The journey of 24-year-old Lilian Wyss to “immortal distinction” as a Knight of Baha’u’llah fittingly began with a journey in a sea plane from her homeland of Australia to New Zealand.
It was December 1953 and Lilian was on her way to the midmost heart of the Pacific Ocean, a location now emblazoned in the minds of Baha’is by a promise of Baha’u’llah:
Should they attempt to conceal His light on the continent, He will assuredly rear His head in the midmost heart of the ocean and, raising His voice, proclaim: ‘I am the lifegiver of the world!’
After the seaplane landed in Auckland harbour, Lilian attended a summer school where she met her future husband, Suhayl Ala’i, and then boarded a small ship, the MV Matua, to sail off to her destiny, Samoa. She had little information about the islands.
Once the ship arrived and moored off Apia, she was rowed to shore, and on 14 January 1954 became the first Baha’i pioneer to set foot in Samoa, thereby receiving the accolade from Shoghi Effendi as “Knight of Baha’u’llah to the Samoa Islands”.
Lilian Wyss Ala’i, as she was known after her marriage, was born in Sydney on 2 July 1929 and passed away on 20 April 2023 on the Gold Coast in Australia where she was farewelled at a well-attended funeral eight days later.
“Knight of Baha’u’llah” is a glorious title but one to which she did not draw attention. Humility was one of her outstanding characteristics, which also included a practical turn of mind, a deep love of prayer and a sociable nature with a sense of humour indicated by a twinkle in her eye.
When Lilian first arrived in Samoa, she encountered a society that was largely village-based, not a modern economy. She bought a bicycle so was able to move about but it was difficult for an unmarried young woman to participate fully in the community.
Her destiny, however, with her husband Suhayl, was to win the hearts of many Samoan friends and to see the flowering of a Baha’i community that would embrace the first reigning Monarch in the world to become a Baha’i: His Highness Susuga Malietoa Tanumafili II. And she was to see the Baha’i “Mother Baha’i Temple for the Pacific Islands” rise up in white crystalline beauty in its exquisite tropical setting near Apia.
The beginnings of this great spiritual adventure occurred many years prior when Lilian was a junior youth on a train taking pupils to a high school in Bowral, country New South Wales during World War 2. Lilian, living on the family poultry farm in Tahmoor, met three Baha’i siblings, members of the Bolton family, who joined the train at Yerrinbool, and who told her about their faith.
She was interested in this religion, particularly as she had been disappointed at the lack of answers to her questions about why Christians were fighting fellow Christians in the war while other religions were disparaged.
Lilian discovered the book Gleanings with its superb translations of excerpts of Baha’u’llah’s sacred Writings. She said that such was their power she felt they could not have been written by an ordinary human being. She also saw that Baha’u’llah had a plan to end war, something she had not seen anywhere else.
Guided in her investigations by an adult Baha’i, Maysie Almond, Lilian became a Baha’i at a Yerrinbool winter school on 5 June 1944, a month before she turned 15.
Lilian’s parents, Swiss immigrants, were happy about their 14-year-old’s new faith, and her mother accepted it for herself shortly afterwards, with her husband fully supportive of their choices.
It seems that Lilian’s high school was especially blessed, attended as it was by two others who were to become Knights of Baha’u’llah: Lilian’s lively older brother Frank (Cocos Islands) and Stanley Bolton (Tonga). After they left school, another pupil to win Baha’i distinction enrolled there–Peter Khan, who was to later serve as a member of the Universal House of Justice.
Lilian, who loved animals all her long life, had wanted to be a veterinarian but the family could not afford for her to attend university. Instead she graduated from a business college, and that proved a blessing because she put to use the skills learned there in Baha’i administrative posts as well as in her employment and later the family business.
Lilian undertook Baha’i service in Europe and particularly Norway but returned to Australia where, at the age of 23, she was elected on to the National Spiritual Assembly of Australia and New Zealand. Asked why she came back, she referred to the direction of Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian to whom she was deeply devoted and whom she instantly obeyed.
Lilian was one of six members of that Assembly to pioneer during the Ten Year Crusade, winning for that institution high praise from Shoghi Effendi, who said its response to his call for pioneers surpassed that of any other national body in the world.
Her first months in Samoa had mixed blessings. Lilian soon became ill after being bitten by a centipede. She also contracted pneumonia and hepatitis. Her employer and his wife cared for her. In November 1954, she made it over to Fiji with a Samoan friend, her bridesmaid, to marry Suhayl and then accompany him back on the MV Matua to Apia.
By 1959 the couple and their two children settled in American Samoa where their third child was born. They later established a business there.
Lilian Wyss Ala’i was a pillar of the community and along with Suhayl and seven others, she was an inaugural member on Samoa’s first Local Spiritual Assembly, that of Apia, in 1957. She was elected as a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the South Pacific Ocean in the late 1960s, and in 1970, as an inaugural member of the National Spiritual Assembly of Samoa (later named Samoa and American Samoa), an institution she served for 19 years.
Lilian served as a highly practical and efficient secretary and treasurer for many years. She helped organize and often presented monthly television programs about the Faith, and was a loving friend to the increasing number of Samoans who became Baha’is. She loved living in Samoa, had a beautiful garden at the family home, a lively place with three children and many pets.
Her beloved husband Suhayl, a man of great sincerity, honesty and charm, served as a Baha’i Counsellor from 1968-1990, and later as a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of Samoa. Sadly, he passed away in 1995. That great loss to Lilian was not the end of her suffering. The youngest of her three dearly loved children, Riaz, died of a long illness the next year.
Her service to the Baha’i community did not slow during her mourning, in fact it increased; her ability to work long and hard was astounding to others. She was a member of Baha’i educational institutes, taught deepening classes, was a Local Spiritual Assembly member, a Deputy Trustee of Huququ’llah for Northeast Pacific, and a member of the board of the international Baha’i magazine, Herald of the South.
After being in her pioneering post for nearly 57 years, Lilian developed health issues which prompted her to move back to Australia. Lilian, aged 81, went to Queensland to live with her daughter Sitarih and her husband Ruhy, and was received at the airport with an emotional welcome by local Baha’is of Samoan background and former pioneers to Samoa. Her acts of service continued. Lilian hosted Holy Days and Feasts, tutored study circles, attended Pasifika Baha’i gatherings, was a member of a senior Baha’i group, and hosted visits by young people, whom she encouraged.
While in a rest home in her last years, this Knight of Baha’u’llah won over those who nursed her by her essential loveliness, her shining spirituality.
At her funeral, her son, Badi, paid an eloquent tribute to her, as did her grandchildren, who recalled how they loved spending as much time as possible with her. She was a nurturing, fun-loving and non-critical grandmother.
At the funeral, Samoan men paid tribute to her by dressing in traditional clothing and displaying traditional tattoos.
Tears flowed when representatives of the Samoan community came forward to declare her their spiritual queen and mother.
Michael Day is the author of a new book, “Point of Adoration. The story of the Shrine of Baha’u’llah 1873-1892.” He is also the author of “Journey to a Mountain”, “Coronation on Carmel” and “Sacred Stairway”, a trilogy that tells the story of the Shrine of the Bab. His photo book “Fragrance of Glory” is an account of the Ascension of Abdu’l-Baha. A former member of the New Zealand Baha’i community, Michael now lives in Australia. He was editor of the Baha’i World News Service in Haifa 2003-2006.