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57 years ago: Irish nun at Hiroshima

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Fifty-seven years ago this week, on Aug. 6, 1945, the American B-29 Enola Gay flew over the Japanese industrial city of Hiroshima and dropped an atomic bomb. The device, the first nuclear weapon ever used in war, detonated at approximately 8:30 a.m. Although it hastened the end of World War II, it did so at a frightful human cost. Estimates of casualties vary widely, but most experts believe between 100,000 and 150,000 people died that day or in the immediate aftermath (with countless more succumbing to illness years later due to radiation exposure). One of the survivors was an Irish nun, Julia Canny, or Sister Isaac Jogues, as she was known to the members of her religious order.

Julia Canny was born in Upper Kilbeg, Co. Galway, in 1893. Her family was quite poor and struggled to eke out a living on a small farm. In 1921, at the age of 28, she immigrated to the United States in search of work, probably as a domestic, but possibly as a seamstress. A decade later she entered the convent of the Society of the Helpers of the Holy Souls in New York. She took the name Sister Mary of St. Isaac Jogues in honor of the French Jesuit missionary and saint who was martyred in 1646.

Long interested in missionary work abroad, she eventually told her superior. “Of course, we weren’t permitted to speak in those days,” she told an interviewer many decades later, “so I just dropped the slip of paper in her box.” Four years later, in 1939, Sister Jogues was sent to the Society’s convent in Hiroshima. In 1940 she made her perpetual vows at a Mass celebrated by the Bishop of Hiroshima held in the city’s cathedral.

The main purpose of the convent in Hiroshima was to operate a mission and school. Being of limited education (she left school in the fifth grade), Sister Jogues served the community mainly by performing domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning. Fellow nuns remember her as a strong and tireless worker. Her work kept her confined mainly to the convent grounds and she never did master the Japanese language.

Life became difficult for Sister Joques and her fellow nuns, many of whom were American and European, when World War II began, especially after the U.S. and Japan went to war in late 1941. Sister Jogues was jailed for seven months by Japanese authorities until they discovered that she was not American but Irish (and Ireland was officially neutral during the war). Released, she returned to the convent. As the years of conflict wore on and Japan began to lose the war, she feared Allied firebombings, such as the one that had leveled much of Tokyo.

On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945 Sister Jogues and the seven other nuns were sitting in the convent’s garden engaged in morning prayer. What follows is her description of the atomic bomb blast as told to Irish journalist Adrian Miller in 1985 and published in the Belfast Andersontown News.

“Suddenly there was a huge bang in the sky, just above the city,” she said. “We were all thrown from our seats onto the ground. Realizing that it was a bomb, we quickly picked ourselves up and made a run for cover in the direction of the convent. We had only just taken shelter inside the convent when the entire building began to shake and give way. We turned and rushed outside again, the convent collapsing at our heels. The convent wall collapsed before our very eyes and beyond where the wall had stood until a few seconds before lay the remains of our neighborhood. There was hardly a building left standing. Everywhere people lay either dying or dead, burned — I was to learn later — from the flash of radiation.”

The atomic bomb hit a scant 1.4 miles from the convent and leveled everything and killed tens of thousands for several miles around. Sister Jogues and her fellow nuns had survived only because they had taken cover in the convent just before the fiery flash of radiation swept past (that was the force that subsequently destroyed the convent).

The nuns soon retreated from the destroyed convent and raging fires to a house owned by the Jesuits. It was a harrowing journey through the destruction and Sister Jogues and the nuns stopped to help as many of the injured as they could. When they arrived at the Jesuit house they quickly set about assisting some 90 refugees, many of them injured from the blast. Over the next few weeks the nuns worked with the Jesuits (including Fr. Pedro Arrupe, future superior general of the Jesuit order) to care for the injured and, in the case of Sister Jogues, to find and distribute food. She quickly discovered that her knowledge of English, not to mention her charming Irish brogue, proved invaluable for getting food and medicine from American soldiers. “From that moment on,” she recalled, “I became the Society’s beggar.”

On one occasion an Irish American M.P. arrived at their makeshift convent with a search warrant. She was terrified, for she’d been selling toothpaste (procured from U.S. soldiers) on the black market in order to buy food for the children they were sheltering. “I thought for sure we had had it,” she recalled. On a hunch, she asked him about his background and before long she was tracing his Irish ancestry. By the time she was done, the M.P. didn’t have the heart to conduct a search. These experiences eventually led Sister Jogues to serve as a liaison for American and Australian armed forces personnel during the post-war occupation period.

Sister Jogues was probably not the only Irish survivor of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but her story is nonetheless remarkable. She survived the ordeal and remained in Japan for the rest of her life. She died in Tokyo on Nov. 1, 1987, at the age of 93.

HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK

Aug. 2, 1943: The Japanese destroyer Amigiri rams and sinks PT 109. Despite a back injury that would plague him for the rest of his life, Lt. John F. Kennedy and 10 crewmen survive the ordeal.

Aug. 3, 1916: Convicted of treason for his role in plotting the Easter Rising, Roger Casement is hanged.

Aug. 4, 1906: Mary Mallon hired as a cook by the family of banker Charles Henry Warren. Three weeks later, after 11 people in the household contracted typhoid fever, officials began searching for the woman who became known as “Typhoid Mary.”

HIBERNIAN BIRTHDATES

Aug. 2, 1924: Emmy Award-winning actor Carroll O’Connor is born in New York City.

Aug. 3, 1823: Irish revolutionary, Union Army general, and governor of the Montana Territory, Thomas Francis Meagher, is born in Waterford.

Aug. 6, 1775: Irish patriot and MP Daniel O’Connell is born near Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry.

Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.

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