Maryknoll, archdiocese mark 75th anniversary of Japanese-American internment order

  • Written by Brad Broberg
  • Published in Local
Japanese-American children pose on their first Communion day in the chapel at the Minidoka, Idaho, internment camp. Also pictured are their pastor, Maryknoll Father Leo Tibesar, and altar servers. Photo: Courtesy Maryknoll Seattle Japanese-American children pose on their first Communion day in the chapel at the Minidoka, Idaho, internment camp. Also pictured are their pastor, Maryknoll Father Leo Tibesar, and altar servers. Photo: Courtesy Maryknoll Seattle

SEATTLE – Like most young boys, 10-year-old Yoshitada Nakagawa was excited to arrive at camp.

The guard towers, barbed wire and armed soldiers that greeted the Seattle boy and his family in the Idaho desert didn’t scare him — just the opposite. “We were told they were there to protect us,” he recalled.

A short time later, the truth dawned. “One day I looked up and all the guns were pointed at me,” said Nakagawa, now 84.

Nakagawa shared that indelible memory on the eve of the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, issued by President Franklin Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, some two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The order sent Nakagawa, his family and nearly 120,000 Japanese who lived on the West Coast — resident aliens as well as U.S. citizens — to “war relocation centers” across the U.S. Nakagawa, who was interned at the Minidoka War Relocation Center, calls the centers something else: “They were concentration camps,” he said.

Back then, the government feared the Japanese would become spies or saboteurs. The parallel to today’s immigration climate in the U.S. isn’t lost on Nakagawa, whose family once owned a corner grocery where part of Seattle University now stands.

“I’m not embittered,” he said. “I just don’t want it to happen again.”

The Maryknoll Society and the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Missions Office want people to remember what happened to Nakagawa and others, including many Catholics from Seattle. The organizations are joining Kids4Peace and the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center to commemorate the order’s anniversary with a Feb. 19 interfaith prayer service for Muslims, Jews and Christians (see box).

With the recent executive order that tried to keep residents of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., the prayer service is more relevant than ever, said Annapatrice Clarke, western regional director for Maryknoll Mission Education.

“The message we want to get across is that our shared faith traditions call us to respond with compassion and love in a time of fear and division,” Clarke said.

Japanese internment camp confirmation group
A confirmation class poses with Boise Diocese Bishop Edward J. Kelly in the chapel at the Minidoka, Idaho, internment camp where Japanese-Americans were sent by presidential order during World War II. Also pictured is their pastor, Maryknoll Father Leo Tibesar, who lived with his parishioners at the camp for six years. Photo: Courtesy Maryknoll Seattle

Maryknoll has had a presence in Seattle since 1920, after Bishop Edward J. O’Dea asked the mission organization to minister to Japanese Catholics, and later Filipino Catholics, too.

A parish, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, was founded, but after Executive Order 9066 uprooted most of the parishioners, the parish “pretty much emptied” and was disbanded in 1953, Clarke said.

The Catholic Church in Seattle raised its voice against the injustice and hardship experienced by the Japanese population during the war.

Less than a week after the Pearl Harbor attack, Seattle Bishop Gerald Shaughnessy wrote a pastoral letter urging Catholics to “embrace our fellow American citizens of Japanese extraction in a special bond of charity … and in the bond of that all-inclusive love of neighbor which our Blessed Savior so often and so insistently calls to our mind.”

After parishioners from Our Lady Queen of Martyrs were sent to Minidoka, their pastor, Maryknoll Father Leopold Tibesar, followed them. For years, he lived with his parishioners inside the barbed-wire fence, giving them access to Mass and the sacraments.

Stacy Kitahata wasn’t born until after the war, but grew up hearing her parents’ and grandparents’ stories about living in the internment camps, and learning the importance of protecting people’s rights.

“It can’t be clearer to me that it’s not just some disembodied responsibility of America,” said Kitahata, who works for a Seattle nonprofit that supports volunteer service. “It’s on me and on you to say these are the rights we need to honor and defend for all people.”

For people of faith, it all comes down to this, Clarke said: “How … am I called to respond to the messages of fear that are happening today?”

An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Father Leo Tibesar lived in the Minidoka War Relocation Center for six years. The facility was in operation from 1942-45.

first communion class at Japanese internment campJapanese-American children pose on their first Communion day in the chapel at the Minidoka, Idaho, internment camp. Also pictured are their pastor, Maryknoll Father Leo Tibesar, altar servers and two Maryknoll sisters. Photo: Courtesy Maryknoll Seattle

Join the prayer service

An interfaith prayer service, “Courage and Compassion in the Midst of Fear” will be held 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19, at First United Methodist Church, 180 Denny Way, Seattle.

The event is sponsored by Maryknoll Society, the archdiocesan Missions Office, the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center and Kids4Peace. For more information This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 206-322-8831.

At 2 p.m., participants are invited to process to Fisher Plaza for a panel discussion on the connections between the internment of Japanese Americans and the situation of Muslims in the U.S. today. This event is sponsored by Densho and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.