The Nagasaki legacy is part and parcel to the proliferation and persecution of Christianity throughout Japan. Zealous belief surged in from the shoreline after Franciscan monks first spread the faith, fervent Christian believers soon to be found throughout the port city during the late 1500s. Finding fertile grounds for sacred seed brought barren years and fallow fields, though, as Christians retreated underground from the shogun’s attempt to expel foreign influence. With a transition into the modern age, new foundations were set, including the Nagasaki hilltop’s Urakami Cathedral.
The Urakami Cathedral grounds had once been stamped with the shogun’s seal of oppression. For several hundred years, intermittent decrees were declaimed throughout domains with suspected Christian populations. These decrees demanded a dehumanizing procedure during which suspects had to either trample an image of the Virgin Mary or be found out for their traitorous beliefs and executed, a ritual named fumi-e (picture-stepping) which made many communities bleed. One such annual persecution performed an ironic prelude to Urakami Cathedral, on its same hilltop. Resident hidden Christians (kakure kirishitan), of 3600 who had been banished between 1869 and 1873, those who had suffered the ritual made just the righteous decision to step back up that Nagasaki hillside and erect Urakami Cathedral.
Hiking from the Nagasaki peace memorial park, one passes over a street with a couple markets and by kindly pedestrians. The paved way into Urakami Cathedral curls like thick censer smoke, clearing to a wide view. Spread like the arms of its statuary Jesus, it stands looking out over Nagasaki with a proud look, the rightful vindication of its persecuted past parishes. Nagasaki St. Mary’s Cathedral was once the largest in East Asia, known as the great East cathedral, and in bold brick red it presides this day just as worthy of the name. 1925 bore the proud moment of its completed turrets and consecration, halls filling with sound and worship. Bold as it was with historic name and commanding presence, wavering notes nonetheless undercut the hilltop foundation.
Historic images of the Nagasaki St. Mary’s Cathedral hall showed a proudly pillared and eminently embellished place, similar to the place displaying pamphlets in its foyer outside of mass. As these pamphlets and artifacts on exhibit within Urakami Cathedral describe, the present-day cathedral is indeed not its first incarnation.
Outside, St. Mary’s Cathedral brings an uncloaked face to bear upon Nagasaki. The building’s Romanesque symmetry is unsullied. At the entryway, however, an ungloved hand out of the ugly past presents itself. Statues, both full and headless, crack like stubbed old fingers. They creep from the cuff of tattered dress, mottled red and molding green. These original bricks and icons were those which withstood the destruction of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
Down the hillside in peace memorial park, more extensive remnants from the first Urakami Cathedral memorialize the day Nagasaki suffered the atomic bomb. Among the thousands of human casualties, the cathedral toppled in the blast just 500 meters from the hypocenter. This radioactive ruin on the population was a rallying call for Nagasaki Christians.
Below its steeple dome, a little stream wreaths the hill at Urakami Cathedral. Here I glimpsed a sister in thought or prayer moving forward at a crossing over the stream, across from the most significant of 1925 Urakami Cathedral remains. Snapped down from the first church in a galling atomic gale, rests the bell tower. It dips towards the stream like the many atomically afflicted humans who thirsted on that August day, as death hung heads and black rain washed the hillsides of life.
This angelus bell emblem overcame the mortality of its day. Survivors rushed to uncover the bell from the rubble for a ring. Tolling wholeness to broken spirits, it announced the 1946 New Year after being raised up from black earth.
Urakami Cathedral was built again on its same spot, setting righteousness to human wrongs once more. 1959 marked a first completion, in concrete. Though a small concrete face watches down over the portal, peopled by its saintly and prophetic eyes, the cathedral was largely renovated by 1980 with its brick disposition.
Encased in healthy red, the cathedral still holds to the hollowness wrought by deathly tools. Though crafted out of wood, a Virgin Mary with hollowed eyes known as “Bombed Mary” rests after the unconscionable fires of August 9th 1945. As long as the religious fervor of Nagasaki Christians persists, Urakami Cathedral will outlast the eerie pall of a wartorn past over Nagasaki.
Urakami St. Mary’s Cathedral Access:
From Nagasaki station, take the Nagasaki streetcar on lines 1 or 3 to Akasako. Disembark at Matsuyama-machi tram stop and walk 10-15 minutes to Urakami St. Mary’s Cathedral.