Knight of Bahá’u’lláh
published in Bahá’í World, Vol. 18 (1979-1983), pages 610-825
Haifa, Israel: Baha’i World Centre, 1986
Ottilie Rhein, named by the beloved Guardian a Knight of Bahá’u’lláh for having pioneered to the Island of Mauritius in 1953,1 passed on to the Abhá Kingdom on 29 October 1979 in San Mateo, California. She was laid to rest in the beautiful hills overlooking an expanse of the great Pacific Ocean.
Oceans were not a barrier to Ottilie’s adventuresome spirit. She was to cross and recross the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian Oceans by both sea and air. She set goals for herself and went about accomplishing them regardless of the perils she might face. As a young girl she left her native Germany to seek adventure in the United States where she settled in Chicago and managed a building in which she rented rooms. One of her tenants, Betty Powers, had in her room a photograph of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which aroused Ottilie’s passing interest — she thought Him a Holy Man — but through changing her job Ottilie lost contact with the Bahá’ís until 1941 when the distress and loneliness occasioned by World War II caused her to be drawn irresistibly to the Bahá’í Temple.
After attending meetings conducted by Melvin Newport and Albert Windust, Ottilie gave her heart and life to Bahá’u’lláh. ‘The Guardian will pray that, in the days to come, you may render the Faith many lasting and noteworthy services,’ Shoghi Effendi’s secretary wrote to her on his behalf on 10 December 1942. Almost immediately Ottilie arose to pioneer in Arizona to fill a goal of the Seven Year Plan in that State. From here she moved to San Mateo, California, where her dear Bahá’í friend, Mrs. Lisette Berger, made her welcome. San Mateo became the base to which she would return from her various international pioneering posts when necessity dictated. As a naturalized citizen of the United States she could not be away from the country for more than five years without losing her citizenship.
Ottilie was present at the International Conference in Chicago in 1953 when the beloved Guardian launched the Ten Year Crusade. All hearts were touched and a flood of volunteers arose in response to the call for pioneers. But Ottilie was always a person of action and she was one of the first to put her affairs in order and leave. She stored some of her belongings with Mrs. Berger and departed
1 Shoghi Effendi, Messages to the Bahá’í World, p. 57.
with only minimal luggage. She had thought of joining Rex and Mary Collison in Uganda but the Guardian had specified the settlement of virgin areas so she determined to go to Mauritius, an island mentioned by name in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Tablets of the Divine Plan and one ‘whose name was enshrined in Bahá’í history during the Heroic Age … as the source, two years before ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s arrival in America, of a contribution towards the purchase of the site of the Mother Temple of the West’.1 She poured over maps, atlases and encyclopedias but could discover very little about the island except that it had a mixed population, that sugar cane was the chief crop raised and that French and English were spoken. But that was enough for her, and excitedly she boarded a ship at Mombasa after having visited Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika (now Tanzania). She arrived in a heavy downpour on 11 November 1953. Shoghi Effendi’s cable — ASSURE RHEIN LOVING APPRECIATION — was relayed to her on 4 December by Paul E. Haney, then chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States.
Ottilie’s utter trust in Bahá’u’lláh enabled her to overcome the difficulties she encountered. She rejoiced at obtaining a visa which was good for six months and which later was extended to three years plus three months. With the assistance of a German missionary she found a house which offered the barest necessities but which provided a setting for Bahá’í meetings. Her first shopping expedition, occasioned by the urgent need to acquire mosquito netting, led her to a shop whose proprietor, Mr. Him Lim, a Chinese, became the first resident of Mauritius to accept the Faith. When she had enrolled two Bahá’ís and had interested a number of inquirers, Mr. Jalál Nakhjavání,2 and later another Persian believer, visited the island and assisted with the teaching work. By 1956, just before her visa expired, there were forty Bahá’ís, enough to form three Local Spiritual Assemblies. Although some vacillated at the last moment, Ottilie was determined not to be deprived of victory.
By sheer determination she confirmed some new believers and induced others to change residence with the result that there were established — as she later recorded — ‘three Local Spiritual Assemblies for the three years of teaching’. A strong and self-reliant foundation had been laid. This victory made it possible for Mauritius to send a delegate to the historic first Regional Convention convened at the farm of Mr. and Mrs. William Sears, near Johannesburg, South Africa, at Ridván 156. But Ottilie’s service in Mauritius was at an end. Her request for an extension of her visa was refused although she called upon the Governor who listened sympathetically to her appeal and was attentive to her explanation of the Faith. This same gentleman — Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam — later became Prime Minister and addressed the Bahá’í Oceanic Conference held in Mauritius in August 1970. Ottilie had the bounty of attending that gathering and of receiving his smile of recognition.
After leaving Mauritius she remained in Kampala for a time lending much needed assistance in the production of Bahá’í literature until it became necessary for her to return to the United States to safeguard her citizenship. But her restless spirit could not be idle
1 The Universal House of Justice, The Bahá’í World, vol. XV, p. 299.
2 See ‘In Memoriam’, p. 797.
when the Faith needed pioneers. By 1959 she had saved enough money to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and then settle in Chile where, by living frugally, she was able to remain from 1960 until 1963. Chile was her last international venture, but in her home community of San Mateo she could always be depended upon to contribute her share to every activity. One of her greatest joys was to keep in touch with her Bahá’í friends throughout the world.
On 27 December 1978 the secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of Mauritius wrote to Ottilie Rhein, addressing her as ‘Spiritual Mother of Mauritius’, and conveying ‘deep love and gratitude on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of the Faith in Mauritius … It is highly significant that God’s Message for this day was planted in this island by a lady. We turn our hearts in thanksgiving to Bahá’u’lláh that you were chosen for this and we pray to Him that He may shower all His blessings on you and bring you eternal joy and happiness. Present generations may not be aware of the import of such a feat by you, but your name will forever be associated with the Faith in Mauritius and future generations will befittingly mark the event of your first coming to Mauritius. It may not be without meaning that when you landed in Mauritius on that morning of Sunday, the 11th November 1953, it was raining heavily — the happy presage of a bountiful harvest … ‘
And again, on 21 February 1979, ‘We were deeply touched to read the copy of the letter the Universal House of Justice addressed to you on the 29th November 1978 and appreciate your kind thoughts for Mauritius. It is incredible that a quarter of a century has elapsed since you arrived in Mauritius. The seed you planted has grown and it has no doubt been sustained by your love, devotion and sincerity in the Cause of God … We have now seventy-four Local Spiritual Assemblies … ‘
Ottilie remained in spirit a true pioneer right to the end. In her life she manifested the seven qualifications of the divinely enlightened soul mentioned by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in one of His Tablets: knowledge of God, faith, steadfastness, truthfulness, uprightness, fidelity and evanescence or humility. She was honoured at the time of her passing with the following cable from the Universal House of Justice:
SADDENED LEARN PASSING OTTILIE RHEIN DEVOTED MAIDSERVANT BLESSED BEAUTY KNIGHT BAHAULLAH MAURITIUS STEADFAST PERSEVERING IN PIONEER POSTS MANY YEARS UNDER DIFFICULT CONDITIONS. OFFERING LOVING PRAYERS SACRED THRESHOLD PROGRESS HER VALIANT SOUL ABHA KINGDOM. KINDLY CONVEY CONDOLENCES HER FAMILY OUR BEHALF. (Adapted from a memoir by VALERA F. ALLEN)