The Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Urakami of Nagasaki is a witness of persecution of Christians from 17th to 19th centuries and deadly atomic bombing during the Second World War. This European-style, red-brick church continues to preserve some relics that survived the atomic bombing.
Urakami cathedral, also known as St. Mary’s Cathedral, was almost destroyed when the atomic bomb was dropped on Aug. 9, 1945. The church stood about 500 meters from the hypocenter of atomic explosion. The devastation shattered and charred stone-made statues of saints, which were later preserved as relics along with the surviving head of Virgin Mary statue and one of the church’s original bells.
The origin of the church dates back to 1860s when French priest Father Bernard Petitjean from Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP) discovered thousands of descendants of Japan’s Kakure Khrishtian (hidden Christians) living in villages in Urakami. An imperial ban, and persecution led to deaths of thousands of Christians, and many others opted for a low-profile, hidden life.
Father Petitjean mobilized the Catholic community after the ban on Christianity was lifted in 1890s. His two successors – Father Francine and Father Regani – oversaw the construction of the church in between 1895 to 1925. This neo-Romanesque styled church became the largest Christian structure in East Asia.
This historic church was razed to ashes when atomic bomb was dropped in Nagasaki, destroying within it the dreams and heritage of Catholics in Urakami. The bomb not only devastated the city but also killed an unknown number of Catholics who were attending a preparatory Mass in the church ahead of the Feast of Assumption on August 15.
The huge setback didn’t deter the faith of local Catholics. They banded together for the reincarnation of today’s modern church. The reconstruction of the church completed in 1959. The remains of the destroyed church including relics of the saints and head of the Virgin Mary are displayed in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. The church has featured in popular culture in Japan. Prominent Japanese playwright Tanaka Chikao has penned his much-acclaimed play “Head of Mary” based on resilience of Urakami Catholics and rebuilding of Catholicism after the atomic disaster.
Pope Francis visited Nagasaki on Nov. 24, 2019, during his visit to Japan. He paid a visit to Peace Memorial in Nagasaki, and delivered a speech at Atomic Bomb Hypocenter, close to the cathedral, calling for an end to global arms race for a nuclear-free world.
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