Mission Accomplished: Iwo Jima Veteran Who Became a Franciscan Missionary Comes Home

At the age of 91, Father Bede Fitzpatrick is retiring after 55 years of priestly service in Japan.

Franciscan Father Bede Fitzpatrick
Franciscan Father Bede Fitzpatrick (photo: Courtesy of Alastair Wanklyn)

TOKYO — A former U.S. Navy officer who served in the Pacific War and commanded a flotilla of landing craft during the invasion of Iwo Jima subsequently became a Franciscan missionary in Japan, ministering there for 55 years.

Father Bede Fitzpatrick, 91, retired in Tokyo on Aug. 1 this year. He can still recall the surge of  emotion prompted by his first glimpse of the Japanese mainland in 1945, during a voyage to Sasebo Naval Base.

“I can remember a certain excitement, because this is where Xavier went,” he said. St. Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Society of Jesus, arrived in Japan in 1549 at Kagoshima, about 120 miles from Sasebo.

“I went ashore one day. There was a little church, just a one-room church, with wicker all over the floor and Stations of the Cross. And just little boys were there, no one else, and we gave them candy. The adults were afraid; they stayed in the house.”

Father Bede was born Francis Bernard Fitzpatrick on July 13, 1922. He grew up in Ellicottville, N.Y., and attended summer school at St. Bonaventure University, a Franciscan-run institution about 20 miles away. In 1939, he took up studies in English literature at the University of Notre Dame. He arrived there on Sept. 1, the day Nazi Germany attacked Poland.

“My father said, ‘You’d better get into something; the draft will get you,’” Father Bede recalls. “I enlisted in the V-7 program. I graduated from Notre Dame in December 1942 and in February went right back to the Midshipmen School, which was at Notre Dame at the time. In four months, I was commissioned as an officer and was assigned to the amphibious force, Japan.

“I was sent to San Diego, to the landing-craft school, while it was being built. And then, after six or eight months, I was sent to Hawaii on the USS Jupiter, and we had landings at Ulithi, Leyte, Luzon, and then Iwo Jima.”


Battlefield Service

The USS Jupiter, a converted cargo vessel, departed Leyte shortly before destroyers of the Imperial Japanese Navy arrived. Father Bede recalls that he missed the devastating Battle of Leyte Gulf by only three hours.

At Iwo Jima, he spent 30 days in battle.

“I was in charge of the landing craft. We had 19 boats, 77 men and six officers. I was in charge, once the boats were in the water, to get the troops and the cargo onto the beach,” he said. “I’d line them up and wave them in. I didn’t have to hit the beach right with them; I kind of went in a little bit to see that they all got off.”

“Every night we’d take ammunition in right below the Mount Suribachi and then bring out the wounded, the walking wounded, to hospital ships.”

The fighting at Iwo Jima left about half of the landing force dead or wounded. The Japanese losses were near total.

The Jupiter took surviving Marines to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where Father Bede transferred to the USS Custer and, embarking more Marines, sailed for Sasebo.

In June 1946, Lt. Francis Fitzpatrick left the Navy and began working for his father, a supplier of wooden shoe lasts. The work was not for him.

“Gradually, I decided I’d chuck it all and join the Franciscans. My younger brother took over from me, and I just took off.”


Becoming a Priest

He spent a year as a novice at the Holy Name College in Washington and a further five years training for the priesthood.

He remembers having no trouble deciding which order to commit his life to: “It was St. Francis. He is one man you can say I admire and love.”

He explains the origin of his chosen name: “You can have only three names in the order. I asked for James or John, and the priest said to me: ‘They’re taken.’ So I asked for a crazy name. ‘I can’t give that to you. How about Bede?’ ‘You mean the Venerable Bede?’ ‘The saint.’ ‘Okay.’”

Father Bede was ordained in 1955 by Archbishop Amleto Cicognani, who served as the Vatican’s apostolic delegate to the U.S. for 25 years and subsequently became Vatican secretary of state under Pope John XXIII.

“I wanted to be a missionary and had three choices in my province: Bolivia, Brazil or Japan. Well, my whole career had been in the Pacific, and I just figured: 'At this point, I’ll take Japan.'”

In 1958, he embarked once more across the Pacific.

“I came by ship, right straight across the 31st Parallel, San Pedro to Yokohama, two weeks.”

The 36-year-old Bede discovered something on that voyage that he had never encountered before.

“Most of the people on it were Protestant missionaries; there were just 12 travelers, in fact. I can remember talking to some of them, amazed at their faith, disturbed by modern methods of interpreting Scripture and their doubts about certain things. That just amazed me. I hadn’t run into it before that.”

Father Bede joined other young priests in Roppongi, Tokyo, where he initially spent two and a half years studying Japanese.

“When I was there, we had 119 missionaries studying in the morning and a few sisters in the afternoon.” He remembers the other students as hailing from a wide range of countries, representing the 12 Franciscan provinces present in Japan at that time.


First Assignment

His first assignment came in 1961, when he joined a team of Franciscans already serving in Gunma Prefecture, a largely rural province northwest of Tokyo.

“[They] had come over from China,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communists’ expulsion of foreign religious workers in the early 1950s. “We had about 30 men in China; eight or nine came in Japan.”

In 1963, Father Bede returned to Tokyo and became superior of St. Joseph’s Friary at Roppongi. In 1967, he moved to the Franciscan Chapel Center, a facility built nearby to serve Tokyo’s English-speaking Catholics.

In 1976, he went once more to Gunma Prefecture and remained there until 2008, when he returned to the Franciscan Chapel Center, by his own admission disheartened about the progress of the Gospel among the Japanese.

“I was running out of steam in Gunma,” he said. “Right after the war, they flocked to the churches, and we had many baptisms. When I got there in 1961, we would have 30 at Easter and 30 at Christmas. Now you would get four or five.”

Disappointed, he remembers once saying to a religious sister: “It’s so slow over here.” She replied, “Father, don’t worry; think of the martyrs, the great martyrs of Japan: They will prevail.”

“I think that’s true,” he said, recalling that conversation. “It’s slow, but they had great martyrs in Japan. They will prevail. I kind of had that attitude all the time that I’ve been here.”

Father Bede says he feels Japan will not become Catholic without a great trial of some kind. But he acknowledges finding evidence of spiritual rigor in some people of other faiths.

“Each one has his own faith. You don’t agree with him, you don’t worship with him, but you respect him. And you find Buddhists who truly are believers in Buddhism and some in Shintoism and then, of course, the Protestants.”


Watered-Down Morality

However, he accuses Japan’s schools of letting down the nation’s young people by adopting a weaker curriculum today than was in use when he began his ministry.

“Many young Japanese: We’d call them majime [earnest]. They were really good; they had a moral sense,” he said. “They would study and were interested in foreign things, and the power of the Gospel would lead to faith.

“Until they took that away. They don’t teach it in school anymore. They used to teach the Confucian ethic; they don’t anymore. They pass out condoms.”

Father Bede acknowledges that the high expectations he carried with him to Japan as a young missionary were modified over time, as he grappled with an ethos of social conformism.

“When I came, I didn’t understand the strength of the culture keeping the people in line,” he said. “So I thought, 'We can gradually convert the country.'”

He recalls a later conversation with a fellow priest in Tokyo that illustrated the growing realization of the difficulty of bringing the faith to Japan. “I walked into a bookstore with Father Campion [Lally], and one half was pornography. And I said to Campion, ‘You and I can’t convert this country.’”

“Pornography is terrible here. The kids are getting it. And they’re the worst for child pornography in the world,” he said. “Japan has become so secular, and they’re giving up their own religions.”


Time to Come Home

Father Bede says he feels it is time to retire. He plans to move to St. Anthony Friary in Butler, N.J., a facility for retired priests, before the fall.

“Three of my classmates are there, and I know many others there,” he said.

“I wanted to go back on a ship, but it’s too long.” He planned instead to make his final Pacific crossing by air.

“I’ll miss going into a store and ordering soba [a cheap bowl of noodles],” Father Bede acknowledged. “I notice you miss things like that back home. I’ll miss seeing people who visit me and the ones that I’ve done something for.

“But I had to explain to one of my nieces: A missionary goes, and he trains the people, and then he turns it over to them and then he moves on. It’s the missionary life. And I’ve done that.”

“I had 55 years as a missionary, and I’m grateful to God, to the order and to the Japanese people,” he summed up. “I feel just fulfilled, done my job, and I’m 91 years old, so it’s time to retire.”

Alastair Wanklyn is the East Asia correspondent

for Vatican Radio and Fox News Radio. He writes from Tokyo.