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June 23, 1895|
Hudson, New York
|Died||October 17, 1980
|Known for||Bahá'í Faith in Brazil|
Leonora Stirling Holsapple Armstrong (June 23, 1895 – October 17, 1980) was the first Bahá'í to live in Brazil. She went as a pioneer to Brazil in 1921 when she was only 25 years old and due to her efforts and services for the Bahá'í Faith in Brazil and across Latin America she was named the 'Spiritual Mother of the Bahá'ís of South America'.
Leonora Stirling Holsapple was born on June 23, 1895 in the City of Hudson, New York. Her father was businessman Samuel Norris Holsapple and her mother was Grace Heathcote Stirling, who served actively in civic work and had taught school. However, Grace had serious health problems [what would later be known as diabetes], and died soon after Leonora turned five years old. This created a profound effect upon Leonora and her younger sister Alethe during their childhood and adolescence. Their father was devastated at the loss and often left the two little girls to the care of their grandmothers and a housekeeper.
Despite her early suffering Leonora was very talented from an early age, even considered a child prodigy. She had never told anyone how she had read the entire Bible through when still just a child. In her high school graduating class she received the highest honors and was made valedictorian. She was able to enter Cornell University in Ithaca, New York on a full four-year scholarship and was elected Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. Leonora graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cornell, where she had studied Latin, Greek, Physics, Botany, Astronomy and Chemistry. After graduation from university she taught Latin in high schools for two years in Boston as well as being active in social work, just as her mother and grandmother had been before her.
Introduction to the Bahá'í Faith
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When she was about eleven years old, her maternal grandmother, who had spent long years of spiritual searching, found the Bahá'í Faith and declared herself a Bahá'í [circa 1906]. She began to teach her granddaughters about the Bahá'í Faith and due to her example of devotion and efforts to spread the Bahá'í teachings, she inspired them by teaching them to sing some of the "hymns", to read and also to memorize passages from Hidden Words and prayers from the Bahá'í Writings. Later Leonora made her own efforts to share the Bahá'í teachings with her classmates and friends.
Interest in Pioneering
The desire to pioneer first came in Leonora's mind when `Abdu'l-Bahá's Tablets of the Divine Plan were unveiled at the Bahá'í Convention held in New York City in April 1919. Spontaneously, and right at once, she wrote to `Abdu'l-Bahá, offering herself in service and his reply to her was:
"Thou hadst expressed thy great wish to be of service to the Divine Threshold and to heal the infirm with the Divine Panacea--the infirm who is afflicted with passion and self. Spiritual malady is more severe than physical illness for it may be that the latter may be converted by the least remedy into health and vigor, while the former will not be cured by a thousand well-known remedies . . . My hope is that thou mayest become a spiritual physician."
Leonora was very touched by the message from `Abdu'l-Bahá and also Martha Root, a well-known Bahá'í who traveled widely, served as a great influence upon her in choosing South America as her destination. In her own words Leonora said:
"This hope of the Master's became my highest aspiration and when, early in 1920, I read His Tablet to Martha Root, commending her teaching work in South America and stressing the importance of its being followed up by others, it at once seemed to me that here there might be a definite task for me. A letter to Martha brought an immediate reply, with all encouragement."
Martha Root had made a historical visit to South America in 1919 and encouraged Leonora by sharing her experiences and sending a copy of her own diary notes from that period. This led Leonora to consider pioneering in South America and though Martha had at first suggested Argentina as a destination, at the last minute she encouraged her to go to Brazil.
Arrival in Brazil
Many of Leonora's family members and friends expressed great concern in relation to her decision of going off to such a far away country as Brazil - a place where she did not even know the language! Many of them believed that she was taking a very dangerous risk, by traveling alone without knowing anyone in Brazil. However, her desire to teach the Bahá'í Faith was so great, that on February 1, 1921 she arrived in the port of Rio de Janeiro. At that time she was only 25 years old and she did not know anyone in that country. The fact that she was a woman and single, in a time that women had less rights and freedom, made her situation a lot more complicated but she still managed to stay in Brazil. Leonora got her first job in a very simple office through a young theosophist in the city of Santos, São Paulo. Afterwards she started to give private English classes, which made her able to make contacts to teach the Bahá'í Faith. Sometimes when she could, Leonora would participate as a speaker in the national conferences - her first year in Rio de Janeiro, she participated in the National Congress of Esperanto which extended to São Paulo and Santos and later to many other capitals of Brazil.
In 1925 in the city of Belém, Pará she published her first translation (English to Portuguese) of the book Paris Talks written by `Abdu'l-Bahá. Leonora beyond being a lecturer, educator and translator was also a social worker, having also kept an orphanage, in Salvador, Bahia, in the period of 1924-1927, for abandoned and needy children. In her first years in Brazil, she chose to establish herself in Salvador, Bahia and traveled several of times to Belém and Manaus. She always had a lot of support from many theosophists and esperantists in her services. In 1927 she published many articles and pamphlets about the Bahá'í Faith in Belém. In 1927 she was the first Bahá'í to visit and give lectures about the Bahá'í Faith in Colombia, Venezuela, Coracion, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Haiti, Guyana and Suriname as part of her plan to compliment and complete Martha Root's unfulfilled intention of sharing the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith in all the Latin American countries.
Leonora was living in Brazil when she saw to a translation into Spanish. She decided to go to Madrid, Spain to study Spanish because Shoghi Effendi, then head of the religion, wanted Spanish literature and she wanted to become proficient in the language. In July 1930 she boarded a French ship which first took her to several ports of call in West Africa and then to Barcelona. From Barcelona she proceeded to Madrid where she intended to take university courses. However she soon fell seriously ill for a time and was unable to enter the course at the University of Madrid. Shortly thereafter she went on Bahá'í pilgrimage and afterwards focused her efforts in Latin and South America.
Formation of the Bahá'í Institution in Brazil
In 1940 at Salvador - after 19 years of her dedicated work of education, translations and social services - Leonora was thrilled to see the formation of the first official Bahá'í Institution in Brazil: the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Salvador, composed by nine members, annually elected by the Bahá'í community in each locality. She was one of the members of this Assembly together with the first ones to accept and declare themselves bahá'ís in that city. After that, a second Local Spiritual Assembly was formed in Rio de Janeiro and in 1946 a third one was formed in the city of São Paulo. In 1961 she saw the establishment of the first National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Brazil. In 1973 Leonora was appointed a Counsellor, the highest appointed position of service in the religion by the Universal House of Justice, then head of the Bahá'í Faith. The Counsellors are those who act in the continental levels and dedicate the time for the education and the protection of the Bahá'í Cause.
In August 1941, Leonora married an Englishman, Harold V. Armstrong, a widower whom she had known for several years. He was a great support in helping Leonora to accomplish many of the services that she dedicated during her life to religion, specifically her translation work. Leonora and her husband lived in many places in Brazil, and though they never had children of their own they adopted and raised about twenty children over the course of the years, or provided others with financial assistance towards basic needs and education.
Defender of Women's Rights
Leonora was also a notable defender of women's rights - emphasizing the role of educators and servants for the cause of world peace. Her message, recorded in a tape in Salvador, Bahia days before her death, in October 1980, was addressed to hundreds of women gathered in the Centre of Conventions of Brasília, participants of the first Women's Latin-American Bahá'í Conference. Here are some excerpts from her message:
Woman, light of the future generation - When we, the women of the world, reflect on the true meaning of this subject that was chosen and to the measure that its full meaning penetrate deeply each time in the conscience of each woman, we should understand how loving, what a supreme privilege is ours and inescapable duty we have, and that we should rise like never before, to fulfill our first obligation. The women know that they are the first educators of the humanity…
After living in Santos, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and having passed most of her last years in Minas Gerais, in the city of Juiz de Fora, she died on October 17, 1980 with 85 years of age, in the city of Salvador. In that same day, hundreds of Bahá'ís from several communities of Latin America were gathered in Brasília, participating in a Women's Latin-American Bahá'í Conference. The climax of this meeting for promotion of the condition of the woman was the moment where a writing with her words of greeting to the participants of the event echoed for the audience.
- Marquez, Gabriel, Leonora Armstrong - Memories and Letters, Editora Bahá'í do Brasil
- Unpublished Memoir of Leonora Stirling Holsapple Armstrong - September 1972
- Asuncion, Kristine Leonard (August 1982). "Armstrong, Counsellor Leonora: A Loving Portrait". Bahá'í News (617). pp. 6–9.
- "Supplication to Abdul-Baha from the American friends". Star of the West 10 (8). August 1, 1919. pp. 156–164.
- "Pela Paz Universal". Servico Telegraphico (in Portuguese) (Fundacao Biblioteca Nacional). 5 September 1922. p. 2 (5th col near bottom).
- Rhodenbaugh, Molly Marie (August 1999). "The Ngöbe Baha'is of Panama" (PDF). MA Thesis in Anthropology. Texas Tech University.
- da Silva Paiva, Cirlei Izabel (2008). A Ação Social dos Baha'is no Brasil (PDF) (Thesis) (in Portuguese). Catholic Universidid in São Paulo.
- Biography of Leonora Armstrong (in Portuguese)