Leonora Armstrong: Spiritual Mother of South America

Story by Sonjel Vreeland

“Leonora, what are you waiting for? Go!” Those were the words of May Maxwell to Leonora Holsapple Armstrong. Leonora wanted to go pioneering to South America but her resolve weakened in the face of her friends’ and family’s concerns.

Leonora, like Dorothy Baker, learned of the Baha’i Faith from her grandmother and she attended the 1919 Baha’i Convention in New York City when the Tablets of the Divine Plan were unveiled. She wrote to Abdu’l-Baha, expressing her wish to pioneer and be of service. In His reply, He “expressed the hope that she might become a ‘spiritual physician,’ and this hope of His became her highest aspiration.” 1 Martha Root encouraged her to go to Argentina and she began studying Spanish but a contact in Brazil interested in the Faith made her change her plans.

“I will take the next boat,” Leonora told May Maxwell. And away she went! She was one of a handful of souls who responded to Abdu’l-Baha’s call in His own lifetime. She boarded the S. S. Vasari, bound for Brazil, on January 15th, 1921. She spoke no Portuguese and was traveling alone, something unheard of for women of good character. All of her savings were in her purse: there was enough for two weeks’ accommodations. 2 She was 25 years old.

Kristine Ascunsion Young, her great-neice, recounts how difficult Leonora’s early years were:

Leonora’s teaching brought in little money, and the next two years were quite difficult—she said later there were times when she lived only on bananas. But with courage born of her faith in Baha’u’llah and the promises of the Master, she went forward unwaveringly. 3

In her obituary, Hooper Dunbar writes “she often suffered loneliness, meager means, malnutrition and illness.” 4 Three months after settling in the city of Santos, she received news of the death of her grandmother and not long thereafter, she learned of the Passing of Abdu’l-Baha. A tablet He had written to her, addressed simply “Brazil. To the maidservant of God, Leonora Stirling Holsapple”, comforted her and sustained her – as did the words of Shoghi Effendi. For example, he wrote:

I will pray that you may be guided and fortified by the spirit of our beloved Master Who I am sure is watching over you and sustaining you in your labours. Persevere and never lose heart. 5

Leonora moved from city to city as the need arose. She followed the instructions of Shoghi Effendi to prioritize her tasks with teaching first and foremost, translating the Writings secondly, and performing social work (her profession) lastly. While living in Recife, Leonora married Harold Armstong, an English engineer, whose income freed Leonora to devote herself to the Faith. Hooper Dunbar eulogized her with these words:

A survey of Leonora Armstrong’s tireless pioneer activities must necessarily span six decades of continual service. Her achievements marked a high tide in human endeavor. Whether in her constant teaching of individuals, her historic travels, the publicity she garnered for the Cause wherever she went, her herculean labor of translating, publishing, and disseminating Baha’i literature both in Portuguese and Spanish, her work in spreading the Message through correspondence, or her eventual material contributions to the community, she stands out eminently distinguished. Through the years she also engaged in social service whenever possible, and became known in the press as the ‘Nurse of the Poor’. 5

Twice during her first decade as a pioneer, Leonora’s father paid for her return home. Leonora would visit as many countries as she could en route back to the United States. In this way, Leonora was able to share the teachings of the Faith in city after city, country after country. Hooper Dundar writes,

The visits of this pure, self-effacing soul, so modest in her personal life, were, paradoxically, always amply reported in the press. And she often enjoyed the spontaneous cooperation and support of various organizations in arranging public meetings. All this occurred in some places within hours of her arrival! 6

In 1973, Leonora was appointed a Continental Counsellor for South America by the Universal House of Justice. The spiritual influence she would exert on the communities she visited were far-reaching. Hooper Dunbar movingly states:

It was always a spiritual feast to be with her. She seemed to move in the shadow of her Guardian, and one always felt him close in her presence. 7

Kristine also writes:

Her efforts were untiring. For example, as she supervised construction of the [Baha’i Centre] in Juiz de Fora, she stood leaning in the doorway, balancing the galley proofs of Selections from the Writings of the Bab on her left arm while making corrections with her right hand. 1

Leonora passed away on October 17, 1980. The Universal House of Justice cabled the following in tribute to her:

Hearts saddened passing distinguished Counsellor Leonora Stirling Armstrong Herald of the Kingdom Beloved Handmaiden Abdu’l-Baha Spiritual Mother of South America. Her sixty years valiant service Cause Brazil shed lustre annals Faith that promising land. Request memorial services Mashriqu’l-Adhkars Wilmette Panama. Urge all communities Brazil likewise hold services. Offering ardent supplications Most Holy Shrines progress her radiant spirit Abha Kingdom. 5

I am also moved by Ruhiyyih Khanum’s words about Leonora’s life:

The study of such a life as Leonora’s, a life of complete consecration to Baha’u’llah and His teachings, a life of ceaseless work which lasted till a few hours before her passing at the age of eighty-five, a life in which it never even occurred to Leonora that she was sacrificing – such a life is a manual for every generation of Baha’is to study and presents an enduring challenge to all those who would follow in her footsteps. 8

The more I learn about Leonora, the more I love her. I hope this short piece gives you a glimpse of the strength of her character!