Historic Japanese-American parish marks centennial

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'Bringing Forth the Next Generation' is focus at L.A.'s St. Mary's Church
May 29, 2007

St. Mary's Episcopal Church may be the only church in Los Angeles or the nation to include a likeness of Snoopy, cartoonist Charles Schulz's light-hearted beagle, in a stained glass window.

The South Mariposa Avenue church's dazzling chapel windows also blend beloved Scripture stories with memorials to the Issei, the Japanese immigrants to the United States, and its Nisei members, second generation Japanese Americans, many of whom were exiled to World War II camps, one at nearby Santa Anita racetrack where whole families were made to live in individual horse stables.

St. Mary's rich past was retold via its windows and in music, dance and word as the historically Japanese American congregation marked its centennial anniversary on Pentecost, May 27.

"The church was founded by Mary Louise Paterson on Pentecost Sunday in 1907 and was a hub of social activity and action for the community, especially the newly arrived Japanese immigrants who lived in the neighborhood then," said the Rev. Alix Evans, St. Mary's rector. "Fr. John Yamazaki, the first rector and the son of our first vicar, Dr. John Yamazaki, designed the windows to preserve the spirit of the Japanese American experience here. We are distributing a commemorative booklet to honor that legacy as we look forward to the next hundred years."

More than 300 guests, some from as far away as Thailand and Hawaii, joined the Pentecost centennial celebration, among them the Rev. Fran Toy, representing the Episcopal Church's Asiamerica Ministries office. St. Mary's milestone was recognized by local, provincial, and Episcopal Church as well as public officials, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who in a letter thanked the congregation for "being a force for good in our state."

St. Mary's well-known Kotobuki-Kai liturgical dancers performed traditional Japanese dance to "Ave Maria," and Los Angeles Bishop Jon Bruno blessed and dedicated the Yamazaki Memorial Community Garden in honor of the Rev. "Dr. John" Misao Yamazaki, the congregation's first vicar, and his son, the Rev. "Fr. John" Henry Michio Yamazaki, the first rector.

The garden is meant to be a living tribute to the legacy and spirit of the Yamazakis that will continue to benefit people for generations.

The church received accolades from Los Angeles and a $10,000 matching fund L.A. Community Beautification grant for transforming a vacant lot into the lush garden. There, the church's Sunday school along with Head Start students, parishioners and neighborhood residents together cultivate radishes, spinach, squash and other vegetables.

The father and son Yamazakis shepherded St. Mary's through the difficult World War II period, said centennial committee chairperson Tom Guzman, who designed the commemorative booklet featuring the stained glass windows. He read excerpts from Dr. Yamazaki's sermon, "We Shall Have Our Easter," preached Easter Day, 1942, a few weeks before the forced removals to venues that experts increasingly identify as "concentration camps," distinguishing from Germany's "extermination camps" of the same era.

"It is unbearably sad to think of our destiny, leaving our homes and church," Dr. Yamazaki said in the sermon, but added: "we who have living faith and hope, we who have strength and support not known by those who do not know Jesus Christ, must give comfort to the many who are depressed. We must be willing to say, Father forgive them for they know not what they do. We must be willing to say, into thy hands we commit our Spirit...and as Jesus the Christ had Resurrection from the dark tomb, so shall it be with us, we shall have our Easter."

Pictorial History: Mary at the Cross, the Issei, and Snoopy
A brilliant blue, green, red, and white window depicts Mary, the mother of Jesus kneeling at her son's cross, above "Snoopy" of Peanuts fame in the center bottom pane. Along the window's borders are the shields of various Anglican Communion churches: Canterbury, Canada, Japan, and the United States.

The window conveys amazing love stories: of Mary, the church's namesake; and of Mary Louise Paterson, a Canadian Anglican of Scottish descent, whose conversion experience during a Magnificat performance inspired her to start a school in Japan. There in Matsumoto City, a very young John Misao Yamazaki threw gravel at the strangely dressed, green-eyed, red-haired Paterson.

In 1904, long after their initial rocky encounter, the two met again when Yamazaki turned up in Paterson's bible class at Christ Church, San Francisco. By then, he was engaged to Paterson's adopted daughter, Mary Tsune Tanaka. Eventually, he joined Paterson in Los Angeles as vicar of St. Mary's where they assisted in the settling of newly arrived Japanese families.

"It's the story of my father and mother, and of Mary Louise Paterson," said Fr. John Yamazaki in a March 4, 1990 interview recorded eight years before his death. "The shields included in the window design trace the path of Paterson, because it's very important to show how the church came to us, how Mary Louise Paterson understood her vocation through Mary and the singing of the Magnificat. It really tells the story of the mission of Christ and the honor of Mary."

"Snoopy" was included in the window after a family requested the enthusiastic beagle as a memorial for their son, Carl Cooke Jr. "My brother was Carl's doctor," Fr. John recalled. "He realized the family needed a priest and called on me. The child had a brain tumor and throughout his illness and death he kept holding onto a stuffed Snoopy."

Yamazaki said that when he called Schultz for permission to use Snoopy in the window, the cartoonist said "I'd be honored."

Faith Tested: Christ at Gethsemane, Exile
Four generations of Glenn Nishibayashi's family have belonged to St. Mary's. Currently senior warden, Nishibayashi recalls "looking up my entire life" at the windows that tell the congregation's unique story. One depicts the only occupations open to Issei men: gardening, fishing, farming and floral design; another bears the testing of Christ, in the Garden at Gethsemane, along with the shields from Episcopal Church dioceses in states where Nisei were imprisoned during World War II.

"I was amazed to think that happened to my parents, to think they were American citizens and yet they were imprisoned against their will just because they were of Japanese ancestry," he said. His father was sent to a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas, while his mother's family was taken to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. "I remember my dad telling me that St. Mary's was a gathering place for the evacuation, where they loaded people's belongings onto trucks."

Guzman remembers the return from exile. "I first visited St. Mary's in 1945 at the invitation of a neighbor, Masao Itabashi," recalled Guzman, 74, a retired Toyota training administrator. "That was when all the people were coming back after the war from the incarceration camps and had to start again from scratch.

"We don't want to forget the people who came before us, the hardships they went through," Guzman added. "Some were picked up December 7 and taken away and never seen again, for no reason other than they taught the Japanese language. I want to pay back everything I got from them when they were my counselors and guidance and teachers."

Yamazaki Spirit Flourishes in Community Garden
The Koreatown neighborhood in which St. Mary's is located is now a haven for the more recently arrived immigrants from Mexico and Central America whose participation in the congregation's Yamazaki Memorial Community Garden echoes the Yamazaki spirit of enriching community, Evans said.

St. Mary's has responded to shifting neighborhood demographics by offering Spanish language worship services, guitar classes and other programs, which earned the church a Jubilee Center designation. Jubilee ministries aspire to empower and advocate for the poor and oppressed, Evans said.

Consequently, the congregation celebrated its legacy on Pentecost with a Japanese, Spanish and English language service, and a luncheon program included a Belizean dance performance. As St. Mary's celebrates its legacy and contemplates the future, it will continue to seek ways to share the blessings the congregation has received, she said.

"We are going through a transformation, like many churches," Guzman acknowledges. "A lot of us have become commuters to the churches where we grew up. We're getting older; every year we face dwindling resources, physically and monetarily."

St. Mary's "certainly doesn't look the same as it did in the 1960s and it won't look the same ten years from now," Nishibayashi agreed.

About 85 percent of the congregation's 600-pledging members are Japanese American, and many travel from other neighborhoods and towns to worship at St. Mary's.

He called the centennial "a nice day to relax and celebrate and see where we are now, where St. Mary's has been and to look forward to hearing stories we haven't heard before. It is a defining moment, a time to start to look at what we're going to do for the next 100 years.

"St. Mary's played an integral role in helping people get to know Christ and to become contributing members of American society and my vision is that we can continue to do that for the next generation. My hope and dream is to continue to keep Japanese American traditions but to blend in the needs of the local community."

Further information about St. Mary's Episcopal Church is available here.