Clara Dunn: A Spiritual Pioneer

By Michael Day
When Clara Dunn introduced the Baha’i Faith to Australia with her husband, Hyde Dunn, in 1920, she immediately began to exemplify a major principle of the religion, the equality of women and men.
For the next two decades until Hyde’s death, Clara Dunn (1869-1960) worked shoulder to shoulder with her husband to spread the word about the new religion. After he died in 1941, she kept up the pace.
A woman taking on such a prominent role in religious affairs was rare in Australia during the decades from 1920-60 when females were required to remain in the background.
Clara lived to witness the emergence of local Baha’i communities across the continent and a well-functioning national Baha’i administrative framework. Near the end of her life she participated in the foundation ceremony of the Baha’i House of Worship in Sydney, now a city landmark.
Early years
There had been no indication in her early years that Clara would have an opportunity to play such a leading role in religious history.
The first three decades of her life were marked by difficulties. Clara, born in London but raised in Canada, had an unhappy childhood caused by the quarrelling of her parents. The tragic death by accident of her first husband left her in her late teens with a baby whom she had to foster out because she could not afford to raise him. Illness and unemployment plagued her.
Aged 33, she moved to the United States where, five years later, the foundations were laid for her Baha’i destiny.
In 1907 Clara met John Henry Hyde Dunn, who told her about the teachings of Baha’u’llah. Clara quickly became a Baha’i.
Another five years passed until in 1912 she again met Hyde, as he preferred to be known, this time at the house where Abdu’l-Baha, the head of the Baha’i Faith, was delivering one of many compelling talks on a lecture tour of North America.
In later years Clara often recalled the “indescribable” experience of being in Abdu’l-Baha’s presence. “Oh, His smile was so beautiful!” she said, adding that He was “radiant and glorious looking”.
That meeting with this magnetic and spiritually uplifting figure was to inspire Clara and Hyde until the end of their long lives.
Hyde Dunn’s first wife, Fanny, also a Baha’i, died in 1916. A year later Clara and Hyde married.
 In 1919 the couple read a message from Abdu’l-Baha that was to change their lives. It was a call for pioneers to take the Baha’i message to many regions throughout the world. “Australasia” was specifically named, and in a later personal message to the Dunns, Abdu'l-Baha said their plan to go to Australia was “highly advisable”.
On 10 April 1920, Clara and Hyde arrived in Sydney. By setting foot on Australian soil they were elevated into that rare group of individuals who can be identified as the first to bring an independent world religion to a continent.
Clara was the first to find a job, and some five months later Hyde gained a position as a travelling salesman. This development enabled Clara to quit her job, accompany Hyde around Australia, and make use of her special skills to further their joint mission in life. They also visited New Zealand and assisted the Baha’is there.
Clara and Hyde operated as a team. While Hyde worked during the day, Clara made friends who she would invite to Baha’i meetings to hear her husband speak about the essential Baha’i teachings: the oneness of God, the fundamental unity of world religions, and the oneness of the human family.
An elegant, dignified man, Hyde was a brilliantly gifted speaker but he was exercising his skills in a religiously conservative environment. It took two long years before Oswald Whitaker, a Sydney optometrist, became the first Australian to join the faith. Soon afterwards, Effie Baker, a photographer in Melbourne, became the first woman in Australia to accept the teachings of Baha’u’llah.
Those two declarations of faith established the foundation on which rests today’s Australian Baha’i community which is active in all States and Territories and in most towns and rural areas.
Clara worked strenuously to help build up the faith’s administrative structure in Australia, an essential task in the development of a religious community which has no clergy.
After returning from a Baha’i pilgrimage to Haifa and Acre in the Holy Land, she actively encouraged the establishment of a national Baha’i governing body, an event that occurred in 1934 with the election of the first National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Australia and New Zealand.
After Hyde’s death during World War II, Clara emerged as an impressive speaker in her own right. Her activities did not noticeably slow even as she moved into advanced years.
In 1952 the head of the Faith, Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957) publicly recognised Hyde and Clara by naming each a Hand of the Cause of God, a position recognising their spiritual eminence.
Clara Dunn had experienced widowhood twice, unemployment, religious prejudice, the loss of her son, ill health and financial difficulties, yet near the end of her days when she was asked to recount the difficulties in her life, she said there weren’t any worth speaking of. Problems she had encountered, Clara said, had served the purpose of enabling her to understand the trials of others.
At an event in Sydney in 2010 marking the 50th anniversary of her death, Dr Peter Khan, who had known her when he was a young man, described how Clara dealt with her many personal difficulties.
“In a very real sense, she conquered herself,” said Dr Khan, a recently retired member of the Faith’s international governing body, the Universal House of Justice.
“She overcame these great, formidable obstacles in her life and they were the vehicle for her spiritual development,” said Dr Khan, who singled out her quality of perseverance “year after year, decade after decade”.
Those remembering Clara Dunn speak also of her humility, serenity and vigour, and of the joy she brought into people’s lives.
Viva Rodwell, now in her 90s and living in Sydney, recalls Clara’s “gorgeous chuckle and her wonderful sense of humour”.
Mariette Leong, also of Sydney, was a child when Clara visited her family home and has happy memories: “She loved fun and joy -- she was no stuffy, pious old lady!”
Anecdotes abound: she liked to be driven fast in a car, she loved playing with children and giving them little gifts, she sought out black jellybeans, she always kept in touch with notes and letters. A nurse by profession, she had a gift of healing.
But people who remember her quickly move on from such stories to describe the inspiring experience of seeing and hearing her recite the uplifting and poetic prayers that are dear to the hearts of all Baha’is.
“She said prayers so dramatically and sincerely you never forgot it,” Mrs Rodwell recalls.
Those attending a service near the Dunns’ graveside at Sydney’s Woronora cemetery on the 50th anniversary of Clara’s passing were privileged to hear a recording of her at prayer. Her earnest words soared in praise. It was a world apart from any formulaic reading of words on paper. Among the words of this sacred text was this supplication, one that seemed to have been fully granted: “Loose my tongue to laud Thy name amidst Thy people that my voice may be raised in great assemblies and from my lips may stream the flood of Thy praise.”
In 1958, just two years before she passed away at the age of 91, Clara Dunn played a key role in the laying of the foundation of the Baha’i House of Worship in Australia’s biggest city, where she and her husband had once lived as the only two Baha’is on the continent.
It was a dramatic and moving moment, a fitting and symbolic finale to four decades of raising up an Australian Baha’i Community.
Upon her passing, the Hands of the Cause in the Holy Land sent a cable reminding the entire Baha’i world, including a grieving Australian Baha’i community, that Clara Dunn had responded to ‘Abdul-Baha’s plan and had “rendered unique, unforgettable pioneer service over a forty year period”.

Above: Clara Dunn in 1957

In November 2010, Australian Baha'is marked the fiftieth anniversary of Clara Dunn's passing with a nationwide series of events.  Read more