May 2011

Good Sams in Japan: transition time

Over 60 years ago the Good Samaritan Sisters responded to an invitation to minister in the Archdiocese of Nagasaki after atomic bombs destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Good Samaritan Sister Marie O’Connor recently spent time in Japan during the final weeks of the Good Samaritan Sisters’ presence in the Nagasaki Archdiocese. What began for Marie as a gesture of support became a gift.

BY Marie O’Connor SGS

My request to visit Japan at this time was to offer support during the final weeks of the Good Samaritan Sisters’ withdrawal from the Nagasaki Archdiocese. Transition is never an easy time. What I met was a rich network of friendship that stretched along the Pacific rim between Japan and Australia. This network reached beyond boundaries of history, culture, language and even war. What a great welcome I received!

Saturday February 26 was the Seiwa College graduation. What impressed me was the deportment of the student body, all seated with hands folded waiting for proceedings to begin – not a sign of a whisper or snigger. The accompanying singing was beautiful – a tribute to a school specialty. The Archbishop of Nagasaki, Joseph Takami, completed the formal entrance procession. The concluding item of the morning was the presentation by the Archbishop to Sister Hiro Kageyama of the testimonial to the Good Samaritan presence in Nagasaki Diocese and the Good Samaritan contribution to rebuilding Japan after the war. The religious sponsorship of Seiwa College is now in the hands of the Archdiocese of Nagasaki. I felt honoured to be present at such a significant moment.

That morning I met staff and students and long-time friends of Seiwa. Many women introduced themselves as friends of Sisters Julian McKenna (one of the first group of sisters to go to Japan in 1948 and remained until 1994) and Clement Baseden (Seiwa College principal, 1967-1983). I felt drawn into a web of friendship woven over many years through the Chrysanthemum Association (i.e. mother’s of exstudents), Mothers’ Association (i.e. mothers of the present students) and now the Seiwa Alumnae.

In the afternoon, Hiro took me on a tour of the school sharing her role in the transition that was occurring. I met four of the Seiwa students more personally in English conversation sessions. As we talked I felt the energy and zest of youth. Whenever possible I asked questions of Hiro. The amazing reconstruction of Japan after the war – how was it achieved? She was always generous in her reply, sharing information liberally.

Our Sunday Eucharist included a First Communion celebration for a child with special needs. The presentation of the family was assisted by a catechist, a friend of Sister Christina McKenna (kindergarten teacher at Nara and Sasebo, 1953-1978). The father was Catholic, the mother, Buddhist. This community celebration combined New Year with the First Communion. The concert items were great fun. Sister Joanna Yamawaki (teacher Seiwa College, 35 years) danced and sang along with a group of children. Everyone joined in clapping. The men (including the parish priest) marched in dressed as the local constabulary and danced and sang.

Sorting through some old files I was led into the story of the Good Samaritans in Japan. Here was a copy of the original request from the Bishop of Nagasaki. Here was the Good Samaritan response to an urgent need. I felt a surge of excitement to see photos of the early communities and wondered at their generosity. Some were sisters I had lived with in Australia and whose friendship I had shared. As a senior school student I had waved them off at Walsh Bay, Sydney. Sixty-two years on it can look like a touch of madness. I experienced their energy for mission.

Then came the earthquake and tsunami. Our eyes glued to the television, we watched its progress: pushing cars like toys out of car parks, lifting fishing trawlers onto wharves, people marooned on rooftops. The enormity of the disaster began to sink in as we heard the evening news: transport chaos in Tokyo, thousands stranded for the night, airports closed.

The next day I travelled on the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nara. The whole community welcomed me. Immediately they conveyed their concern because white smoke could now be seen billowing from one of the nuclear reactors. On everyone’s mind was the prospect of an explosion and the effects of radioactivity. During the week we were able to follow on NYK News, with English voiceover, the responses of the government and the electricity company. The prospect of another nuclear threat raises the spectre of devastation the country suffered some 66 years earlier when our sisters arrived in 1947.

In Nara I experienced some of the richness of Japanese heritage as the sisters accompanied me on visits to ancient Japanese temples. More personally, I visited Sister Benedicta Hiu at the Santa Maria Nursing Home and the Good Samaritan gravesite.

At the end of the week I returned to Sasebo. This coincided with the vernal equinox. Everywhere you could see the cherry blossom about to burst forth. I would miss its full splendour. Our two sight-seeing trips stand out this week, Nagasaki and Hirado

At Nagasaki I spent nearly two hours at the Atomic Bomb Museum. There I was confronted by the devastation the bomb caused: the instant burning, horrific pain, the precise time immortalised in clocks 11.02 am that stood still. Hiro pointed out that there is a current view that the museum was a reminder of the past and not necessarily a promoter of peaceful relations for the future. There was much that was instructive for the layperson.

Hirado is remembered as the place where St Francis Xavier set foot for some time before going on to China. Hiro was very keen to have our photo taken with the Buddhist temple behind us and behind that again the towering spire of the church of St Francis Xavier. As we positioned ourselves she remarked: “Here in Japan Buddhists and Christians exist side by side – not in competition”. For me the remark put the Good Sam presence in Japan in context.

The alumnae dinner for Hiro captured the sense of gratitude to the Good Sams and the sadness of farewell. Over 100 Seiwa ex-students and friends gathered. I was seated next to a former colleague of Sister Xavier Compton (teacher, Seiwa College, 1952-1963). The choir for the occasion treated us to a bracket of songs, including the Seiwa song (music by Sister Joyce Tippett, music teacher at Sasebo and Nara, 1952-1970). There was strong feeling in the room binding these supporters of Seiwa. A substantial part of the old convent building is now for the use of alumnae.

Meeting our Japanese sisters on their home ground has been a graced time. What began for me as a gesture of support became a gift. As the early Good Sams who came in 1947, they continue to carry the light of Christ in all their ministry endeavours. As the first sisters were responding to an urgent social need, so they continue the evangelising presence of the Good Samaritan.

Marie O'Connor

Good Samaritan Sister Marie O'Connor has a background in primary school education and parish pastoral ministry. Born and raised in Sydney, Marie has spent many years ministering in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria.

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