Jean-Baptiste Louis Bourgeois (1856 – 1930)
Louis Bourgeois designed the first Bahá’í House of Worship in the West, located on the shores of Lake Michigan just north of Chicago. It is now one of the protected historical sites in the United States, a building of extraordinary beauty and fascinating detail.
Louis Bourgeois was born in Saint-Célestin de Nicolet, Québec, on 19 March 1856. He had shown a talent for drawing since the age of eight. Attracted to architecture, he worked as a clerk in a church contractor’s office in Trois-Rivières. The experience gained in this office enabled him to plan the construction of the Church of Saint Wenceslas in 1892.
Mr. Bourgeois faced many challenges in his life. His wife, Marie Gronville, mother of their three children, died young, resulting in an emotional depression that affected his work. In debt from his wife’s medical bills, he decided to move to Montréal and apprentice as a sculptor with his cousin, Louis-Philippe Hébert, in Napoléon Bourassa’s atelier, and work on plans for a church in Longueuil. Mr. Bourassa made it possible for his two apprentices to study in Paris. Mr. Hébert returned after to Montréal, where he created monuments to such figures as Maisonneuve, Crémazie, Jeanne Mance and Monsignor Bourget. When Mr. Hébert went back to Paris, however, his cousin had disappeared. Mr. Bourgeois’ family began receiving messages from him, recounting his travels in Italy, Greece, Egypt and Persia.
In 1886, Mr. Bourgeois resurfaced in Chicago. His talent eventually led him to meet and work with Louis Sullivan, one of the architectural giants of the 20th century. Later, he moved to California and became a friend of Paul de Longpré, the renowned French painter. There, he gave French lessons to de Longpré’s daughters. Louis Bourgeois and Alice, one of the daughters, later fell in love and married.
In New York City, in the winter of 1906 to 1907, Louis Bourgeois became a Bahá’í. He found two of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings particularly captivating: the essential unity of all religions, and the organic relationship between the religious impulse and artistic creation. From New York, he moved to West Englewood (now Teaneck), New Jersey, to help develop its Bahá’í community.
In April 1909, architects in the United States and Canada were invited to submit designs for the Bahá’í temple, and Mr. Bourgeois made a presentation. In April 1920, 15 designs were displayed at a Bahá’í convention. After much discussion, Mr. Bourgeois’ design was chosen by the delegates.
On 11 January 1921, Mr. Bourgeois sailed with his wife, Alice, and his friend L.B. Pemberton to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and show Him his design for the temple. Many tests and difficulties had faced Mr. Bourgeois up to that point, and many followed relating to the particular demands of constructing and financing this unique structure. Despite bouts of ill health, he refused to stop working on the temple. His faith, determination and vision enabled him to persevere.
In late July 1930, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada telegraphed several Bahá’í communities, informing them that Louis Bourgeois was very ill and asking for special meetings to pray for his recovery. For a time, his condition improved, but on 20 August 1930, at the age of 74, Louis Bourgeois passed away.
His remarkable Bahá’í House of Worship, the “Temple of Light,” was officially opened in 1953.
* Adapted from Bruce W. Whitmore, The Dawning Place (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1984), pp. 76-86.