Spotlight: Oura Church (Nagasaki)

As you can tell from both this and my last post, I’ve recently been to Nagasaki. My in-laws were in town at the beginning of October and they expressed an interest in seeing Nagasaki. My husband and I, having spent the two weeks prior to that driving back and forth to Sasebo (quite near Nagasaki) for work purposes, had no real desire to indulge their request (it’s a long drive, y’all). Fortunately, we discovered a new route and took the ferry to Unzen and then drove around the Shimabara peninsula to Nagasaki. I have to say, the change of scenery and the excitement of the boat ride more than made up for the third trip to Nagasaki prefecture in a month!

My in-laws, being very interested in Catholic history, had one particular site on the agenda – the Oura Church at the base of Glover Garden. As far as sites go, it’s not a terribly captivating one. The church itself is relatively small and unadorned and both the pamphlets and the ongoing narration in the nave are in Japanese only. But the history behind Oura Kyokai is rather fascinating.

Oura Church at the base of Nagasaki's Glover Garden
Oura Church at the base of Nagasaki’s Glover Garden

Catholicism gained a foothold in Japan in the 1500s, when Portuguese missionaries accompanied trade ships and stayed on in the country to proselytize. Even famed missionary Francis Xavier spent time here, predominantly in Nagasaki itself, though he did travel the Kyushu region a bit. When the Tokugawa shoguns came to power in the early 1600s, however, they saw the growing interest in Christianity as a direct threat to their rule. Several bloody martyrdoms were carried out (including the crucifixion of 26 Catholics in Nagasaki in 1597) before Christians (and essentially all foreigners) were expelled in the 1630s. Only the Dutch Protestants were permitted to stay and even they were confined to the island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor.

In 1853, when Japan opened itself to the world following the arrival of Commodore Perry’s “black ships”, construction was begun on the Oura Cathedral. No one was more surprised than French priest Father Bernard Petitjean when, in 1865, a group of Japanese from nearby Urakami village (the neighborhood in northern Nagasaki city over which the atomic bomb later exploded) arrived at the cathedral and confessed that they were practicing Christians. These “hidden Christians” were the descendants of the original converts of missionaries like Francis Xavier and they and their families had kept the faith for over 200 years in secret. Both the priest – and the Japanese government – were more than a little surprised!

Relief depicting Nagasaki's hidden Christians presenting themselves to Father Petitjean
Relief depicting Nagasaki’s hidden Christians presenting themselves to Father Petitjean

A sculpture in the courtyard below the church depicts the hidden Christians arriving at the church and a nearby statue immortalizes Father Petitjean. Sadly, aside from the small plaques there and the site’s English pamphlet, there isn’t much information to share with curious visitors. But for those with any interest in Nagasaki’s unique Christian (and Western) history, it’s definitely worth popping in for a quick visit.

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