A history marked by devotion, service, and courage, driven by young Leonora Armstrong, left a legacy that unfolds in vibrant communities flourishing throughout Brazil
This year, Bahá’ís in South America celebrate the centenary of Leonora Armstrong’s arrival in Brazil. Her historic importance is owed to the fact that she was the first follower of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, to settle on the continent. Inspired by her religious interests, she worked tirelessly alongside countless Brazilians to respond to the most diverse social needs.
Born in the United States on June 23, 1895, she arrived in our country, docking in Rio de Janeiro on February 1, 1921, at the age of 25. Leonora was a singular figure who, moving unaccompanied to a ‘strange’ continent, broke the barriers of what a young, well-educated, single woman should do in the 20th century. Extremely shy and lacking self-confidence, her story exemplifies a life of courage and total sacrifice toward others.
Initially, what attracted her to South America was the openness and receptivity to the ideas contained in Bahá´í Teachings. Theosophists in the city of Santos, among them, the artist and journalist Angelo Guido, had exchanged correspondence with Bahá´ís in the United States because they wanted to know more about the nascent religion. The aim of Leonara to promulgate a universalist cause, share a message that elaborates on themes of gender equality, overcoming prejudices, and eliminating extremes between the wealthy and poor was stronger than the obstacles she faced.
She started her life in Salvador, rented a building in Cidade Baixa, and opened a daycare center where she cared for abandoned children. In her sincere desire to help others, she gave temporary shelter to war refugees and, on several occasions, made space in her small rooms for children or single mothers in need of temporary help. Despite being a teacher by profession, she became known among the poor as a lay nurse, including offering support during a cholera outbreak in Ceará. Throughout her life, she was involved in volunteer work in social service institutions.
In addition to Salvador, she lived in Rio de Janeiro for several years and spent the last ten years of her life in Juiz de Fora in the state of Minas Gerais. She traveled for 60 years throughout Brazil, always in simple buses—from Porto Alegre to Manaus and Belém, from Belo Horizonte to Salvador, and from there to all the capitals of the Northeast.
Leonora took on many types of services to support herself—giving private English classes, running a small school and even working as a bookkeeper for a workshop and car agency.
She also stood out for her work as a translator. She soon learned Portuguese and Spanish and translated the first books of the Bahá’í Faith into these two languages, publishing several works in the 1930s and 40s. Today, there are hundreds of titles about the Bahá’í Faith in these languages, with more than one hundred thousand copies in print throughout Latin America because of Leonora’s initial efforts.
She was also an active defender of women’s rights, serving as an inspiring light for women’s work in promoting world peace and education.
Leonora stopped only when she had no physical strength left. In her last moments of life, in 1980, she recorded a message in a weak voice, but with powerful and encouraging words, addressing 300 women gathered in Brasilia for an international women’s conference on October 17—the same day Leonora Armstrong passed away.
She received several honors after her death, including from authorities and prominent people. In her memory, today, we have more than a dozen schools and daycare centers, particularly in the states of Amazonas, Pará, and Bahia.
From her pioneering spirit, Brazilians from all social classes and lifestyles have come closer to the Bahá’í Faith, making up a diverse and comprehensive community representative of our country. Currently, in all states, these people are dedicated to translating Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings into action, contributing to the construction of a more united and just society, alongside individuals and organizations that share this same ideal.
Text written by the Bahá’í National Spiritual Assembly
For more information:
Email the Secretariat for Actions with Society and Government: firstname.lastname@example.org
Official websites of the Bahá’í Community of Brazil: bahaullah.org.br; bahai.org.br