Tracing The Roots Of John De Britto English Center
Do you know where the John de Britto English Center is located in the big complex of St Ignatius Church? Have you ever dropped by? Have you ever wondered why it was established? and when? or why it was named “John de Britto? or what it was like in its initial years?
On February 2, first Sunday of the month, the Center will celebrate its “roots” for the first time. Past and present collaborators - priests, sisters, lay volunteers, friends of all nations, races, languages, and ages will gather in St Joseph’s Hall for a simple program and party. The Indian community is in charge and many might wonder why them. Yes, for most of us, it will perhaps be the first time to learn of its history. For others, a time to reminisce.
For this article, the Bulletin interviewed Fr Valentine D’Souza SJ. He gives us a firsthand account of how God gradually unfolded his plan for what we now call the St John de Britto English Center of St Ignatius, known as a mega “multi-cultural Church in Japan”.
HISTORY by Fr Valentine D’Souza, SJ
I came to St Ignatius in June 1982. Fr Joseph Pittau, Jesuit Provincial at that time, asked me to come after my tertianship in the USA. He was a man of vision, who looked with vision at St Ignatius Church in the city of Tokyo.
Start of the International Community. At that time Japan was booming as a First World country. It sponsored numerous foreigners for training to be used by their own governments – Egypt, Somalia, Kenya, Asian countries, etc. Computer technology was beginning. In Ichigaya, they had a big Government hostel. They were being trained for six months to a year and would then go back to their own countries to use their knowledge in technology. They came with different religions and backgrounds. Some were Catholic, so I went there to be with them and invited them to come to St Ignatius.
The 12 noon Sunday Mass used to be in Latin. Later, it was celebrated in English. There were one or two Jesuits who spoke English, celebrated the Mass, and after Mass went back to SJ House. One of them was Fr William Currie SJ.
When I came in 1982, it was still the old church building. Before the noon Mass, as people started coming, I would stand on the front steps, greet the Japanese coming out from the previous Mass and asked those coming in if they could do the readings, be ushers, distribute the hymn books, go to the choir, etc. This happened every week for the next two years. People got used to me, and the number of Mass-goers started increasing, from about 50 to 75 persons. Within a year and a half, by word of mouth, people started coming for baptisms, confirmation, marriage, funerals, etc. They knew there was a priest available for them.
Then I realized I could not do everything by myself. We needed a place for the foreigners. That is how the International Center was born! The Japanese community had the whole church, but the foreigners did not have anywhere to gather - no place to consult or to talk with the priest, hold group study, etc. They were just guests who came to Mass then went home. Spiritual needs were not taken care of. Most of those who came were from Europe or North America and a few from the Philippines.
In 1983-84, the International Center was in a shack, a temporary building on the left side of the old Church. After that, with the influx of Filipinos working in various places in Japan, many came to St. Ignatius. In early 1990’s, as the community started increasing, I felt we needed a new place. We got permission to move to another building - a small room on the ground floor of the opposite side. By this time, Sr Mila Alarcon, FMM (Franciscan Missionaries of Mary) and Adelfa Armentia, TA (Teresian Association) moved from the Franciscan Chapel Center to St Ignatius.
The first people to help were Sisters Mary Nagashima and Rosemary Bass (Maryknoll) and Sister Amparo Virto (Cristo Jesús), and myself. They were most helpful. Then the Spanish-speaking people also started coming for the English Mass. We realized we also had to attend to their needs. This is when we split into two groups. Sr Amparo took the Spanish-speaking community and started the Spanish Mass in the old Xavier Chapel.
Then, the “bubble economy” hit Japan. The government had invited many Argentinians to work in the 3-K jobs (kitsui, kitanai, kiken – difficult, dirty, dangerous), but then they were terminated. They needed a place to live and they came to the church. This happened at the end of December. Fr Cangas, the Pastor, was in Spain. I was the Acting Pastor and made the radical move of opening the merienda room, hall, and basement of the old church and attended to their needs, such as mattresses, utensils, etc. There were fewer than 20 at the beginning and later became 50. The whole parish and the Jesuits were against the decision I took. The church is not meant for this, I was told! But more and more Argentinian laborers came. They encountered many legal problems and asked for legal help in St. Ignatius. Sr Consuelo Domenec, MCJ came, and this was the start of Centro Claver.
John de Britto Center. In 1990 we started to plan for a new church building. There was a large donation from the Köln Diocese in Germany. The old church was demolished. Half of the building in which we were staying was knocked down and all offices were moved to a prefabricated structure with small rooms where we could conduct classes and meetings. After the split of the Spanish Community the English-speaking community- John de Britto English Center came about.
Why that name? There are many Jesuit saints and, since I am from India, I thought it would be good to name the Center after him. He was a Portuguese Jesuit martyred in India (cf. page 6) As we are in Asia, I thought it would be good to celebrate an “Asian Saint.” Of course, there is another Indian Saint among the 26 Martyrs of Japan, a Franciscan brother, named Gonzalo Garcia but I am a Jesuit…
Joys and Challenges. While the new Church was being built, people from the International Community were most cooperative and generous in their donations As for the English Mass, many gave their time and talents. Most cooperative were the Filipinos. The longest service group were the Ushers and the Choir. And, Fr. Pittau, he literally “threw the baby” into my arms! I thank him for his trust.
I left for Kobe on March 25, 2004, after 22 years in St Ignatius. I prepared Fr Gerry Barry SJ for a smooth turnover. Sr Mila became the Coordinator of the Center and Fr Barry served as Director. Then came others: Fr Kerkmann and Fr Chiesa. Although I have not worked with either of them, I learned they have been so good to the Community.
Message for the Present John de Britto Team and Volunteers. First, PUSH—Pray Until Something Happens. This was how the Center started! God opened a new door which human beings cannot close. Second, we need holy priests and religious, not just a large number of them. Third, blessings to each one of you! St. Ignatius is your Church. Pray as a community, help each other, continue to grow spiritually into the Body of Christ. And, do not forget to whisper a small prayer for me.
By Sr. Flor M. Florece, F.I.