Building up the Japanese Church
Revisiting aspects of Scarboro’s 54 year journey to Japan
By Fr. John Carten, S.F.M.
In 2005 the last Scarboro priest in Japan, Fr. Jim Gauthier, returned to Canada. During Scarboro’s 54 years of mission service in Japan, beginning in 1948, more than 37 Scarboro priests worked there from a period of a few months to upwards of 50 years. When I first went to Japan as a seminarian in 1972, we numbered 26, but over the years our numbers decreased drastically. From the very beginning Scarboro’s purpose in going to Japan was to help build up the Japanese Church. I now have the chance to ask, “Has our work been a success or a failure?”
In October 2012 I was blessed to travel to Japan to visit many of our former parishes. I saw Christian com-munities that are thriving in various cities because of the work of Scarboro priests. The parishes of Takanawa in Tokyo; Ichinomiya, Oshikiri, Inazawa, Mizunami and Minokami in the Diocese of Nagoya; and Yoshizuka and Minami Kasuya in Fukuoka are among the many parishes founded by Scarboro priests. Besides these, there are many other diocesan parishes where Scarboro priests served with distinction. Several parishes, including Toyoshiki in Tokyo, Totsuka in Yokohama, Ichinomiya in Nagoya, and Minami Kasuya in Fukuoka had new churches built during the last 20 years while Scarboro priests were pastors. Scarboro missioners also set up credit unions in several parishes in Japan in the early 1950s and 60s that are still thriving today.
Yet I think that more than the church buildings or credit unions that Scarboro left behind, our main legacy as a community are the friendships that have continued and the high regard that many Japanese Christians still hold for Scarboro priests. Even in Canada our relationship continues through the small Japanese Catholic community that gathers at Scarboro Missions each month to celebrate mass in Japanese and to support one another.
During my visit last October, the young people’s group in Takanawa parish in Tokyo published a 100-page book in Japanese in which they spoke about the influence that Scarboro priests had on their lives and on their faith. Among those fondly remembered were Frs. Gerry Kelly, Frank Hawkshaw, John Bolger, Mike Cox and Richard Veltri. The ashes of four of the Scarboro priests who died in Japan rest in the crypt at Takanawa Catholic Church.
I also visited three parishes in Yokohama where I once worked and was overjoyed to see so many adults that I baptized now deeply involved in the parish community. They welcomed me warmly and took up a collection of more than $3,000 to send back to Canada for the work of Scarboro Missions.
For the most part, Scarboro missionaries to Japan did not have large numbers of baptisms, yet they were steadfastly faithful and continued to reach out and walk with the people day in and day out over many years.
Leaving the Tokyo-Yokohama area, I spent a day with Fr. Ichioka, a Yokohama diocesan priest who lived at Scarboro’s central-house in Canada for several years while doing religious studies. We visited two parishes in Shizuoka Prefecture where he was pastor, both founded by priests from the Paris Foreign Mission Society. At Kakegawa Church I met two women who were preparing the church for Sunday’s masses. When I said I was with Scarboro Missions the face of one of the women lit up. She had been baptized about 40 years ago at Oshikiri Church in Nagoya by Fr. Tom Morrissey and had also known Frs. Jim Gauthier and Cleary Villeneuve. It is indeed a small world. She kept saying, “They were so good to me!”
From there I travelled south to Nagoya and met Ando san who had worked as a housekeeper for Scarboro priests in that city for many years. She talked about the love and support she had received from the priests and how Scarboro had become her family.
On this visit, I also spent three days with a non-Christian family that I have known for more than 35 years and who have welcomed me as part of their family. My mission experience among Japanese Christians and non-Christians has changed my image of God, of the Church, and of the Reign of God. Whoever says that only baptized people will go to heaven has never had the privilege of living among people of other faiths or people of no faith and experiencing their goodness, generosity, and kindness. There are many ways that I have seen the face and presence of God among, in, and through them. As a Church we need to walk a very humble path and rejoice and proclaim the ways in which God has showered all people with gifts. I think one of the main roles of the Catholic Church, and an aspect of Scarboro’s journey, is to help others to recognize and celebrate the presence of God, a presence that has been there since time began.
From Nagoya I travelled to Osaka to spend time with the Passionist community and Fr. Ward Bittle, my former spiritual director in Japan. He and I visited the grave of Scarboro’s founder Monsignor John Mary Fraser who began working in Japan at the age of 73 and died in Osaka 12 years later on September 3, 1962. How appropriate that our founder is buried in a foreign land. Two years ago the church he founded in Osaka was torn down to consolidate parishes, but every year on the anniversary of his death a group of Christians visit his grave and ensure that it is clean and well-kept.
The final stop on my journey took me to Fukuoka and to Yoshizuka parish, also founded by Monsignor Fraser. Frs. Cleary Villeneuve, Tom O’Toole, Bill Schultz, Ben Schultz, and I were some of the Scarboro priests who worked there over the years. Although Scarboro left that parish in 1996, parishioners say that they still miss Scarboro’s presence. One elderly woman said, “You walked with us, you were our friends, you encouraged us to take charge and to take responsibility for the church. You journeyed with us in friendship. You offered hospitality and a sense of being church by working together.”
One of the people I visited in Fukuoka was Aoyagi san, a Christian who had been baptized by Fr. Bill Schultz. Over the years Aoyagi san has made a deep commitment to justice and peace issues and suffered greatly because of his actions in support of the struggles of foreign workers in Japan. After the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 and the resulting radiation leak, Aoyagi san has been leading a protest to stop the government’s use of nuclear reactors in the earthquake-prone region of southern Japan. Fr. Bill would be proud of Aoyagi san for continuing to speak out on many justice and environmental issues based on his faith commitment.
For the most part, Scarboro missionaries to Japan did not have large numbers of baptisms, yet they were steadfastly faithful and continued to reach out and walk with the people day in and day out over many years. No greater compliment can be paid to their legacy than to have a Japanese Christian say to me during my recent visit, “You were our friends and led us to Christ!”