It all began with the Kawamuras, a Catholic family who owned a small plot of land in this formerly well-to-do part of Tokyo.
After World War II, the Franciscans bought some of the family’s land to build a language school for missionaries. They set up St. Joseph’s Friary, which today stands to the left of the Franciscan Chapel Center.
Then the U.S. 1st Cavalry showed up. Troops from Hardy Barracks, a military camp where the Tokyo Midtown complex now stands, began heading over for Mass in the friary’s chapel. Expatriate workers and Japanese Catholics started showing up, too.
Fr. Bede Fitzpatrick OFM, who arrived in 1958, recalls that the small chapel just couldn’t cope.
“Fr. Beatus (Theunissen), a language specialist, would give sermons in Japanese, and Fr. Marshall Warner would give them in English,” Bede said.
“Lay people were coming into Japan, various companies were sending people in, and the Japanese especially who wanted to associate with the Americans, they would come. I remember Mrs. Kodama, who would do a lot of translation for the Occupation, she had several sons, she would come. And Mrs. Aso, who was the mother of (Finance Minister) Taro Aso, she would come. The little chapel held only about 120 people, and they were spilling out into the street.”
FCC takes shape
By now the Kawamuras were living in a house adjacent to the new friary. Their son and daughter became a priest and nun. The parents decided to move, and they sold the rest of the land to the Franciscans.
Fr. Marshall began a fund-raising effort to pay for construction. A loan came from a priest in Hong Kong, a donation arrived from the U.S.-based Franciscan Mission Associates, and our first parishioners covered the rest. A plaque outside the main chapel records their donations.
The Franciscan Chapel Center opened on Christmas Eve of 1967.
Over its 50 years the center has been a spiritual home for countless numbers of Catholics in Tokyo, including jet-lagged visitors. For those whose body clocks are on U.S. time, the early morning Mass is a good way to end their day. After all, the FCC is only a walk or short ride from many central hotels.
“The Kawamuras were very generous,” says former pastor Fr. Callistus Sweeney OFM. “It is thanks to them that we were able to buy it, and in such a wonderful location.”
Current pastor Fr. Russell Becker OFM jokes that since we have so many parishioners and only a small main chapel the best thing would be for an earthquake to raze the building and start afresh. Despite his hopes, the building is holding up well.
Why the name?
People ask why we use the name “chapel center.” The best guess is that it was inherited from the post-war Allied Military Chapel Center, which served Catholic, Protestant and Jewish troops near the Diet. Moreover, our church was not a parish at first, but a mission chapel ministering to foreigners.
On Oct. 31, 1988, the Archbishop of Tokyo formalized it as a “personal parish” for English-speaking Catholics, “centered on the Franciscan Chapel Center.”
Fifty years on, some people know it as the Roppongi Catholic Church. But officially we’re still just the FCC.
Timeline of pastoral work in Roppongi
1888 Pastoral work in the Roppongi ara began when the Azabu Parish Center moved to Kasumi-cho from its first temporary location in a private house at Akabanebashi, Mita. In 1889 Pere Michael Steichen MEP was appointed the first pastor of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (present address: 21-6 Nishi Azabu 3-chome, Minato-ku) by the first Archbishop of Tokyo, Most Rev. Pierre Osouf MEP. Foreigners from nearby embassies would attend the Latin Mass here.
1926 The Apostolic Delegate, Bishop Maria Guardini, moved into the Vatican Delegation at 3-10, Roppongi 7-chome. The building was destroyed in the Great Tokyo Air Raid of 1945.
1935 The Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus established a school for girls in the home of renowned novelist Shiga Naoya at 3-13 Roppongi 4-chome. Fr. Sauveur Candau MEP ministered in the chapel to the Sisters, students and others. The site was destroyed in the 1945 air raid.
1946 The Allied Military Chapel Center for foreign troops and civilians was established in front of the Diet building at 2 Nagatacho 1-chome, Chiyoda-ku. Fr. Robert Lampert, Fr. Brucker, Fr. Looney and Fr. Albert A. Knier ministered to the foreign Catholic community until the chapel closed in 1956.
1950 The Very Rev. Fr. Alphonsus Schnusenberg OFM, Franciscan Delegate General for the Far East, came to Japan to build up the Franciscan missions. At this time the Communist authorities in China were expelling foreign missionaries. Among those kicked out were about 30 Franciscans, a handful of whom relocated to Japan.
1951 On Feb. 3, Francis Xavier Shigehisa Kawamura sold 992 sq. meters of his property at 28-4 Mikawadai-machi, Azabu, to the Franciscan Order.
1956 On April 1, the new St. Joseph’s Friary with language classrooms and a chapel was dedicated. Fr. Diego Michelon OFM was appointed first Chaplain of St. Joseph’s Friary Chapel to care for the growing number of worshippers. Fr. Albert A. Knier, U.S. Army Chaplain of Hardy Barracks, began bringing his flock.
1958 Fr. Marshall Warner OFM was appointed the first Rector and began plans for a larger church to accommodate the influx of worshippers.
1961 Cardinal Peter Tatsuo Doi, Archbishop of Tokyo, gave permission for pastoral work among foreigners at St. Joseph’s Friary Chapel.
1966 On April 28, the Franciscan Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus in New York signed a contract with the Franciscan Delegate General of Japan to staff and administer the new Franciscan Chapel Center. The following day, Cardinal Doi renewed his approval of the work of the friars at Roppongi, declaring that the new Center would “make a worthy contribution to the spreading of the Catholic Faith in this Archdiocese of Tokyo.”
1967 Dec. 24 saw the dedication of the Franciscan Chapel Center. Fr. Bede was appointed its first Pastor.
Former parishioners may remember the center’s subsequent pastors: Fr. Flavian Walsh OFM, Fr. Campion Lally OFM, Fr. William DiBiase OFM, Fr. Eugene Wegner OFM, Fr. Lino Micheletti OFM, Fr. Claudio Gianesin OFM and Fr. Callistus Sweeney OFM. Fr. Russell Becker OFM arrived in 2010 and was at the helm as the parish approached its golden jubilee in 2017.