A life less ordinary: Spending time with the last Irish missionary nun in Japan

James Creedon, a journalist based in Paris for France 24, spent a year recording the memories of his elderly cousin, the last Irish missionary nun in Japan. As he turns the footage into a documentary, he tells her story.

A life less ordinary: Spending time with the last Irish missionary nun in Japan

I first met Jennie O’Sullivan in October 2012. She had recently returned to Ireland after 75 years in Japan. My grandmother and mother had been invited to her 100th birthday celebrations where a letter was read out from the crown princess of Japan, one of her past pupils.

Jennie was born in 1912 in Clougduv, Co Cork. As a child she recalls the death of Michael Collins just over the hills in Béal na Bláth. In Clougduv National School, shots were fired through the windows during the Civil War and she and her classmates had to duck under the desk.

They were difficult times and one of the rocks of stability during all that change was the institution of the Catholic Church. Many women like her were drawn to it. It was a way out of the inevitability of a servile, married life with few choices and freedoms. It was a way to have an adventure, to continue your education and to have a career.

So she joined the “Drishane Nuns” — originally a French order known as the Infant Jesus Sisters. They had set up a school and convent at Drishane Castle just outside Millstreet in the early years of the 20th century. The local bishop at the time was not so impressed.

He knew their game — to recruit young Irish women and send them as English teachers to their schools in Asia. A deal was struck but there was a lot of competition even within the Church to recruit the best and brightest. Seeing as schools were essentially all Catholic-run, those with talent were quickly identified and encouraged to join up. There was an explosion of Irish orders and missionary societies at this time with hundreds of young Irish men and women being sent abroad every year.

When Jennie O’Sullivan eventually became “Sr Paschal”, she had to say goodbye to her family. The boat journey to Japan was a long one and it was a one-way ticket; it would be too expensive and time-consuming for her to come back on holidays and church rules forbade any such contact with home anyway.

She spoke not one word of Japanese. On the journey out, she bade farewell to all her Irish friends who were dropped off in Penang, Malaysia. Jennie travelled alone with an austere French nun for the rest of the journey. It was 1935.

Already Japan’s war machine was kicking into action in the South China Sea. Eventually she arrived and the very next day she was sent into school teaching.

She taught for the next seven years in Yokohama at one of the many ‘Futaba’ schools set up by the Infant Jesus Sisters across the country. She fought strong pangs of homesickness with letters from her mother arriving saying “we are looking at the same moon”.

Then in 1942, she became an enemy national and with 12 other Irish sisters she was interned. For two and a half years she was locked up in four camps until seven months before the war ended, Ireland was finally recognised as neutral and distinct from Britain by the Japanese authorities.

She and her compatriots were evacuated to the mountains of Karuizawa where they remained for several years. As the war ended, other nuns joined them in safety of the highlands, their convents having been bombed and destroyed. They came down out of the mountains to discover a country in ruins. The carpet-bombing of Tokyo had reduced it to rubble.

The industrious nuns set to work, along with the rest of the country, in rebuilding a shattered nation. A school was set up in the Denenchofu district of Tokyo. Jennie became its founding English teacher and there she remained for the following 63 years until her return to Ireland in 2010. Denenchofu Futaba was to become one of Japan’s most prestigious girls’ schools.

Along with other missionary schools such as the Sacred Heart School in Tokyo, European nuns enjoyed a reputation for excellence in education, in particular in the quality of language instruction. Japan had emerged from a policy of international isolation after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Hitherto, trade and contact with the outside world was largely banned.

When Jennie arrived in 1935, she became a rare cultural and linguistic bridge to the outside world.

After the war, the priority of forging strong commercial and cultural links between Japan and the West became paramount. The role of women like her in educating generations of well-to-do Japanese in post-war Japan cannot be under-estimated in how it informed and shaped generations of decisionmakers in their attitudes to the West.

She had a huge impact and positive influence on thousands of past pupils. Sr Paschal taught with joy, energy, enthusiasm and song. She imparted a positive, loving message informed by the Catholic creed but never dogmatic or fear-mongering. For decades after they left her classrooms, past pupils returned to her for private English lessons. She developed bonds as close, if not closer, than family with scores of them.

I witnessed all this first- hand over the final year of her life. She told me her story over several months in interviews on my visits home to Cork. As an Irishman living abroad myself, I understood the difficulty of settling into a new society yet I couldn’t begin to imagine how difficult it had been for her in 1935.

At 100, she seemed to be this perfect blend of her origins and her adopted homeland — it inspired me. Jennie had ripened and become richer because of that cross-pollination and it struck me that there had been so many others like her, forgotten in the mists of time, who had been such marvelous ambassadors for our country. She also made me question the values that have been left to one side with the implosion of the Catholic Church’s influence. A vacuum has emerged in its place. Society now encourages young people to seek wealth and success and the focus is on self-interest and entertainment. To fill that vacuum, we are on our own, seeking solutions in new age philosophy and yoga or perhaps in addiction and excess in order to numb an emotional or spiritual emptiness.

I am not in any way a practicing Catholic, but witnessing how alert and happy she was at the end of her life was inspiring. She had never had a salary or a lovelife … yet she was fulfilled. I wanted to figure out why and put simply it is because she spent her life loving unconditionally and giving of herself.

At a recent Goal charity ball in Paris, the aid charity’s CEO Barry Andrews remarked that everywhere he goes and everywhere Irish charities operate, they are “standing on the shoulders of Irish missionaries”. For the past number of years, scandal after scandal has emerged, sullying the image of priests and nuns generally. It was in the nature of many of these people to not draw attention to the fine work that they did as humility and discretion was part of their lifestyle code. The women in particular developed family-like bonds with the communities they operated in.

While some may correctly point out that they were agents of the church and sent there to spread its creed, they were also ordinary Irish men and women very far from home, giving the very best of the values that had been instilled in them from their youth and in their homes to foreign communities in far-flung lands. The women had sacrificed a family life of their own to become mother figures in the schools and hospitals where they worked.

Many of them died out there, their ties with home varying depending on how much of an effort had been kept up to write letters over the years. From the 1960s onwards, visits home became more regular. The welcome varied — a relative coming back to your home for a stay of two or three months was not always an easy thing. Often, they felt like foreigners on these trips home, having fully integrated to life in their adopted homelands.

Ironically, lots of elderly priests and nuns were sent home at the end of their lives as was the case with Jennie. It was a very difficult transition. As she said herself, she felt half if not three-quarters Japanese. That’s hardly surprising seeing as she spent three- quarters of her life there. While visiting priests at the Columban Father’s head house in Navan, Co Meath, several men who had returned after a lifetime in Japan told me the experience was akin to “reverse culture shock”. In 2015, it difficult for many of us to understand how cut off you were from home in those years. You became immersed in your new home and culture. For me they are the great forgotten heroes and heroines of Irish 20th century history.

My film charts her memories from childhood through her 75 years in Japan up to her bittersweet return home in 2010. I brought a video message of Sr Paschal to Japan when I visited in June 2013. I filmed an assembly of her past pupils watching her say goodbye. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. I then returned with messages from her past pupils — her children, as she called them — that she witnessed in Cork. She died a month later.

It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I want this story to be entered into film festivals and her contribution to be known as an example of what many others like her did. Let us remember them and honour them.

I would like Thanks to your Noble Shadow to be broadcast on television in Japan, Ireland and elsewhere. I want Sr Paschal’s story and her contribution to be understood and appreciated for posterity.

Private screenings will be organised at Irish embassies, cultural centres or other suitable venues in Dublin, Cork, Paris, London and Tokyo as soon as the finishing funds have been raised.

I am deeply grateful to all those who help make this possible.

To make a donation visit 75yearsinjapan.wordpress.com/fundraising or Thanks to your Noble Shadow on www.indiegogo.com. Thanks to your Noble Shadow also has a Facebook and Vimeo page.

James Creedon is a journalist and broadcaster based in Paris. He is media editor on France 24’s English-language network.

More in this section

Price info
Price info

Subscribe to unlock unlimited digital access.
Cancel anytime.

Terms and conditions apply

ieFood pic
ieFood Logo

In the Kitchen with

 Video Series

Join Colm O'Gorman in his kitchen as he makes flatbreads in minutes and crispy air fryer chicken. Explore why he thinks chilli is the spice of life, and find out why his 50-year-old food mixer is his most important piece of kitchen equipment. Friday, September 17, 12pm

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up