Remembering Clara Dunn

“Oh what an enormous duck! Oh what a wonderful duck! How splendid was this great big glorious duck!”

Clara Dunn was present on the occasion that Abdu’l-Baha recounted a story of a person who spoke in such a manner.

Her humility and spiritual receptivity, combined with the fact that the Master was looking directly at her throughout the story, lead her to understand that the Master was counseling her to refrain from exaggeration and to speak with honesty and accuracy.

Clearly she learnt this spiritual lesson well, and many more, for in 1939 Shoghi Effendi gifted a copy of The Advent of Divine Justice to Clara Dunn and her husband Hyde Dunn, accompanied by a personal letter written by his secretary:

The tribute so abundantly and yet so deservedly paid by the Guardian in this unique epistle to your magnificent teaching services is assuredly destined to transmit to future Baha’i generations, and in particular to the Baha’i teachers & pioneers of succeeding centuries, such measure of inspiration and such example of the pioneer service as cannot but inspire and guide them to follow in your footsteps and emulate your noble example.

When Abdu’l-Baha asked the Baha’is of North America to travel to remote climes to spread the Faith of Baha’u’llah, Clara and Hyde Dunn’s response was immediate. On 10 April 1920, Clara and Hyde Dunn arrived in Australia with the single purpose of establishing the Baha’i Faith in an area explicitly mentioned by the Master in the Tablets of the Divine Plan. So determined were they to go despite their age and lack of funds, that when challenged on the wisdom of their decision Hyde replied that “he would sooner die than not respond to Abdu’l-Baha’s call”.

The experience of the Dunns’ early years in Australia reminds me of a tale of a man whom God instructed to push a large rock located on a hilltop. Every day the man would push the rock, all to no avail. After many years of pushing, the man acknowledged to God his failure to do what he had been asked. God replied that He was well pleased. The man had been asked to push the rock, not move the rock. He had done exactly as was asked. The rest God would take care of.

After two years of sharing the message of Baha’u’llah with others, the Dunns had yet to enroll the first Australian Baha’is. In 1922, Oswald Whitacker and Effie Baker became the first Australians to declare their Faith. In the mid 1920s, the Dunns established Assemblies and communities in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Auckland but these institutions and communities often floundered after the Dunns moved on, requiring follow up visits and ongoing support. In 1932 Clara “was almost in despair” due to her perception that “the Cause was not growing”, that they had failed. When speaking to the Guardian while on pilgrimage the following year she reportedly “begged” him to replace them, saying she felt “clumsy and awkward and uneducated” .

How similar might their emotions have been to those we might experience as we strive within our current context to expand and consolidate the Faith, to transform ourselves and our society? How slow the growth may have felt at times, how great the stumbling blocks, how difficult the transformation of these into stepping stones! And how erroneous their perception of the value of their contribution.

After returning from pilgrimage, and under instructions from the Guardian, Clara and Hyde Dunn established the first National Spiritual Assembly of Australia and New Zealand. Their spiritual children – numbering above one hundred – would lay the foundations of Baha’i communities throughout the South Pacific region. These “children” include Gretta Lamprill, Bertha Dobbins, and Harold and Florence Fitzner – all of whom became Knights of Baha’u’llah in the World Crusade.

Indeed, despite Clara’s humble and inaccurate perception of the contribution she and Hyde Dunn made to the advancement of the Faith, the reality was that together they had established the Faith in Australia, expanded and consolidated the Faith in Australia and New Zealand, contributed directly to the spread of the Faith to other countries in Asia and the Pacific region, laid the foundation of the Administrative Order of Baha’u’llah at local and national levels, directly brought over a hundred people into the Baha’i community, and inspired thousands within their lifetime and after their passing with their example of courage, obedience, determination, self-sacrifice, deep faith and absolute trust in God.

In her life, Clara Dunn faced numerous obstacles, including being twice widowed, unemployment, religious prejudice, the loss of her son, ill health and financial difficulties. Speaking of Clara Dunn’s life and achievements, the late Dr Peter Khan recalled:

In a very real sense, she conquered herself…She overcame these great, formidable obstacles in her life and they were the vehicle for her spiritual development.

In 1952, Clara Dunn was appointed as a Hand of the Cause of God. She was one of only eight women in history to be thus appointed. In 1958, at the age of 91, having served as a pioneer to Australia for 38 years, 19 of those alone as a widow, Clara Dunn experienced the joy of the laying of the foundation stone of the Mother Temple for Australia, a continent in which – prior to the arrival of Clara Dunn – there was not a soul who had embraced the Message of Baha’u’llah. When Clara Dunn passed away on 18 November 1960, the Hands of the Cause, and heads of the Faith at the time, honored their beloved colleague for having “rendered unique, unforgettable pioneer service over a forty year period”.