Oura Church

The Universal Church: Oura Church of Nagasaki

The history of Catholicism in Japan is riddled with martyrdom and tragedy. The Japanese knew virtually nothing of the Christian faith prior to 1549, when St. Francis Xavier entered this island nation. Missionary activity in Japan flourished for a time: it is estimated that more than 300,000 Japanese became Catholic in the years that followed.

However, the government of Japan officially banned the faith in 1587, fearing it would lead to European military strength. This began a time of massive persecution. Martyrdom was the fate of many priests and laity, although some Japanese were able to continue to practice of the Catholic faith underground.

In the city of Nagasaki, Fr. Bernard Petitjean built the Oura Church to minister to Catholics, both new converts and those who had lived their faith underground. The Oura Church was blessed in 1865, in honor of 26 martyrs who were crucified in the era of persecution. Pope Pius XI eventually named Fr. Petitjean vicar apostolic, and the Oura Church became the cathedral.

Unfortunately, the Japanese government remained hostile to the Catholic faith, and persecution continued. Over 3400 Japanese Catholics were imprisoned, and the government carried out a vicious campaign to force them to deny their faith. More than 600 died in prison. In 1872, the Japanese officially dropped its policy of persecution of Christians, as the government was eager to open trade with European countries. This allowed the Catholics to worship openly.

Upon returning to their lands, they found everything gone—their farming equipment, boats, furniture—with their once-neat rice paddies overtaken by wilderness.

By 1895 the Urakami Catholics had saved enough to build a stone and brick cathedral under the direction of their amateur architect priest [Fr. Petitjean]. It was a colossal effort, all done by poor people who had to learn everything, from the making of cement to the sculpture of statues. The project was stopped several times as money ran out. Finally, twenty-two years after the first foundation stones were dragged up the hill, the cathedral was completed. The year was 1917. It was 230 feet long, accommodating five thousand worshippers—the largest cathedral in the Far East, with two bell towers more than one hundred feet high. It was named St. Mary’s Cathedral.

While the Oura Church still stands as the oldest Catholic church in Japan, St. Mary’s Cathedral was destroyed by the atomic bomb dropped in that city by Allied Forces in 1945. The cathedral was rebuilt in 1959.

Today, less than 1% of the Japanese population are Catholic, and the faith still struggles to gain acceptance, as it is viewed as a “Western” religion, and its practices and theology considered foreign. The Oura Church has been designated a National Heritage site by the Japanese government and remains a popular place for visitors, both Japanese and foreign. It has survived persecution, an atomic bomb and natural disasters – it truly is a church whose foundation was built on the blood of martyrs.