3,000 Baha’i faithful gather in Wilmette for temple’s 100th anniversary

Rachel Janik

A single voice echoed off the cavernous domed walls of the Baha’i House of Worship until the rest of the choir joined in the hymn that began Sunday’s devotion service in Wilmette.

“The beginning of the program, that single voice, it symbolizes that we all pray to God alone, but when we bring together all these souls, the spiritual energy that emanates from that collective makes a powerful influence on the world,” said attendee Ann Melville.

Melville, 58, is one of approximately 3,000 Baha’i who visited the temple Sunday to observe the 100th anniversary of the “laying of the cornerstone” of the Wilmette temple, 100 Linden Ave., when the son of the religion’s founder visited the United States and blessed the cornerstone and construction of the temple.

“I felt that, as a Baha’i, I could not allow this opportunity to pass,” Melville said, adding that she traveled from the coastal town of Eliot, Maine, to attend the event.

Ellen Price, assistant director at the Evanston-based U.S. Baha’i National Center, said the Wilmette temple is one of seven Baha’i temples around the world and the only one in North America. Although the property for the temple was purchased in 1908, the building was not completed until 1953. It is the second ever built and the only one to get a visit from Abdu’l-Baha, the founder’s son.

Because of that visit, Price said the Wilmette temple constitutes something of a holy land for the Baha’i, and worshippers make pilgrimages from across the globe.

“To Baha’is all over the world, this is the most sacred temple, and it always will be,” Price said.

The centennial service comprised three services at 9:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. that lasted about 70 minutes. The temple can seat 1,000 people, and it was full for every service, Price said.

Geoffrey Tyson and Tim Wood, both Baha’is, made it to the devotional by chance. They work for the Human Rights Campaign on a project called Education Under Fire and have traveled across the U.S. campaigning against the persecution of Baha’i in Iran. The centennial happened to coincide with their trip to Northwestern to present their campaign. Tyson and Wood have also worked with NU alumna Roxana Saberi, who was imprisoned in Iran alongside Baha’i prisoners for four months in 2009.

Tyson, 27, was raised Baha’i in northern Alabama. He said he felt very lucky to be able to attend the centennial ceremony in Wilmette.

“The most amazing part to me is that it has only been 100 years,” he said. “There was just a small number back then, and now we see such a diversity of people. We’re all just able to connect and have something really meaningful and spiritual.”

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