Leonora Armstrong: Spiritual Mother of South America

Leonora Holsapple Armstrong (June 23, 1895 – October 17, 1980) on board the S. S. Vasari bound for Brazil in 1921. (Photo: courtesy of Kristine Leonard Asuncion Young)

“Leonora, what are you waiting for? Go!” Those were the words of May Maxwell to Leonora Holsapple Armstrong. Leonora wanted to go pioneering to South America but her resolve weakened in the face of her friends’ and family’s concerns.

Leonora, like Dorothy Baker, learned of the Baha’i Faith from her grandmother and she attended the 1919 Baha’i Convention in New York City when the Tablets of the Divine Plan were unveiled. She wrote to Abdu’l-Baha, expressing her wish to pioneer and be of service. In His reply, He “expressed the hope that she might become a ‘spiritual physician,’ and this hope of His became her highest aspiration.”1 Martha Root encouraged her to go to Argentina and she began studying Spanish but a contact in Brazil interested in the Faith made her change her plans. 

“I will take the next boat,” Leonora told May Maxwell. And away she went! She was one of a handful of souls who responded to Abdu’l-Baha’s call in His own lifetime. She boarded the S. S. Vasari, bound for Brazil, on January 15th, 1921. She spoke no Portuguese and was traveling alone, something unheard of for women of good character. All of her savings were in her purse: there was enough for two weeks’ accommodations.2 She was 25 years old.

Kristine Ascunsion Young, her great-neice, recounts how difficult Leonora’s early years were:

Leonora’s teaching brought in little money, and the next two years were quite difficult—she said later there were times when she lived only on bananas. But with courage born of her faith in Baha’u’llah and the promises of the Master, she went forward unwaveringly.3

In her obituary, Hooper Dunbar writes “she often suffered loneliness, meager means, malnutrition and illness.”4 Three months after settling in the city of Santos, she received news of the death of her grandmother and not long thereafter, she learned of the Passing of Abdu’l-Baha. A tablet He had written to her, addressed simply “Brazil. To the maidservant of God, Leonora Stirling Holsapple”, comforted her and sustained her – as did the words of Shoghi Effendi. For example, he wrote:

I will pray that you may be guided and fortified by the spirit of our beloved Master Who I am sure is watching over you and sustaining you in your labours. Persevere and never lose heart.5

Leonora moved from city to city as the need arose. She followed the instructions of Shoghi Effendi to prioritize her tasks with teaching first and foremost, translating the Writings secondly, and performing social work (her profession) lastly. While living in Recife, Leonora married Harold Armstong, an English engineer, whose income freed Leonora to devote herself to the Faith. Hooper Dunbar eulogized her with these words:

A survey of Leonora Armstrong’s tireless pioneer activities must necessarily span six decades of continual service. Her achievements marked a high tide in human endeavor. Whether in her constant teaching of individuals, her historic travels, the publicity she garnered for the Cause wherever she went, her herculean labor of translating, publishing, and disseminating Baha’i literature both in Portuguese and Spanish, her work in spreading the Message through correspondence, or her eventual material contributions to the community, she stands out eminently distinguished. Through the years she also engaged in social service whenever possible, and became known in the press as the ‘Nurse of the Poor’.6

Twice during her first decade as a pioneer, Leonora’s father paid for her return home. Leonora would visit as many countries as she could en route back to the United States. In this way, Leonora was able to share the teachings of the Faith in city after city, country after country. Hooper Dundar writes,

The visits of this pure, self-effacing soul, so modest in her personal life, were, paradoxically, always amply reported in the press. And she often enjoyed the spontaneous cooperation and support of various organizations in arranging public meetings. All this occurred in some places within hours of her arrival!7

In 1973, Leonora was appointed a Continental Counsellor for South America by the Universal House of Justice. The spiritual influence she would exert on the communities she visited were far-reaching. Hooper Dunbar movingly states:

It was always a spiritual feast to be with her. She seemed to move in the shadow of her Guardian, and one always felt him close in her presence.8

Kristine also writes:

Her efforts were untiring. For example, as she supervised construction of the [Baha’i Centre] in Juiz de Fora, she stood leaning in the doorway, balancing the galley proofs of Selections from the Writings of the Bab on her left arm while making corrections with her right hand.9

Leonora passed away on October 17, 1980. The Universal House of Justice cabled the following in tribute to her:

Hearts saddened passing distinguished Counsellor Leonora Stirling Armstrong Herald of the Kingdom Beloved Handmaiden Abdu’l-Baha Spiritual Mother of South America. Her sixty years valiant service Cause Brazil shed lustre annals Faith that promising land. Request memorial services Mashriqu’l-Adhkars Wilmette Panama. Urge all communities Brazil likewise hold services. Offering ardent supplications Most Holy Shrines progress her radiant spirit Abha Kingdom.10

I am also moved by Ruhiyyih Khanum’s words about Leonora’s life:

The study of such a life as Leonora’s, a life of complete consecration to Baha’u’llah and His teachings, a life of ceaseless work which lasted till a few hours before her passing at the age of eighty-five, a life in which it never even occurred to Leonora that she was sacrificing – such a life is a manual for every generation of Baha’is to study and presents an enduring challenge to all those who would follow in her footsteps.11

The more I learn about Leonora, the more I love her. I hope this short piece gives you a glimpse of the strength of her character!


  1. Kristine Leonard Asuncion Young, Armstrong, Councellor Leonora: A Loving Portrait, retrieved from http://bahai-library.com/asuncion_leonora_armstrong []
  2. Hooper Dunbar, Obituary to Leonora Stirling Armstrong, The Baha’i World, Vol. XVIII, p. 733 []
  3. Kristine Leonard Asuncion, Armstrong, Councellor Leonora: A Loving Portrait, retrieved from http://bahai-library.com/asuncion_leonora_armstrong []
  4. Hooper Dunbar, Obituary to Leonora Stirling Armstrong, The Baha’i World, Vol. XVIII, p. 735 []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Ibid., p.736 []
  8. Ibid., p. 737 []
  9. Kristine Leonard Asuncion Young, Armstrong, Councellor Leonora: A Loving Portrait, retrieved from http://bahai-library.com/asuncion_leonora_armstrong []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Hooper Dunbar, Obituary to Leonora Stirling Armstrong, The Baha’i World, Vol. XVIII, p. 738 []

About the Author

In her innermost heart, Sonjel is a stay-at-home parent and a bookworm with a maxed out library card but professionally she is a museologist with a background in English Literature. She currently lives on Prince Edward Island, an isle in the shape of a smile on the eastern Canadian coast. Sonjel is a writer who loves to listen to jazz when she's driving at night.

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Discussion 17 Comments

  1. She was a dear friend of Doris McKay and there is much in Baha’i World about her. Will share what I know of her through reading Doris McKay’s Fires in Many Hearts. These early believers had such fire in their hearts and I think many will just carry that same fire because of their stories and their sacrifices. I find I love these people with all my heart and soul and they are with me every day as I try to humbly teach and attract the waiting souls.
    Leonare Holsapple Armstrong was insecure and struggled with self worth according to my understanding. Nevertheless she got on that boat at May Maxwell’s urging and I think Doris’. She took in 9 orphans and ironing and said when they grow up, we can form an Assembly. Fires in Many Hearts is like a sequel to Dorothy Baker’s biography written by her granddaughter

    Dear friends for this aging believer of 50 years the souls whose lives we have witnessed sustain and galvanize us on our path. For me sacrifice to this Cause pulsates within me because of all of them and all of us.
    Bill DeTally, my husband, and I, were going back to Ukraine either after being in 1sr Marion Hack group or first year in Dnepropetrovdk, Ukraine. We had seen our friends in Ca and our pug was cared for in Ca for the year and we were back in Jamestown, New York. People praise pioneers and look at them with glowing eyes. We were received in that manner, but my heart felt like a stump and I muttered to myself my sadness of this stump. We went to a play in Cambridge Springs about Martha Root. That evening after the play we went to a private home and the Canadian actress said that Doris’s book gave her a lot of material about Martha Root. I ordered that book as soon as I could and read it within two days I felt like a rocket ready to burst into outer space I wrote to Doris McKay who was bed ridden and I think 98 at the time I will forever be grateful that the flame was relit. All of the recorded talks and stories keep this flame up at a steady high. Love to all!

    1. I should edit this. The typos are dreadful. How do I do it? Hooper in one of his talks mentioned a biography. Has there been one written. These wondrous oeople sustain me. Have you read William Henry Randall?

      1. Hi Esther! I took the liberty and cleaned up some of the typos for you. You are always welcome to resubmit your comment and I can delete the old one if you’d like.

        I believe a biography of Leonora is currently in the works but it is not yet available. I have not read William Henry Randall but now my interest has been piqued!

        I am so delighted that you mentioned Fires in Many Hearts. My dad, Paul Vreeland, helped Doris put her biography together and I am delighted that it has had such an inspiring effect!

  2. Dear Sonjel,
    You’ve done a marvelous job in your writing of capturing her spirit as well as her timidity. Warmest thanks for this lovely tribute to my great aunt, as the process continues here in compiling a longer biography of her amazing adventures!
    Love, Kristine

    1. Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words, Kristine, and thank you for the use of your photograph and your continual loving efforts to compile her biography! I eagerly look forward to the day when it is completed!

  3. A heartwarming story which resonates with me for she brought the Faith to (British)Guyana in one of her stopovers. She was called the ‘Mother Teacher of South America’.
    Thanks for sharing Sonjel!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing that, Molly! We were so inspired by the story of her life and her character that Zaynab’s middle name is Leonora. We hope she follows in her incredible footsteps!

  4. I saw this and the name Leonora … and thought I will comment. To my surprise i began reading a piece and then discovered i wrote it. Marion Jack. I had Hack. There are more wonderful accounts out there. Check out George Tonald. O frabjous day. Sonjel u know we knew your mother-in-law and had her out to Pasadena. I was in her And the Trees Clapped Their Hands. Alas alack dont do blog rigjt now: aging computer, aging me but busy and super active in Altadena ca. Thanks for all u do

  5. Thank you for publishing this article. Prior to reading your blog, I had only heard oral histories in passing. Might you have an update on the status of her biography?`

    1. Dear Anne,
      Thanks for your interest~the manuscript is with editors at George Ronald. The amount of material was overwhelming – hoping it won’t take too terribly long.
      Warmest greetings from Alaska,
      Kristine Leonard Young

  6. Happy Leonora Holsapple Armstrong Day! Today, 1st February 1921 marks the day she arrived in Brazil accomplishing the unimaginable and being given the title, “Spiritual Mother of the Baha’is of South America”. to celebrate, I’ve uploaded an edited version of the presentation given by her grand niece on Harry’s Deepenings to YouTube https://youtu.be/-CbJrszyktw

  7. Thank you Dave, for the opportunity to share once again some more about the life of my great aunt, Dona Leonora, and hopefully to continue to inspire others. Your fireside forum is a marvelous service, but the added gift of the recording for posterity is so very appreciated! Alláh’u’Abhá!

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