This month, we mark the anniversary of a tragedy: the attack of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The ash-covered images of twisted destruction haunt memories.
Another ashen image of tragedy haunts world history: the Burnt Virgin of Nagasaki.
Not many people alive today remember the bombing of Japan in August of 1945. There are only about 136,000 hibakusha (meaning “explosion affected people” in Japanese) still alive.
The atomic bombs instantly killed 66,000 in Hiroshima and 40,000 in Nagasaki. On that day in Nagasaki, 26 people had gathered in the Urakami Cathedral, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. They, including two clergy who were hearing confessions, all died. Of the parish’s 12,000 members; 8,500 died that day.
Few remember that Nagasaki was the center of Japan’s Catholic community. St. Francis Xavier arrived in Japan in 1549. Persecutions began in 1587 and Christians were forced to worship in secret. Many were arrested and executed. Of these hundreds of martyrs over the next centuries, 26 are honored as “the martyrs of Japan” each Feb. 6. They were crucified on Feb. 5, 1567, in Nagasaki.
The Urakami Cathedral was built on the grounds of what is known as the fumi-e interrogation site. Here, suspected Christians were forced to step upon images of Jesus and Mary to prove their renunciation of Christianity. Many died rather than do so. Christians believe this site was sacred and the Urakami Cathedral was completed there in 1925.
In the 1930s, a life-size wooden statue was placed in the cathedral, high above the altar. It represented Mary as the Immaculate Conception, based on the painting by Bartolome Murillo. When the bomb named “Fat Boy” detonated over Nagasaki, it demolished the cathedral.
About two months later, a chaplain who was also a Trappist monk was discharged from military service and traveled through his home town of Nagasaki on the way to his monastery in Hokkaido.
Fr. Kaemon Noguchi had worshiped as a youth at the cathedral and was especially fond of the statue of Mary. Fr. Noguchi later wrote to Fr. Takeshi Kawazoe, pastor at the Urakami Cathedral that had been rebuilt in 1959, and told of his 1945 visit to the bomb site:
“I wished to find a keepsake of the cathedral to bring with me. So I went to the ruins of the church and yet I found nothing but a heap of rubble. I searched about the destroyed altar and confessionals of Fr. Nishida and Fr. Tamaya for over one hour in vain. I tumbled onto a stone and prayed to Virgin Mary just like when I departed for the monastery as a boy. …
“And all of a sudden, I saw the holy face of the Virgin blackened by fire, looking at me with a sorrowful air.”
The monk took the head of the statue with him back to his monastery. It stayed in his cell until 1975, when he decided the statue needed to return home. He gave it to Nagasaki Immaculate Heart Junior College. In 1990, it went to Urakami Cathedral’s Hall of the Believers. Finally, in the autumn of 2000, it was placed in a chapel on the right side of the cathedral.
The Urakami Virgin is called “the Burnt Virgin” for a good reason. It was scarred terribly by the blast: the wood is ash gray and covered with burns; the left side of the face is cracked (some call the crack “the tears of God”) and the glass eyes are gone, leaving blackened holes. The statue looks almost skeletal. (It is also called “the Bombed Virgin.”)
“Skull of Mary”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan saw the statue when Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki of Nagasaki brought it to the United Nations 10 years ago on the 65th anniversary of the bombing. On his blog, Cardinal Dolan called the statue “the skull of Mary.”
“And it is this head that is haunting,” Cardinal Dolan wrote. “She is scarred, singed badly and her crystal eyes were melted by the hellish blast. So, all that remains are two empty, blackened sockets.”
When Cardinal Dolan wrote this, Archbishop Mitsuaki had brought the statue to the U.N. to plead for an end to all nuclear weapons.
Previously, in August 2005, then-secretary-general Kofi Annan of the U.N. visited and saw the statue of the Burnt Virgin at the Nagasaki cathedral. He wrote that seeing the statue and visiting with survivors of the bombings “only further strengthened my determination to seek the elimination of all nuclear weapons.”
There is another statue from the bombed cathedral — one of only a few large complete statues to survive the explosion — that has U.N. ties. That other statue is of St. Agnes, likewise burned and blackened, now known as St. Agnes of Urakami. It is on permanent display at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
The Burnt Virgin in its chapel at the cathedral in Nagasaki fulfills the wish of the Trappist monk who rescued her.
“If it is ever possible,” Fr. Noguchi wrote in 1994, “it would be my greatest pleasure to see the Madonna restored to her original state. Please place her upon the altar.”
If he had not taken the statue, it would likely have been bulldozed when the cathedral was razed for the new church. Some remains of the old cathedral were moved to the nearby Peace Park.
Today, when we are facing a worldwide calamity, the church — led by Pope Francis — has turned to Mary in prayer. Perhaps we can also turn to the Virgin of Nagasaki and remember what Cardinal Dolan wrote 10 years ago about the haunting statue:
“She absorbs our sorrows, our worries, our sickness, our fears, like any good mother would. She brings them — and us — to the only one who can do anything about them: Jesus.
At Nagasaki, she absorbed the radiation, incinerating heat, the suffering of her children.”
Sources: Nippon.com; Marian library at udayton.edu; immaculate.one; madonnagasaki.org; Catholic News Agency; uscatholic.com; Asahi Shimun newspaper; cardinaldolan.org; Deutsche Welle at dw.com; and un.org