The Story of the Madonna of Nagasaki
Catholics in Nagasaki
Shintoism and Buddhism are the majority religions of Japan. Catholicism arrived with Francis Xavier in 1549. This was the beginning of what is now known as Japan’s ‘Age of Christianity’.
Persecution of Christians started in 1587 and the religion was formally banned in the early 17th Century. The Catholic community in Nagasaki survived underground for 250 years.
When France and Japan signed a trade agreement in 1859, the foreign community in Nagasaki was allowed to build a church: Oura Cathedral. The local Catholics made themselves known to the French priests. In 1865 the Nagasaki Catholics built four secret chapels. In 1868 persecution of Christians was resumed and more than 3,000 Catholics from the Nagasaki area were sent into exile. The exiles returned after the lifting of the ban on Christianity in 1873. In the early 1880s there were about 5,000 Catholics in the Urakami area. In 1880 the property where the church was to be built was acquired. On August 15th 1880, mass was offered for the first time in a temporary chapel.
Freedom of religion was introduced in Japan with the constitution of 1889. In 1891, the Japanese Catholic Church was granted its own religious hierarchy.
The Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki City
In the year 1914, the Urakami Cathedral (also know as the Immaculate Conception Cathedral or the St. Mary’s Cathedral) in Nagasaki City was built by Missions Etrangeres de Paris and officially consecrated. It was the largest Catholic church in Asia. It was built by volunteers in the Nagasaki Parish, led by a French missionary priest, Father Pierre Fraineau.
In the year 1925, Father Pierre Fraineau, the architect of the church, didn’t live to see the final result of the parish’s efforts. He died in 1911. In 1926 two bell towers were added to the main building of the church, giving the cathedral its final shape.
Three years later, a wooden altar piece was installed in the church. Highlight of the altar piece was a wooden Madonna, inspired by Murillo’s painting of the Immaculate Conception. (The painting is existing in Museo National del Prado in Madrid, Spain.)
On August 9, 1945 at 11:02 am – Urakami, in the Nagasaki City, was the target of the second atomic bomb that was dropped on Japan to end World War II. Eventually, more than 100,000 people died.
The atomic bomb exploded 500 meters above Urakami Valley, instantly turning the entire region into an inferno. In the church, parishioners were going to confession in preparation for the Feast of the Assumption. At the moment of impact there were 24 believers and two clergymen inside. They were killed instantly.
The church ruin burned well until nightfall. Of the 12,000 parishioners in Urakami, 8,500 did not survive the day.
A stone crucifix and two statues over the main entrance of the church. Today they grace the rebuilt Urakami Church.
Two more, larger statues survived with minor damage.
On October 1945, Kaemon Noguchi, a discharged Japanese soldier and Catholic priest, entered the ruins of Urakami Cathedral to pray. He hoped to find a tangible memento of the church of his youth, to take it to his Hokkaido Trappist Monastery.
After more than an hour of searching the debris, Noguchi sits back and prays again. Then, suddenly, he notices the eyeless features of the Madonna, staring at him blindly from the dust.
Overwhelmed, Noguchi takes the scorched wooden image with him to his monastery, where he keeps it for 30 years.
On August 1975, Kaemon Noguchi traveled to Nagasaki to return the image of the Madonna. He gave it to Professor Yakichi Kataoka, who kept the image at Junshin Women’s College for 15 years.
In the year 1990, Takeshi Kawazoe, chief priest of Urakami Church wrote an article, mentioning it was fortunate that a Japanese soldier discovered the head of the statue of Virgin Mary. He hoped to discover the name of the soldier. Father Noguchi wrote a letter to the church explaining what happened.
Professor Kataoka returned the image to the church. It was placed in the atom bomb museum.
On August 1998, Mr. Yasuhiko Sata read the story of the Madonna and visited Nagasaki to see the statue. He unexpectedly found the Madonna displayed amongst other relics in the atom bomb museum. He convinced the church that the Madonna was not a mere memento of the nuclear holocaust but a holy object that should be returned to the altar.
On Easter day, the 23rd of April 2000, Mr. Sata’s efforts finally bore fruit. Father Mimura of Urakami Church assured him that the Madonna would be placed in the Cathedral in May, St. Mary’s month.
On Tuesday 9 August 2005 at 10:30 a.m., the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki City held a ceremony of enshrining in a newly completed chapel inside the Cathedral the head of a wooden statue of the Madonna destroyed in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
Mr. Sata promotes the campaign to have the Madonna inscribed on the World Heritage List.
If you want to sign the petition, here is the link: