Also known as the Madonna of Nagasaki or the Burnt Virgin, the wooden bust was spared from the destruction of the atomic blast in 1945.
After a long-standing ban on religious freedom was lifted in 1871 following the Meiji Restoration, The Kakure Kirishitan, “Hidden Christians,” of the Urukami region north of Nagasaki decided to construct their own church.
They purchased land where the famous “fumi-e” interrogations of Nagasaki took place, a form of persecution where Catholics in Japan were forced to step on a likeness of Jesus or Mary to demonstrate they weren’t part of the outlawed Faith. Failing to do so carried the punishment of torture and execution.
They began their construction of the brick Neo-Romanesque Urakami Cathedral. By the time it was completed and consecrated in 1925, it was the largest Catholic Church in Asia and the Pacific with its two frontal spire bell towers standing over 200 feet tall.
Three years later, a wooden altar piece was installed there featuring a wooden image of the Madonna, inspired by the famous painting of the Immaculate Conception by Spanish artist Bartolomé Murillo.
When the atomic bomb “Fat Man” dropped over Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945, the Urakami Cathedral had a total of 26 people inside: 2 priests and 24 parishioners attending Confession prior to the upcoming Feast of the Assumption.
The explosion and resulting heat-wave of over 7000 degrees razed the building and instantly cindered all 26 inside. Of the total 12,000 parishioners in Urukami, 8,500 did not survive. The ruins burned well into the night after being made the epicenter of an atomic blast.
A month later Father Kaemon Noguchi, a discharged Japanese chaplain, entered the ruins to pray, hoping to find a memento to take back with him to his Trappist Monastery in Hokkaido. Among the ruins, he found the image of the Burnt Virgin, the Virgin of Nagasaki: eyeless, with cheeks and hair scarred, some believers say a crack on the left side of the face are the tears of God.
Kept there until 1975, he returned the image when he learned the Church was looking for relics that survived the bombing. It was then held in the atom bomb museum until 2005, when it was placed in a chapel at the site of the new Urakami Cathedral, rebuilt in 1959.
Want to learn more about Catholicism and Japan? Read about the time Jesuits discovered the cure for malaria and saved the emperor of Japan, learn about how Japanese tempura shrimp is actually a Catholic Lenten creation, and when Jesuit priests survived the hiroshima atomic bomb thanks to the Rosary.