The First Women Religious in Japan: Mother Saint Mathilde Raclot and the French Connection

By Harrington, Ann M. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2001 | Go to article overview

The First Women Religious in Japan: Mother Saint Mathilde Raclot and the French Connection


Harrington, Ann M., The Catholic Historical Review


The nineteenth century was a heady time for Roman Catholicism as Western Christianity insinuated itself into Asian countries populated by millions of potential converts, souls that Catholic missionaries believed needed to be brought into the light of the Catholic faith.Japan was seen as especially attractive because of the aborted efforts toward conversion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. When the military government of Japan, the Tokugawa Bakufu, decided in 1614 to ban this foreign religion, Christians had the option of camouflage, apostasy, or death, as Japan's doors closed in 1639 until the mid-nineteenth century Many Japanese died for their faith, creating a zeal in the missionaries once again to bring Catholicism to Japan. Their enthusiasm grew with the re-emergence of Christianity after its long underground period, when a group of Christian descendants made themselves known in 1865 to Bernard Petitjean (1829-1884), a Paris Foreign Mission priest.1

A part of the story that is not so well known is the work of Roman Catholic women religious who went to Japan initially in 1872 (Soeurs de l'Enfant-Jesus, also known as the Dames de Saint-Maur), 1877 (Soeurs de l'Enfant-Jesus de Chauffailles), and 1878 (Soeurs de Saint-Paul de Chartres). All three of these French congregations sent sisters to Japan at the request of the Paris Foreign Mission Society priests, who had argued for exclusive proselytizing rights in Japan; they wanted to avoid repeating the conflicts which had erupted among the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians in the first Christian period (15491639). Paris Foreign Mission priests arrived in 1859 but had to confine their services to the foreign Catholics residing in Japan. Once the Japanese government stopped the persecutions, the priests invited women religious to Japan.

English sources examining the life and work of these first women religious in Japan are nonexistent. This study begins to remedy that situation and seeks to answer several questions: How did it happen that these women went to Japan? Who were they? What did they do in the early years of their life in Japan? How did they view Japan and the Japanese? How can we account for their immediate usefulness in early Meiji Japan despite the small numbers of converts to Roman Catholicism? An examination of the historical context reveals an unusual set of circumstances which made ripe the time for the introduction of French women religious into Japan. The life and work of Mother Saint Mathilde Raclot, whose time in Japan spanned almost the entire Meiji era (18681912), provides the focus for this study. We learn what women working in the mission field were able to bring to the Japan mission, despite coming from a patriarchal France; we investigate how their works proved especially beneficial to Japanese women and children who experienced hardships in the last quarter of the nineteenth century; and we are left with questions about the over-all impact of the sisters in relation to cultural imperialism. But first, the story.

Mother Saint Mathilde led the first group of sisters to Japan from France via Singapore in 1872, even though she herself did not take up permanent residence in Japan until 1876. During the intervening years, she made at least twelve trips to Japan.2 Unlike most foreigners in Japan in the late nineteenth century, Mother Saint Mathilde was neither sojourner nor settler; she was neither politician nor business woman. She was in Japan at the request of the priests of the Paris Foreign Mission Society to help them as they preached Christianity to the Japanese. Being a Roman Catholic sister in the nineteenth century, Mother Saint Mathilde was not, strictly speaking, a missionary That term, according to the canon law at the time, referred exclusively to clerics subject to the jurisdiction of the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith.3 The best term one can come up with is that she and the French sisters who went to Japan in the nineteenth century were "assistants" to the priests. …

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