I have a photo on my desk of five-year-old Kimiko Hatta and her mother. They were two of a group of "poor ones who cried to the Lord", and YHWH heard in the strangest, even most terrible of ways.
Early in 1968, our church council at Takada, Japan, decided to borrow money, using the decrepit store-church as surety, and build the city's first Catholic church in a location that had been settled when Taima Temple was built nearby in 684 AD. The church council said to me and the assistant priest, Fr Joe Rooney: "Let's not have a cheap plaster statue of Mary as a westerner with blue eyes and fair hair, but one harmonising with Japanese artistic tradition."
Joe and I readily agreed: "As a Semite, she probably looked more Japanese than northern European!"
We asked a young sculptor named Kosaka to give us a sketch of and a quote for a small Nihon-teki (Japanese-style) statue. The sketch was magnificent but the price beyond us – ¥100,000, about $3,000.
We didn't answer the sculptor and he wrote again. "If I am to finish the statue for the church opening in May," he wrote, "I must begin soon. Making a bronze statue takes all that time. Do you want it?"
I put the letter on my desk, promising myself to answer with a refusal by Sunday night, "if Our Lady doesn't come to our rescue".
I was teaching catechism that Sunday morning when Sister interrupted me. "There is a man you should see at the front door." As he introduced himself I saw that his eyes were red from crying. His daughter Kimiko was one of the 230 children who had enrolled in our kindergarten the previous year.
He said she loved the prayers Sister taught them. Each night, she solemnly knelt and prayed in front of a Madonna-and-Child card before bed.
"My wife said Kimiko looked so beautiful that she wanted to become a Christian and be able to pray like that. But," he continued, "I said: No, we are Buddhists even if we don't practise. Some months later, my job changed and we all moved to Osaka.
"We found a new kindergarten there for Kimiko, but after the very first day, she pouted and said it was no good – no one said any prayers there! We explained that the Takada Catholic kindergarten was special, and that most Japanese kindergartens do not say prayers.
"Last Friday, Kimiko came home from her new kindergarten and stopped by workmen repairing a fault in an elevator of the 13-storey apartment building where we live. A gas cylinder they were using for acetylene welding exploded at that moment, hurling Kimiko into the far wall.
"They picked her up with her clothes and most of her skin off, burned black. They telephoned me at work and I raced to the hospital and was utterly devastated when I was led to her bed.
"The pain killer injections weren't taking – her veins were in such a state. To stop her struggling and scratching her itching body, they had her arms and legs tied down with bandages. She looked as if she was crucified.
"She was whimpering for water, but the doctor said it would only make her retch. I just stood there thunderstruck behind my wife, watching Kimiko writhing in pain.
"Suddenly, my wife remembered how Kimiko loved the prayers at your kindergarten. She bent down to Kimiko's ear and said, 'Don't cry. Sister and the children at the Takada kindergarten are praying for you.'
"The effect was extraordinary. The memory of those prayers with Sister and her little classmates must have been so beautiful that it took her mind off the pain. She became quite peaceful. My wife continued speaking softly about the prayers and Kimiko remained tranquil. That's how she died.
"I, who stopped my wife studying your faith, have come to thank you. Because of your Christian faith, our little girl died consoled and at peace."
He took an envelope from his pocket and handed it to me. "I want you to build swings or something in her memory." Japanese write on the outside of the envelope the sum of the donation they are giving. ¥100,000 was written!
I told him of the statue of Mary and that the decision had to be made that day. Could we use the donation for that instead of swings? He agreed immediately.
Kimiko's mother was present as we unveiled the statue when the new church was blessed by Bishop Furuya on 26 May 1968. On the back of the bronze statue of a poorly-clad, some-what emaciated and travel-worn Mary leading the Christ Child back from Egypt across the Gaza desert, is the inscription: "In memory of Kimiko Hatta, taken to heaven, aged six years."
At the opening ceremony, we gave Kimiko's mother a large photo of the statue. Some weeks later, she wrote, "The holy picture of Mary and the Christ Child which Sister gave Kimiko when she first went to your kindergarten is pretty, with lovely colours.
"But I like the photo you gave me of the new bronze statue much better. Mary is crossing a desert and she and her child look worn out. That is like me just now. I look at this statue and am strengthened. My husband and I were all the more devastated by Kimiko's death because she was our only child. Now the doctor has just confirmed I am going to have another child!"
On the Friday the accident occurred, our kindergarten teachers were having a cup of green tea after the children had gone home, and one of them switched on the television for the late-afternoon news flash.
They were startled to learn of Kimiko's accident and had gone straight to the chapel to pray for her.
After Kimiko's tragic death, her mother became a Catholic, with her father's approval.
From the book, Psalms: Songs for the Way Home, by Paul Glynn SM.