worship soon got under way, she certainly saw the finished building – the small ‘lantern’ on the top of the dome was lifted into place by a helicopter in May 1960.

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