“Thanks to Your Noble Shadow”: The Life of the Last Irish Nun in Japan

An interview with journalist James Creedon about his documentary film on the life of Sister Paschal O’Sullivan, who was a missionary in Japan for 75 years

In 2010, Sister Paschal (Jennie) O’Sullivan returned home to Ireland at the age of 98 after 75 years of missionary work in Japan, which including teaching English at one of the Japan’s most prestigious girls’ schools, Denenchofu Futaba in Tokyo. Among her past pupils is Japan’s Crown Princess Masako.

Following Sister Paschal’s 100th birthday, her young cousin, James Creedon—who works in Paris as the media correspondent for the television news channel France24—became interested in her life and experiences and decided that they should be preserved. From the time they spent together over the following year, before Sister Paschal’s death, a documentary film is in production, directed and produced by James, which bears witness to the values and extraordinary experiences of one of Ireland’s missionary daughters born in another epoch, a film with much to say to the Church and to the world of the 21st century. A trailer for the film can be viewed here; a fundraising page for those interested in helping Creedon complete the film is here.

Catholic World Report interviewed James Creedon about his initiative.

CWR: James, presumably you did not know Sister Paschal as you grew up. How was she regarded in your family? What did you learn of her as a boy and young man?

Sister Paschal O'Sullivan (image courtesy of James Creedon)

James Creedon: There were around a dozen missionary priests and nuns in my extended family going up three or four generations. I knew of Sister Paschal via my grandmother’s correspondence with her. Jennie, as she was known to her family, was a wonderful letter-writer, and despite the fact that she spent 75 years on the other side of the world, she maintained close family ties with extended family members, many of whom were born after her departure. My grandmother, for example, was just three years old when Jennie left Ireland, yet somehow a bond was established and maintained. That alone says a lot about the kind of person she was and how big her heart was.

I knew she had taught in high circles in Japan for decades, that amongst her past pupils and her private students were members of the Mitsubishi and Suzuki families…very much high-fliers in Japan. I was impressed by this and by stories of one of my uncle’s visits to Japan, where he was wined and dined by her “inner circle.” It seemed like something out of a fairytale, this relative who in another era had left home forever only to be integrated into a completely different society at a very high level, becoming both a part of that society—and in Japan that is not very common—while also maintaining her role as an outsider and a missionary with a message to spread.

When she returned to Ireland at 98, I was somewhat shocked. It was out of curiosity that I went to see her—perhaps the fact that I myself am an expat and understand what it involves trying to integrate into a foreign society. Interestingly, she and I both left our homeland at the age of 23. But leaving Ireland for France in 2005 is not the same as leaving Ireland for Japan in 1932! She left believing she would never see home again. She left without speaking Japanese. I came to France in the age of the Internet, speaking good French, knowing I could return to Ireland at the drop of a hat…and it was still hard! I felt I could empathize with her. Perhaps I was the best-placed person in the family to record her memories. I just clicked with her from the moment we started talking.

CWR: As a young adult at university and in your early professional life, what did you think of a young woman—if you thought of her at all—who would leave her family and her country at the age of 23 in 1935 to serve in a country where she didn’t even know the language?

Creedon: What strength of character…what conviction…what bravery! But also what choices for a woman of that time! It made me think in somewhat ambiguous terms about the recruitment of missionaries, too…. There was a lot of propaganda to get young men and women to join. There were nuns going around knocking on doors trying to recruit young Irish women for the missions abroad. The spirit of the times—Ireland post-independence—was very much imbued with a Catholic ethos and a sense that a newly-independent Ireland had a big part to play in the global missionary movement, in part to distinguish itself from our Protestant British neighbors. Being Catholic became part of Irish identity in those times and was omnipresent in a way that became somewhat oppressive. So on the one hand, I think this Catholic propaganda was everywhere, unavoidable, and any young man or woman of talent would have felt very tempted by this lifestyle choice in the Ireland of the early 20th century. They were being lured into it, if you like.

But look at the positives—for a woman of Jennie’s generation, if she did not want to marry and have children and stay at home, if she wanted a career and adventure and a sense of purpose, the Church offered that! If she wanted to teach or run a school or a hospital and travel, if she wanted to influence and spread ideas and knowledge and spirituality, well, here was a clear alternative to staying on the farm or marrying the guy your parents had you set up with. So I suppose to sum up, I was struck by how few choices women of her era had and what an attractive choice being a missionary was…

CWR: How did you eventually come to meet Sister Paschal?

Creedon: After her return to Ireland in 2010. Firstly, I met her in my uncle’s home. She spoke perfect French, so we spoke in French for a while. She was living in a convent which has nursing-home facilities not far from my own family home. I began to visit her regularly shortly after her 100th birthday in September 2012. My own birthday is just a few days before hers—we are almost exactly 70 years apart in age. The bond was struck up very fast, by letter and during our long interviews over the course of a year, up until her death in December 2013.

CWR: From that encounter the idea of making a documentary film emerged. Why?

Creedon: I understood very quickly that she was a national monument. She was the last Irish nun in Japan. It was like having a relic of our history parachuted back into the present moment. All her memories were intact. She was lucid, smart, funny, full of humor and love. She had lived through the Irish Civil War, the Second World War in Japan…her anecdotes were so fascinating. It was obvious to me that everything should be recorded. The film has been cut down to 90 minutes, but it could easily be five to six hours.

CWR: What did you do to realize this idea?

Creedon: I needed lots of encouragement, first of all. The idea just would not leave me. However, I live in Paris and I’m a TV presenter/journalist. I did not have production experience for a project of this nature. What made me do it was the urgency that her advanced age imposed. She was 100 and was going downhill fast. I had to do it now. I couldn’t wait for funding and also I didn’t want a TV channel or production company telling me how to do it and what they wanted. It became a very personal project. So I filmed first, hiring camera crews where necessary, and decided to think of money and practicalities down the line. It was a huge learning curve. I used up all my savings on production costs and the trip to Japan… No regrets thus far!

CWR: Tell us about the film that you have produced. What does it offer its viewers?

Creedon: It’s a profile of Sister Paschal. It’s her life in her words from her beginnings in rural Ireland through to her education and her decision to join her order and what that involved at that time—essentially being handing oneself over to the Church and knowing you were leaving home forever. It is interspersed with archive footage—most sourced at the Irish Film Archive in Dublin—to give a visual sense of the Church at that time. Then there is the arrival in Japan, the sense of alienation, the need to adjust, the war years in four different camps…

But most of all there is the extraordinary devotion she had to teaching…her concept of education was not just imparting knowledge, but looking after the inner world of each pupil. She considered each child to be her own child. She invested all her maternal instincts in teaching. For decades after a child had left her care, she would send letters and cards for her birthday. She struck up bonds that were as close if not closer than family bonds with scores, hundreds of Japanese women. She was like a mother hen with this huge, adoring brood. Many came for private English lessons to her for decades afterwards. Now, that’s either because she was a very bad English teacher and her lessons weren’t sinking in (that is not the case!) or because they were getting something else out of these lessons. There was always a choice quote from the Bible on the blackboard of her private study—never dogmatic, always focused on love and charity—and there was lots and lots of tea, sometimes with some Baileys! There was mostly a lot of joy, good will, charity, and love.

CWR: In publicizing the film you’ve said that you’re not a practicing Catholic. You are, perhaps, one of the large number of young Irish Catholics for whom the Church may seem largely irrelevant. Has your encounter with Sister Paschal challenged your religious stance? Has it changed you?

Creedon: She sacrificed so much for her life as a missionary—her home, her country, her family, the possibility of having children of her own, a salary…. But she lived a life of adventure and human relationships and sharing and generosity and love and giving…. She was so, so happy. She seemed so fulfilled at the end of her life that it made me question many of my own choices. What makes us happy? Is it not living a loving, generous life? She never had a sexual relationship or a salary—two central preoccupations for most people of my generation—two areas that we are convinced are key to happiness. She had none of that yet she radiated bliss. Her inner world was certainly something to do with that. Her investment in human relationships…the little things like remembering birthdays, leading by example, simply being joyful and a joy to be around. She gave so much love. A Catholic education partly helped her to be this way. I see it too in my grandparents’ generation. It has helped me to reconcile with elements of Catholic teaching. I’m not a big fan of dogma or control exercised by institutions but the central, core spiritual messages in Christianity speak to me. There is a universal truth in these messages and increasingly science and spirituality are aligning on certain areas. The realm of quantum physics is one that I find fascinating, so my own intellectual questionings have in fact brought me back to a spirituality that is not disconnected to the spirituality and worldview of my ancestors…it is just less rules-bound.

CWR: Do you think that through this film the life and work of Sister Paschal has the capacity to challenge and change others also?

Creedon: Being in her presence was like bathing in positive energy and love. It affected me so I believe it will affect anyone who is open to the ideas and concepts at the heart of the film.

CWR: At what stage of production is the film at present? When do you hope it will be released?

Creedon: It is edited but in need of post-production to polish it. It probably needs to be cut down a bit. I worked with a wonderful film editor who went through the 60-70 hours of footage I recorded and together we narrowed it down to the current story, which is broken down into chapters chronologically following my visits to her over her last year. Once I have raised the money to pay off editing costs and use of archive footage, and once post-production is completed and paid for, it will be ready to show.

CWR: So if our readers want to help move this project forward, what can they do?

Creedon: They can visit a crowdfunding page and make a donation. I have raised almost €10,000 so I’m only 25 percent there. The deadline for the crowdfunding project is at the end of October. This story is really, really worth telling and I would be so grateful for donations large or small. Everyone will get recognition in the final credits. Search on Google: “Thanks To Your Noble Shadow” + Indiegogo.

By the way, the title is a direct translation of an old-fashioned way of saying “Thank you” in Japanese, “Okagesamade.” The film includes scenes of her thanking her past pupils and her past pupils thanking her for her contribution.

This project honors Sisiter Paschal’s quiet, consistent, loving contribution to Japanese society, but she is merely a very fine example of what thousands of Irish women did over generations, never seeking recognition or recompense. She was a woman who never sought the limelight and whose contribution would have remained in the shadows. I feel absolutely on fire in my desire to draw attention to that contribution and shine a very bright spotlight on her life and the lives of the thousands of others who did as she did.

I thank everyone who hears this message and contributes to the project.

For more about the “Thanks to Your Noble Shadow” project, visit the documentary’s blog and Facebook page.

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About Dom Alcuin Reid 8 Articles
Dom Alcuin Reid is the founding Prior of the Monastère Saint-Benoît in the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France, and a liturgical scholar of international renown. His principle work, The Organic Development of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2005) carries a preface by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.