The Wounded Madonna

Around the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, the humid stillness of the midsummer morning was broken only by the constant humming and buzzing of cicadas in the trees.

Inside the church, two priests were hearing the confessions of about thirty parishioners, most of them middle-aged Japanese women. From her place high atop the altar, close to the ceiling, a wooden statue of the Madonna, based on a motif of the Immaculate Conception and carved in Italy, looked down on them.

It was August 9, 1945. Fat Man tumbled through the clouds at 11:02. The nuclear flash seared through the lives of 70,000.

Ground Zero was a mere 500 meters distant from the Cathedral. The shock-wave blew in all the stained glass windows and melted the church’s bell. The walls caved in. The roof collapsed. Fire storms consumed altar, pews, confessionals until only shadows were left standing. A fragment of wall here, another there atop a field of smoldering debris, scorched brick and stone. Three-quarters of Urakami Cathedral’s 12,000 parishioners died in the blast.

Kaemon Noguchi had grown up in a district of Urakami, a devout Catholic boy in a Catholic family in the most Catholic community in Japan.

He recounts in a letter how he was twelve years old when the Madonna was brought from Italy and mounted above the altar. “Her celestial beauty made a deep impression on my boyhood soul.”  

In 1929, Noguchi joined the Trappist order in Hokkaido. Before leaving for the far north of Japan, he paid a visit to the Cathedral and knelt down at the altar to pray to the Madonna. In 1939, he was ordained a priest.

The war broke out. Noguchi was conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army, recalled to Nagasaki and assigned to the Kurume Regiment. He was stationed in Okayama when the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the war ended.

Before returning to Hokkaido, he went back to Nagasaki to visit his mother and brother. The field of rubble that the Cathedral had been reduced to shocked him; he stumbled through it in a daze, intent on finding some object of spiritual significance he could take back to the cloister with him. A crucifix, perhaps, a missal or hymn book, a candle stick.

But there was nothing, only desolation.

“Then, all of a sudden, I saw the holy face of the Virgin, blackened by fire, looking at me with a sorrowful air.”

He snatched the burned head up, took it home with him and from there to the monastery, where it stood on the desk of his cell. The cathedral was rebuilt in 1959. On the 30th anniversary of the bombing, Noguchi brought the head back to Nagasaki.

Today, it stands behind glass in a special chapel. It is called The Wounded Madonna.

“The Madonna’s eyes have become scorched, black hollows,” writes The Asahi Shimbun. “Her right cheek is charred, and a crack runs like a streaking tear down her face.”