Okaya St. Barnabas Church, on last November 16th, was registered as one of the “Registered Tangible Cultural Asset” of the country. It was evaluated as a structure inheriting the traditions of the Church of England, as well as an architecture relating the local historical culture, such as the tatami-style chapel built upon the requests of female factory workers who once supported Okaya’s silk-yarn production. Due to such, it was reported on all newspapers and television.
90 years ago, on November 20, 1928, Okaya St. Barnaba’s Church was consecrated. Reverend Hollis Corey, a missionary from the Anglican Church of Canada, was doing evangelical work in the region of Lake Suwa at the time, and was forced to make a decision as to where to build the church in the Suwa Region. Although Missionary Society of the Church of England in Canada (MSCC) had ordered to build a church in Kamisuwa, an area more famous as a lively spa resort area, Revd. Corey thought of building a church for those who carry the heaviest burdens in the Suwa area, the female factory workers of Okaya Silk Factory. The Missionary Association, on the other hand, opposed the fact that the female workers are seasonal workers and not fixed, therefore, will not be financially supportive nor be able to maintain the church. However, Revd. Corey responded by saying, “Money issues will somehow be taken care of by God.”
At the factory, work is 16 hours a day, either standing up or sitting on a hard wooden-chair. We wanted them to feel as if they have returned to their home at least when they are at church, so Japanese tatami-mats were laid in the sanctuary. Koyoshi Fukazawa, a congregant from that time used to say, “When I would rush to church, a blue-eyed priest would be waiting for me below the stairs, and thanked me for coming and hugged me. I could hardly understand the sermon, but the warmth felt from the hug would move me to tears. Church was certainly heaven.”
On February 2 this year, a baptismal confirmation ceremony was held at Okaya St. Barnaba’s Church for Ms. Wang Xu, who has come to work in Japan from China. She is from Qingzhou City, Shandong Province, China. She has been working at a piston ring manufacturing factory in Okaya since 2016. There are about 60 Chinese female workers at the factory. She continued attending this church which she happened to find passing along the way. Her return to China in March was decided, and at her request, we decided to hold her baptismal ceremony. Currently, since there are no Anglican churches in China, I was worried about her not being able to receive the rite of confirmation. However, Bishop Peter Ichiro Shibusawa came to Okaya to hold her baptismal and confirmation ceremony. She is not fluent in Japanese, so I used the Japanese-Chinese baptismal and confirmation liturgies translated by Reverend David Shintaro Ichihara. To my questions, she would respond in Chinese. Her Christian name is “Maria.” The cathedral was filled with an indescribable emotion.
A reporter from the Chunichi Newspaper asked what this church had meant to her. She replied, “This church was the best place. Friendly and warm, I always felt relaxed.”
Okaya is no longer a female silk-reeling factory workers town. However, currently there are many female foreign workers from China and other countries who live here. With also the joy of being approved as a historic cultural asset, I would like to thank that this church is continuing, not as a historical asset from the past, but for the mission in commonality with 90 years ago.
Rev Prof Dr Francis of Assisi Renta Nishihara
Rector in Charge, Okaya St. Barnaba’s Church