From an interview with Joan Birch – June 1995
Mary: My brother Bill was born in 1912. I was born in Leicester (1919) and moved to Syston where Gwen was born in 1925.
Father was an architect in a private practice; it was the oldest practice in Leicester.
I first heard about the Baha’i Faith in 1 953.
I had been brought up in the Church of England but I became very disillusioned during the War. I became interested in politics (Labour).
I went to see a friend of mine (Norman Tanner), who had been a friend long before the war. He told me he was going to a meeting the coming Sunday in Leicester which he thought I might be interested in. He said he was thinking of joining some Faith called the Baha’i Faith. What I had been planning to do had fallen through so I went along to the meeting to see what my friend had got into.
The speaker at that meeting was Hasan Balyuzi.
It took me two years to accept the Faith.
At that time I was in a small company whose chairman (Lord Hungarton), use to go with Lord Boyd Orr, who was involved with organizing United Nations. (He went in as an adviser on farming methods and was given his peerage for the work he did during the war). He was very depressed because of what the scientists were doing with things like altering the weather and said there was nothing they could do to put it back again.
From that I became disillusioned with politics and their idea of world government.
Then Hasan Balyuzi spoke about World Government and that aspect of the Faith and I became interested in studying the Faith. I met John and Vera Long at that first meeting at the Y.M.C.A.
We would meet on Saturday nights at the Bell Hotel in Leicester.
There were not many books available to read at that time. I went to a series of four meetings at which Philip Hainsworth spoke. They had come from Northampton with some books and I bought the Gleanings.
I had a lot of business worries and I used to suffer from insomnia so I used to read at night. One night I was reading the Gleanings and I knew that was Christ speaking again.
I accepted the Faith in 1 955.
Mother and Father were sympathetic but Bill and Gwen were not, especially Bill; they were antagonistic.
Gwen: Bill was assistant organist at the church and I was in the choir. We were hearing Christ’s teachings all the time and we thought that was enough. We were prejudiced. I didn’t become a Baha’i for another few years but when I was going to sing a solo in church I used to say the prayer The Remover of Difficulties even though I was not a Baha’i. My mother died in 1963 and there were certain questions in my mind and I seemed to have lost God. I couldn’t understand where my mother had gone and I asked everybody in the church and they all gave me the wrong answer. I went to Mary and all she said was: “Read my books“ and that was it. Gradually the Faith became clear.
There was a deciding point for me, however. Our vicar, who was Archdeacon at the church did it. It happened the last time Bill and I went to the Harvest Festival Service. Bill was recording it and while we were setting up all the equipment, the vicar came in and went up to the altar where all the people had given things in the afternoon for the harvest. He came down with an ever so silly expression on his face and carrying a great big box of Black Magic chocolates and he says, “Wouldn’t you realise that black people would give a thing like this.” When we came out of church and the vicar had gone, Bill and I had a word and Bill said, “Well that’s a thing isn’t it?” and I said, “Yes, isn’t he prejudiced“! And that decided me.
I went to sing in the choir that night. I didn’t see Bill again as he was recording the service. We had a choir practice for the concert. When I came out of the choir practice two of the girls offered me a lift home. I said, “all right, thank you“. I sat in the car coming home and all of a sudden I said, “I shan’t be coming again. I’m going to become a Baha’i, like Mary,” and one of them said, “Oh, I was afraid of that!” So I must have been talking about it a lot without knowing it. When we got home that night I told Bill and he said that he had decided to become a Baha’i too.
He said, “Things have been working up and I can’t satisfy myself with the church any more. I keep reading Mary’s books and I’ll join the same time as you.”
Mary: 1956. I met Ethel Revell when she came to Leicester one Sunday afternoon. There was this little old lady with a big bag filled with rose petals for the new Bahá’is who had declared during the 10 Year Crusade. She was going all around the country on behalf of the Guardian.
We had a National Convention in Leicester (1956). There was only myself and Vera Long and Pat and Ian Sinclair and we had to arrange everything. This was before John Long was a Baha’i. There were not all that many Bahá’is around at that time. When I became a Baha’i my registration card number was 709.
February 1957: John and Vera Long bought a house on New Walk which became the first Baha‘i Centre in Leicester. The opening was a very special occasion. Quite a big do then, for that time. It was a two day event and Hasan Balyuzi came to open it and the speakers on the Saturday were Ian Semple, Dorothy Ferraby and Ernest Gregory and on the Sunday the speakers were Betty Reed and Dorothy Ferraby again. The evening meeting was a public meeting. We formed our first LSA that year
Mary: I was at home in the morning just before I went out to work. Vera Long rang and she gave me the news and said “The Guardian’s dead, your’re not to tell anybody. Hasan Balyuzi was going to announce it on the foreign news and than it will be public then.“ It was a terrible shock and yet a few months before that Shoghi Effendi had appointed nine more Hands of the Cause and everybody was excited and said that some great thing was going to happen but something inside me said ‘no’
In the last batch of Hands to be announced there was John Ferraby and Hasan Balyuzi who at the time were secretary and chairman of the NSA.
Gwen: I wasn’t a Baha’i at that time. When Mary told me, I knew the news upset her but she seemed to have been waiting for it and had had a premonition. She did not go to the Guardian’s funeral. John and Vera Long went and Pat and Ian Sinclair.
GwenOur Assembly ‘s idea was to acquire a new Baha’i Centre for the centenary of Baha’u’ llah’s arrival in the Holy Land. (1868). The house we found had 1868 inscribed on it and it was one of the reasons we bought it! We moved into the Leicester (Baha’i) Centre in 1967 to get it ready. It was a busy time for us.
Just over a year later the Publishing Trust trade counter stopped trading and they had to move the books. John Long asked if we knew of anywhere in Leicester where the books could be stored. I said that we had some rooms upstairs on the top floor and we could store a lot up there. John asked us if we could keep on sending out the pamphlets and the leaflets for the Publishing Trust. We agreed to do that and we soon became the trade counter and were sending out the books as well. We used to despatch the slides for the 1963 Convention.
We had the books in our h.ouse for 4 years. Bill, an architect, was worried about the weight of the books in the house so we kept them all around the walls and not in the middle of the floor. We packed and despatched books from our house each day – almost a full time job. We sent books out all over the world. Our turnover approximately at the end of 3 years was 10,000 orders. We had the job of sending out the many copies of “The Priceless Pearl” for the Iceland Conference. We had a postbox on the corner of the road near the house (for small orders) which was convenient for us, and a large post office near by where we took the parcels. It was really a labour of love!
During those days (1967-71), we used to have some kind of meeting almost every night i n the Baha’i Centre. Bill and Mary went out to work but I was at home all the while and so was able to set things up ready for them. We used to feel that we got divine help during this time.
Quite a few Hands of the Cause visited Leicester. Vera and I and Mrs Shuster used to hold meetings in our homes before we were Bahá’is!
Dr Grossman came and Mr Furutan came twice because his daughter Parvine had become a nurse at the Loughborough Hospital.
When we had the Centre on London Road, Dr Muschlegel came and stayed with us. Bill Sears stayed two nights and two days. John Robarts stayed at the hotel up the road and he used to come in for a meal now and again. They were all moments to treasure!
Teaching Conferences were held in Leicester in January 1964, January 1968 and December 1974.
Two summer schools took place in Leicestershire at which Hands of the Cause were present. 1975 at Scraptoft and 1977 at Loughborough University.
Dr Giachery came to tea one afternoon.(Scraptoft) Mr Haney and Mr Faizi came the first week and the second week Mr Furutan and Dr. Muhajir.
All the Hands had such different personalities. Dr. Muschlegel gave us a lovely safe feeling.
John Ferraby used to give really deep study classes.
In 1970 we heard Ruhiyyih Khanum speak when she came to England for a meeting i n London.
We all pioneered to Wales together in September 1978, first to Colwyn, and then in the early 1980s to Aberconwy. Bill died 31 March 1993.
We have been Bahá’is now a long time and have had many experiences and seen many changes.
Mary: A message we would like to pass on to all Bahá’is is that we should read the actual Writings again and again and again. It is so important to go to the source.
Gwen: Don‘t be disappointed if the Faith doesn’t develop as we expect. Things can happen in different ways. We don’t always understand God’s plans. Don’t expect things to happen too quickly! Once you become a Baha’i you get excited and think everything is going to happen next year but things seem to move a lot more slowly than expected. Have patience!
Mary and Gwen Prince.
22 Hafod Road West, Penrhyn-Bay, Llandudno LL30 3PN