Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Church of Mary in Nagasaki

by Zsolt Aradi


This article gives a brief description of the Church of Mary in Nagasaki.

Larger Work

Shrines to Our Lady



Publisher & Date

Farrar, Straus and Young, 1954

After the exclusion of all foreigners from Japan at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the rulers destroyed the so-called "foreign" religion. Because the Dutch traders helped to conquer the besieged Christians in Hara Castle, the Japanese government gave the Dutch special rights. But from that moment on, for any other foreign trader or visitor from any part of the world, Japan became a hermit kingdom. There were only two attempts by Catholic priests to penetrate; one by Father Sidotti, an Italian priest who landed in a small boat and went ashore disguised as a peasant. He was, however, discovered very soon and died as a martyr in 1710. The next attempt was made by Father Forcade, a priest of the Paris Foreign Mission Society, who landed in 1844 and stayed on for two years. Both of these heroic priests found vague traces that the Christian faith had not been completely extirpated and still lived in the hearts of a minority.

In 1854, after Japan was reopened to the outside world by a fleet of the American Commodore Perry, Catholic priests were allowed to come to the country, at first as chaplains of the diplomatic missions. The chaplain of the French consulate was a certain Father Petitjean who erected a small and very modest church called Oura on a hill in the city of Nagasaki. One day in 1865 Father Petitjean noticed a group of Japanese men and women standing outside the church. He invited these silent, curious onlookers to enter the church, which was dedicated to Our Lady. They followed him and when he knelt down, they did the same. They prayed as long as he was immersed in prayer; then one of them whispered into his ear: "The hearts of all here are the same as yours."

Father Everett Briggs in his work New Dawn in Japan relates the overwhelming joy of this "great find," i.e., the discovery of the descendants of the first Japanese Christians and the fact that they had retained the faith of their fathers.

This little group came from Urakami, one of the suburbs of Nagasaki, where during the period of religious persecution twenty-six Christians had been crucified. "At Urakami, nearly all have the same heart as we," whispered one of the group to Father Petitjean in the church. After they had ascertained that this was truly a Catholic church, they were most eager to see the Virgin's shrine.

The small chapel with the simple statue of Our Lady has great significance. This is the spot where the Japanese Catholics could bear witness that they had preserved their faith for more than two hundred years without benefit of clergy. It is an ironic turn of history that the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki destroyed the church in Urakami built in commemoration of the rediscovery of the Japanese Christians. Fortunately the Oura church was untouched.

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