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Catharine MacMillan (1926-2013) A memoir E-mail

 Catharine MacMillan (1926-2013)

A memoir by Bita Watts

I first met Catharine when my family moved to Waterdown, and grew to admire this unique and dedicated servant of the Cause throughout the next 33 years.  I say unique because Catharine’s life was very different compared to that of most women in her time, or even men.  She herself has written about her memories in the Early Days of the Faith, and today I will share some of her adventures and examples of dedication from her writing.

As a young woman in the late 1950s she had seen advertisement about the Baha’i Faith in the Hamilton Spectator and was very curious to learn about this Faith.  Some of this curiosity was as a result of travelling in 1956 across the continent of Africa by herself, where she had been received by locals with kindness and warmth, and questioned why they were so mistreated if they were the children of one God.  This trip brought her to the conclusion that there had to be many routes to God and there had to be one that would encompass them all and that she would have to find it.

Lucky for her a staff member at her new school, Doreen Willis, was a Baha’i and had invited other staff members to a fireside.  Catharine had asked to go letting them know that she had no intention of becoming a Baha’i, but was only curious.  But as she states in her recollections, she was hooked after just one meeting.  She enjoyed going and listening and debating with the various speakers each week and searching for the truth.  Through going to these meetings and attending a Baha’i summer school in Quebec, where she met some very interesting Baha’is, including Hand of the Cause Bill Sears, who at the time was writing “Thief in the Night” during the day and would read to them at night what he had written.  Catherine finally decided to become a Baha’i after being asked by Fred Graham, one of her favourite speakers from the weekly firesides she attended, when she was going to get off the fence and fall in or fall out of the Faith, and as she states she decided he was right and she wrote the Local Spiritual Assembly in December 1959 to ask to become a member, and as she says “never looked back.”

Catherine was a very active member of the Baha’i Faith and was soon serving on various committees such as the “New Territories Committee” which helped to support isolated pioneers living in northern Canada, and in 1961, the National Teaching Committee for Canada.  Soon her mother and younger brother also became Baha’is after Hand of the Cause Zikrullah Khadem had been a guest in their home.  She was impressed that in years to come, whenever she met him he always remembered his visit to her home and asked about her family.  She confided in him that she had one very big problem, that she had little patience and everything had to be done immediately.  To this “He laughed and said, “Our beloved Guardian had the same problem.”  

Catherine’s service to the Faith had only just begun, for in the summer of 61 she was asked to travel to Africa with a group of Canadians from across Canada under the auspice of a UNESCO charter, which she accepted.  Unfortunately as her trip neared she realized how very sick her brother had become and was torn as to what to do.  After being advised by his doctor to go on her trip she set off once again, this time meeting various people in Nairobi, Johannesburg, the Congo, Ghana and Nigeria.  During her trip she had the pleasure of visiting with Harlan Ober who had spent time with Abdul Baha in both the Holy Land and the USA.   On her return to Canada she was further able to use the trip to teach the Faith.  However, she did not stay home for long, the following summer she travelled to western Canada as a member of the National Teaching Committee with the goal of visiting isolated Baha’is and small communities and becoming more aware of their needs.  Again she met many interesting people on this trip and through visiting various reservations developed a new respect and love for the Aboriginal People of Canada.  She also developed her public speaking skills being booked to give talks at public meetings.

Later that year Catherine’s request to visit the Holy Land during her Christmas holidays in 1962 was granted.  She was welcomed by Hand of the Cause John Ferraby and was taken by him on her first visit to the Shrine of the Bab.  She states in her memoirs, “Here was an atmosphere of pure spirituality for me and overwhelming force...No one can adequately describe his feelings for each person experiences a different reaction...For me it was the emotional high of my pilgrimage.  An emotion difficult to describe.  Here I was, what had I done to deserve this bounty to be able to recognize the Faith in this day and to be able to visit the Holy Shrine.”  On her return she was approached by a reporter who wrote a beautiful article about her pilgrimage.  She then took her slide show of the pilgrimage and travelled once again across Canada to talk about the Faith.

During all this time Catherine continued to work as a school teacher, but would take advantage of all her holidays to travel and serve the Faith.  In 1966 The Baha’i Assembly of Chicago arranged a children’s summer school in a poor district and Catherine volunteered to go and teach.  Again she also had the opportunity to learn about inequalities from hearing the stories of the hard working parents of the children she taught.

Finally in 1967 she decided to take six months leave of absence from work in order to make a teaching trip around the world.  Although her main goal was to go to India as there was an appeal for travelling teachers at that time, she began her journey by visiting England, then Germany, where she had the chance to visit Darmstadt, the city her mother’s family had come from 130 years ago, then onto Istanbul, followed by travelling to Iran.  Catherine first visited  the home of Dr. Sabeti and his wife who was the sister of her friend  Aqdas Javid in Kharaj, then Baha’u’llah’s house in Tehran, as well as the house of the Bab in Shiraz.   After visiting a few more cities in Iran, Catherine was on her way to Delhi, India.  She talks in her memoirs of many new and interesting experiences and the receptivity of the people to the faith.   Here she also had the bounty of starting out her travels around India with the two Hands of the Cause, Mr. Furutan and Dr. Mohajar.    Catherine’s travel teaching trip in India took her to Bangalore, Bombay, Jaipur, Chandigarh, Kanpur, Calcutta as well as some small towns.  After leaving India she travelled to Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, and Honolulu before returning to Canada.  Having realized how little we know about India and its religions, Catherine decided to incorporate this learning into her teaching at school, teaching her students about Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Islam.  She hoped that this unit of study would help guide them to see the oneness of religion and the oneness of mankind. 

Catherine’s next task would be to serve on a committee to make the plans for an Inter-Continental Conference to be held in 1972 in Iceland.  As she did not know much about Reykjavik at the time, she decided to go there to investigate.  A year and a half later, the successful conference took place.

 After her return from India, Catherine also found that the Burlington community had grown and she was no longer needed, so she decided to move to West Flamborough where she would be on her own.  She was glad when a few years later East and West Flamborough were amalgamated and she once again was a member of a Baha’i community, and an active one at that, as she states “We had Aqdas and Mirza Javid, Ron and Pat Bough, Thelma Kowalchuck, Pat Smuk, Vicky Kwashka, and other members who would come and go like Bob and Marianne LeBlanc.”   She tells of her fond memories of weekly firesides at Mrs. Javid’s home and the Bahadors’ home; and of Pat Smuk’s excellent cooking and baking being instrumental in our holding yearly dinners to which we would invite our local dignitaries and representatives of various organizations and present Baha’i perspectives on various points of interest.  She remembered one evening in particular when our Ontario rep Chris Ward remarked that there must be hundreds of Baha’is in Flamborough and was surprised to find out there were only 14 or 15.

In the late 80s when the doors to Russia were opening, my mother, Mehrdokht Bahador, was interested in joining a group of women travelling there to talk about the role of women in the West to women from Ukraine.  She called Catherine who was more than happy to join her on this trip, insisting that they stay longer in order to visit St. Petersburg after their conference.  Weeks before they were to go, there was an overthrow of the government and their plans seemed uncertain, but when the time came they were able to leave as planned.  Once at the conference in Kiev, Catherine had the chance to talk about the role of women in the Baha’i Faith and was impressed by the receptivity of her audience.  On her return to Canada, Catherine once again found that her adventures abroad attracted the interest of the local paper and she was interviewed and able to talk about the Faith.

Catherine continued to homefront pioneer, moving to Hanover and to travel across Canada and back to the Ukraine once more in 1994.

The last time I saw Catherine was on her 87th birthday over a month ago.  She kept talking about going to visit her parents and brothers.  She said they were worried about her and she needed to go home and see them.   Although she will be missed, I’m sure they are happy to see her now.