The marble plaque in the foyer of the Arbab Rustom Guiv Darbe Mehr in Chicago reads: “This Darbe Mehr is a memorial to the men, women and children whose inspiration, determination and courage manifested itself in the realization of this Center, and is dedicated to their children who shall carry the torch of Zoroastrianism for future generations in North America.” It is now over a decade since the Darbe Mehr was inaugurated, and the second generation of Chicago area Zoroastrians is just emerging, to live up to the promise of “carrying the torch” and holding it high.
While not one of the largest in size (the ZAC directory lists about 600 men, women and children in Illinois and neighboring mid-Western states: Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin), the Chicago community can certainly claim to be one of the more enterprising, involved, dynamic, and most importantly, cohesive, groups of Zoroastrians in North America. Parsis and Iranis together have contributed to perpetuate their traditions and enrich the American community.
Today, the Darbe Mehr is a focus for the community’s spiritual, religious and social growth. The ZAC calendar is packed. Jashne Sadeh, NavRoz, Mehergan and Gahambars, are celebrated with Iranian flair, usually orchestrated by Iranian families. Parsi traditions prevail at the Pateti function in August, and for the preceding five days of the Muktad ceremonies. There is “Couples Night Out” to celebrate Valentine’s Day, a Halloween Party with costumes, a Graduation Party in June, an annual picnic and camping trip, a children’s Christmas Party and a New Year’s eve dinner dance. At Avan-Ardivisur-Parab, ladies (and some gentlemen) gather at the Darbe Mehr for an all-day session making Dar-ni-Poris. The second Sunday of each month is reserved for a ZAC Board meeting followed by communal prayers, Dhansakh lunch and a lecture program. Senior outings are held once a month. The monthly children’s Religion Education classes are well-attended, preceded by “sleepovers” at member’s homes.
The cornerstone of the community is formed by its priesthood. Chicago is fortunate to have the services of Ervads Dr. Kersey Antia, (who was honored with a shawl by ZAC in 1977, as Head Priest of the Chicago area Zoroastrians) and his sons Mazda and Jimmy, Jamshed Antia, Behram Daboo, Neriosang Karanjia and his son Zarvan, Ardaviraf Minocherhomji, Keikhosrow Mobed, Jamshed Ravji, and Pesi Vazifdar and his sons Hoshi and Neville. They serve on a voluntary basis, performing Navjotes, Weddings, Jashans, Funerals and other ceremonies for Zoroastrians in Chicago and across North America.
Early Zoroastrian presence
While there may have been a few Zarthustis in and out of the Chicago area in the early part of this century, on a recorded basis, Zoroastrian presence began in the late 40’s (post World War II) attracted primarily by the prospects of higher education and better jobs. Among the earliest of those who formed the nucleus of the Zoroastrian community in Chicago, were Keki (and later Mehroo) Bhote and Jim (and later Navaz) Modi, Boman Kanga, Jim Jagus (now in Pittsburgh) and Farrokh Dastoor (now in Los Angeles). But there are always surprises. Just last year, contact was accidentally made with a Mr. Rustom Dalal, in his 80’s, who came in the 1930’s to study engineering and has lived in Chicago since, quite unaware of the Zarthusti community. The pattern of Zarthustis coming from India, Pakistan and Iran, as students to Universities in and around Chicago, then finding jobs and settling down,has by and large continued. In the fifties, the migration was just a trickle – maybe 4 or 5 students a year. The rate picked up in the sixties, and reached a crescendo in the 70’s. Today, the rate of new settlers to Chicago has diminished to a handful of families each year. In the past thirty years, the Zarthusti population in Chicago has increased 10-fold, from around 40 in the 1960s to over 600 in the 1990s.
Early efforts to organize in the Chicago area were made by Keki Bhote and Jim Modi in 1965. The Association functioned for a few years, and then gradually ceased activities. In 1974 some Zarthustis, feeling “it was time for a re-synthesis in Chicago”, made another attempt at organizing. In a letter to “The Parsees of Greater Chicago”, and signed by Kersey Antia, Keki Bhote, Godrej Billimoria, Nari Patel, Dara Rivetna and Rohinton Rivetna, they wrote: “Our hope is that we can graduate from the purely social interface that has characterized our contacts in the last few years. We have children growing up in a totally American milieu, who have no knowledge of the rich heritage of their great religion… It is important that we begin to attack the inertia and atrophy of the interregnum… we are therefore calling a meeting of all Parsees in the greater Chicago area on August 11, 1974. About 40 Zoroastrians showed up at the first meeting. The model of “Monthly Meetings” caught on, and has continued to this day, first in member’s homes, and then at the Unitarian Church in Hinsdale, until the Darbe Mehr was built (in 1983).
The ZAC was officially chartered a year later, on December 31, 1975. Dr. Bahram Farhadieh was elected the first President. Under subsequent Presidents – Rohinton Rivetna (1980-86), Kayomarsh Mehta (1986-1990), Bomi Damkevala (1990-1994) and Pesi Vazifdar (1994-1996), the ZAC has grown from strength to strength. Unique to the ZAC constitution is the “Open Door Policy” – all willing workers are opted to the Board of Directors, after a ‘show of hands’ election by the general membership. The Executive Officers are then elected by the Board, from within the Board.
Shortly after the formation of the Association, thoughts turned to setting up proper facilities for rites and ceremonies for the departed. 20 burial plots were purchased in a section of Elm Lawn Cemetery. Subsequently, many additional lots were purchased, partly with a grant of about $20,000 from the Rustom Guiv Foundation.
In 1977, ZAC hosted the Second North American Zoroastrian Congress. The 1981 Gala Banquet with Guest of Honor Zubin Mehta, was a major fund-raiser for the Darbe Mehr. ZAC has also hosted two Youth Congresses, Mobeds Council Meetings, and a plethora of conferences, lectures, seminars and camps. In 1985 ZAC was the seat of planning for the FEZANA Constitution which was formed and approved in the ZAC library.
In recent years, ZAC has made a significant presence on the Interfaith scene, among the more memorable events being the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, in which ZAC members played a leading role.
The Darbe Mehr
The Inauguration of the Arbab Rustam Guiv Darbe Mehr, on September 3, 1983, was a proud moment in the history of Zoroastrians in North America. In a two-day celebration, filled with social and sacred events, the fire was installed in the Prayer Room, in the large silver Afargan that had been shipped from an agiary in Surat. The first piece of sandalwood was offered by Madame Morvarid Guiv, for it was through the vision and philanthropy of Arbab Rustam and Morvarid Khanum Guiv that this dream had become a reality.
The Chicago community of 100 families worked against tremendous odds to raise funds and build the Darbe Mehr, the first Temple construction on the North American continent. The realization of this dream was made possible through years of dedicated service by the Chicago Zoroastrians with the inspiration and motivation of Rohinton Rivetna. He had the vision, conceived and designed the building, served as General Contractor, and nurtured the dream through the many crises from conception through inauguration.
In 1980, Arbab Guiv made an offer of $150,000 towards a Darbe Mehr in the Chicago area. The community immediately started a massive fund raising effort to supplement the offer. Many banquets, raffles, bake sales, car washes and telephone drives later, they purchased a beautiful, wooded, 2-acre property in suburban Hinsdale, for $55,000. During this time Arbab Guiv passed away and the Guiv Trust ran into difficulties releasing the funds, some of which were tied up in real estate property in Mettawa, 30 miles Northwest of Chicago. The 20-acre Mettawa property had been purchased by Arbab Guiv in 1978, for a center in Chicago, but had laid unused due to lack of construction funds and due to its non-central location. The community came forward, formed a partnership, the ‘Parsi Partners’, and purchased 5 acres of the Mettawa property from the Trust for $60,000. The Trust was then able to turn over $150,000 to ZAC. $20,000 was donated by Mehraban and Faredoon Zartoshty for the Library; over $16,000 by Dr. and Mrs. Abou Mazdai for the Prayer Hall, $10,000 by Mehroo and Minu Patel towards the Library to be named in honor of their elders, Nania-Kanga-Patel Library and Learning Center; and $5,000 by Mr. and Mrs. Zubin Mehta. A $5,000 donation was made by the Mobed Family – Boman, Jehangir and Keikhosrow,who have been strong supporters since the inception of ZAC.
On June 13, 1982, in a simple but moving ceremony, ground was broken for the Darbe Mehr construction. Many alternate architectural plans were reviewed and debated, until a design acceptable to both the community and the zoning authorities, was approved. The land was cleared of brush and trees, surveyed, concrete foundation poured, well and septic laid, underground heating, plumbing and electrical work performed, and the erection of the building shell proceeded smoothly.
A major setback occurred in September 1982, when during the roof construction, one of the 50-foot trusses fell, bringing down 30 others. With the grace of Ahura Mazda, the project quickly picked up again, with the installation of the roof, brick masonry walls and floor slabs. The doors, windows, siding, insulation, drywall, floor tiling, electrical, heating and alarm systems were installed. The exterior site grading, landscaping and parking lot were done. Community members worked on weekends, clearing the debris, sanding, varnishing, painting, and polishing, to get the building ready in time for the Inauguration.
Nothing of course happened in the smooth chronology that this account may convey. Events meshed into one another, plans were revised a dozen times. There were times when deep despair was felt, when the project seemed interminable. But out of those storms arose the Darbe Mehr, as testimony to the spirit of the Chicago Zoroastrian community.