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Franciscan Chapel Center: Ministry to Refugees

TOKYO, Japan — The current heated debate about U.S. immigration reform is reminiscent for several friars who worked at the Franciscan Chapel Center of when the ministry was a haven for refugees in the 1960s.

The center, which opened in 1967, became known as a place where people could go for help, according to William DeBiase, OFM, who worked at the chapel from 1988 to 1994. In the early days, he said, people escaping the Iron Curtain would land on the chapel steps and the friars would give them refuge. William worked in Tokyo with Campion Lally, OFM, and Lucian Mulhern, OFM, and fondly remembers the work of these late friars in embracing the refugee.

Immigration reform is also hitting a cord with Bede Fitzpatrick, OFM, who had worked in Tokyo in the 1960s, and is back there now. “When I was filling in for Fr. Callistus (Sweeney) at the Internunciature — the papal embassy — in 1963, a diplomat from a communist country came asking that Nuncio (the pope’s ambassador) help get asylum for him. After a short time, a big limousine arrived from the American Embassy and carried him away to a new freedom.”

Keeping the Memory Alive
This is just one of the many stories that the friars recall. William took the time recently to write down some of his memories. He compiled the essay, he said, for many reasons. “To keep the memory of Campion and Lucian alive, to give credit to Bede for building the environment that made it possible, for the parishioners of the Franciscan Chapel Center who were always willing to open their doors and hearts, and for God, who still does marvelous things.”

Six friars live in Japan today. In addition to Bede, Russell Becker, OFM, Donnon Murray, OFM, and Callistus Sweeney, OFM, are at the Franciscan Chapel Center; Stanislaus Widomski, OFM, at St. Francis Friary in Kiryu-Shi, Gumma-Ken; and Bartholomew McMahon, OFM, at the Catholic Church, Otawara Shi, Tognigi.

These friars, said William, built an environment where people knew they could come for help.

“It is difficult to give an exact number since no records were kept,” said William, now a Philadelphia resident. “They came as defectors from the Iron Curtain countries; they came from other oppressive regimes; they all found a place at the center. They were people from Catholic countries who knew of the center. The vast majority would come through the American Embassy. People would defect, go to the American Embassy, which, in turn, would call the Chapel Center for help in getting temporary housing. In most cases, a lot more was involved.”

At that time, people who defected were in very dangerous legal situations, according to William. “People were very careful then,” he said.

“It is hard to believe now, but that is the way it was. Campion was convinced that the Chapel Center telephones were tapped and that the friars were being followed. Even though the possibility of physical harm coming to the friars was very remote, they did have to exercise a great deal of caution. It was scary at times. The three friars did not let a little fear stop them.”

William recalls that ambassadors, engineers, musicians, and students all came to the center and were given hospitality.

In his words: A young lady, let’s call her Monica, appeared on the Chapel Center front steps on a cold rainy Friday evening. She was sent by the embassy. Monica was frightened, alone and soaking wet. The friars rummaged through the parish bazaar goods to get her dry clothing. One of parishioners volunteered to put her up for the night.

It turned out that Monica was a medical student. She wanted to be a doctor but was willing to sacrifice that for freedom. Throughout the next three months, she had many disappointments. For some reason, many countries were unwilling to accept her. Finally, Australia opened its doors. Today, Monica is a doctor with a burgeoning practice.

Another couple’s story has a similar happy ending. William said: “They arrived in Tokyo, went to the hotel with their group, excused themselves, and went to the American Embassy. After going through the necessary embassy process, they called the Chapel Center. Once again the doors were opened.”

The couple graduated from the Prague Conservatory of Music and wanted to defect. They were accepted into Canada, according to William, where they taught music and played in a local orchestra.

japanA Better Situation Today
Today, the situation for refugees is much different, said Bede. The Diocese of Tokyo has established an office for refugees at the Meguro Church. The Chapel Center still works with people seeking help, who are referred the proper channels.

Bede said: “I have an Iranian man now who became a Protestant while studying medicine in the Philippines. His Moslem mother in Iran cut off his allowance, and he came to Japan to work to make money to continue his education. He finally got a refugee passport in Japan but still has not been able to return to medical school. I am not a Moslem, he says, but he is a loyal Iranian.”

He added: “Recently, Callistus had a refugee whom he referred to the office in Meguro. Perhaps our days of hiding people and rescuing captives is over.”

—Wendy Healy, a writer based in Connecticut, writes frequently for this newsletter.