We’re marking the 69th anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. And yes, an Irish national --- Julia Canny a.k.a. Sister Saint Isaac Joques --- was present and survived. My story together with the accompanying photographs (reproduced below) appeared in the 11 August 1999 editions of two Irish newspapers: Western People, a weekly newspaper, published in Ballina, County Mayo; and The Connaught Telegraph, published in Castlebar, County Mayo.

My reasons for writing the story will become evident when you read it.


“Sister Theresia was not feeling well on the morning of 6 August, 1945. She wanted to stay in bed and recuperate, but was encouraged to get up and to say her daily prayers. She was praying, reflecting, and meditating under a pine tree on the convent grounds when ...”

Julia Canny was born on 10 November, 1893 in the Townland of Upper Kilbeg near Clonbur, County Galway, Ireland. Julia emigrated to America in 1921. Ten years later, at the age of 38, Julia entered a convent of the Society of the Helpers of the Holy Souls in New York. In 1939 at the age of 46, Sister Mary of Saint Isaac Joques, renamed after a Canadian Jesuit martyr, was posted to a convent in Hiroshima Japan. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II in the Asia - Pacific theater, she was briefly interned by the Japanese until they discovered she was a neutral (Irish citizen) alien. Julia returned to the convent in Hiroshima and survived the nuclear attack of 6 August 1945. She died in Tokyo on 1 November, 1987, nine days short of her 94th birthday.

I learned bits and pieces of the Julia Canny story, mostly from family conversations. I learned more on trips to Ireland, where I met Julia’s brother (Jack Canny), sister (Kate Canny Conway), and her nephew Stephen Canny (currently living in the family home in Upper Kilbeg).

Julia's story was best chronicled by Adrian Millar. Millar interviewed Julia in August 1985 in Tokyo. Millar’s account of the interview appeared in a Belfast newspaper, the Andersontown News in the late summer or fall of 1985. My late Aunt Kate (Catherine Canny Kemmy) gave me a photocopy of the Andersontown News article.

I always thought “What an unusual family story!”

My photocopy of the Andersontown News was very “fuzzy.” In October of 1998, I attempted to get a better copy by sending an E mail message to the webmaster of the Andersontown News. On 14 October, 1998, I received the following reply from Mairtin O Muilleoir (Martin Millar): “I am managing editor of the Andersontown News and a brother of Adrian. I will get you a better copy ...Good luck. Oiche mhaith.”

An interesting coincidence. I had made contact in cyberspace with Adrian Millar’s brother! Mairtin O Muilleoir did not get back to me immediately. Undoubtedly, because the events from the 1998 Good Friday accord took his time on the Belfast news beat. And, I was not able initially to give him a reasonably precise date of the article. (I am now reasonably certain that the article was published in August or September 1985.) Mairtin recently promised to renew his search. I’m still hopeful.

In the meantime, I simply retyped Adrian Millar’s account. While retyping I noticed the name of Julia’s religious community, the “Helpers of the Holy Souls.” I did a quick Internet search and got several “hits.” On 13 April, 1999, I sent a quick E Mail addressed to the Web Site for the Society of Helpers (of the Holy Souls), with an attached copy of the retyped article from the Andersonstown News. That evening, I got a nice reply from Sister Catherine Tighe, Superior of the Society’s house in Chicago, telling me that she would try to get more information from the Society’s archives and from the Society’s Mother House in Paris. Indeed she was more than effective.

But, the most interesting surprise or coincidence was the FAX message that I received on 19 April 1999 from Sister Theresia Yamada. Sister Theresia, a native of Tokyo, is the Treasurer of the Society of Helpers in Chicago. She was a 22‑year old novice in Hiroshima when Julia arrived in 1939. She knew Julia well, and was with Julia on 6 August, 1945.

My genealogical research together with Internet searches, resulted in an unusual ‑‑‑ to say the least ‑‑‑ series of coincidences on the Julia Canny story. (In another part of my life, I've been told that "a coincidence is God working anonymously." But ...)

So, these coincidences took me to Chicago during the weekend 14 ‑ 17 May, 1999 to visit Sister Theresia Yamada and other members of the Society of Helpers.


Upon arrival at Chicago’s Midway Airport, I rented an automobile and proceeded to the Society’s house in the Lincoln Park section. I met Sister Theresia almost immediately after arrival. I was very surprised to find that the Society provided me accommodations for the weekend, and I didn’t have to find my own lodging. Thanks Sisters, you sure took good care of me!

I next met Sister Mary Paul, a former newspaper reporter from Rhode Island. She speaks both Spanish (learned during her past assignment in Columbia), and French (native tongue of her Father). Sister Mary Paul was the Acting Superior of the House, because Sister Catherine Tighe was out of town. But, before her departure, Sister Catherine obtained some more information about Sister Isaac Joques from the Society’s Mother House in Paris. Sister Mary Paul used her knowledge of French to provide an English translation of the documents. And, the Sisters also gave me a memorial card issued at the time of Sister Isaac Joques’ death complete with her photo.

The Society also gave me a copy of the Andersonstown News article. An improved product over my 10th generation photocopy. A better copy would be most appreciated, so be a good fellow, Mairtin, and see what you can do!

Later in my visit, I met Sister Kieran McGee (originally from Scotland ‑‑‑ Irish parents), now 92 years, who remembers Sister Isaac Joques when both were in the Society of Helpers house in New York.

Thanks Sisters !!! You really were great to me.

Sister Theresia Yamada

Sister Theresia is a delightful person. Eighty-one years old, and still working as the Convent’s Treasurer. And when she walks ‑‑‑ she sets a pace that tires me. She and I went sailing on a four masted ship on Lake Michigan. After we embarked from Chicago's Navy pier and cleared the breakwater, the Captain and crew, and some of us passengers hoisted all sails so that we were under full sail power. No mechanical or electrical engines ‑‑‑ just sail power. Really great! On Saturday and Sunday, I also did some bike riding on Chicago’s lovely trails ‑‑‑ 15 miles plus on two separate days.

Interview With Sister Theresia Yamada

Sisters Theresia (pictured at right) and Mary Paul and I had a delightful dinner on Saturday evening at a nearby Japanese restaurant. During the dinnertime conversation, I learned more about the Society of Helpers, their reliance on Ignatian Spirituality, etc.

At the suggestion of my niece, Coleen McCormick Dixon, I brought along a borrowed camcorder --- borrowed from my friend and neighbor, Jerry Zacharias. Thanks, Jerry! Sister Theresia consented to a videotaped interview. Following is Sister Theresia’s recollection of Sister Isaac Joques’ stay in Hiroshima from December 1939 to August 1945.

Sister Theresia was a 22‑year old novice when Julia arrived in Hiroshima in December 1939.

Sister Theresia remembers Julia as kindly, hard working, and liked by the community. She was big and strong, and had very bright blue eyes. She was very conscientious in pursuing her housekeeping duties.

Sister Theresia remembers Julia’s pleasing smile and is grateful for the kindness she received from Sister Isaac Joques.

Sister Isaac Joques made her perpetual vows as a member of the Society of Helpers in 1940. Sisters Theresia and other member of the Society were in attendance. The ceremony was part of a pontifical mass celebrated by the Bishop of Hiroshima in the city’s cathedral.

Shortly after the commencement of hostilities, Sister Isaac Joques was interned. After about seven months she was released when the Japanese authorities found she was a neutral (Irish citizen) alien. The other Sisters were delighted to see her upon her return.

Eight Sisters were assigned to the Society of Helpers convent on 6 August, 1945. The Superior, Sister Saint Ernestine, a French national, was convalescing in a nearby hospital. Sister Saint Isaac Joques (Irish) and Sister Theresia Yamada (Japanese) were at the convent the morning of 6 August 1945, together with five other Sisters: Sisters Saint Pierre Clavier (French); Marie Antoine (French); Marie Xavier (Italian); Saint Candida (Italian), and Christina Ito (Japanese). All eight survived the atomic bomb attack. Three (including Sister Theresia) are still alive. Sister Theresia thinks that Sisters Marie Xavier and Saint Candida are still alive in Italy. Both are very aged, and Sister Theresia thinks they are bedridden.

Sister Theresia was not feeling well on the morning of 6 August, 1945. She wanted to stay in bed and recuperate, but was encouraged to get up and to say her daily prayers. She was praying, reflecting, and meditating under a pine tree on the convent grounds when the nuclear blast occurred at approximately 8:15 am. She described a loud explosion followed by an incredibly bright light. She knew that something was terribly wrong. She assumed a face-down prone position on the ground, based on earlier advice from her sister (who had previously experienced the incendiary bombing of Tokyo). She immediately said prayers seeking God’s forgiveness for any of her shortcomings. Surprisingly, she did not mention seeking God’s protection. (She probably did, but she didn’t mention that in the interview.) Moments later she recovered to see the massive devastation and havoc. But she also saw in the convent ruins, a ceiling beam across her bed, and realized that had she remained in bed, she would most likely have been among the 150,000 fatalities.

Shortly after the blast, a Jesuit Father Coops (?) (perhaps “Coopes,” “Koops,” or “Koopes”) directed the Sisters to move away from the now destroyed convent. Fires were fast approaching the site. He forcefully urged them to seek refuge in a nearby Jesuit residence. The Sisters’ journey to the Jesuit residence was frequently interrupted, as the Sisters felt the need to provide aid, comfort, and assistance to other refugees --- all homeless and hungry, stunned and disoriented, many sick or injured, and many seriously burned.

After an arduous journey, the Sisters arrived at the Jesuit residence, where they found refuge with some 90 injured and burned refugees. I’m uncertain of the circumstances, but I believe that their Superior, Sister Saint Ernestine, joined them shortly after their arrival. The Director of the Jesuit residence was Father Pedro Arrupe, later to become Director General of the Jesuits.

The Sisters worked with the Jesuits; providing shelter, food, emergency medical assistance, and spiritual support --- both to the refugees already in the residence and in the nearby areas. Sister Theresia reports that only three out of the 90 refugees died, during this time. (I was surprised at the relatively small attrition rate --- a great testimony to the care givers.) Some of the refugees are still alive today.

Sister Isaac Joques’ principal duties were to work with a Jesuit Brother Masui, feeding and distributing food to the refugees.

During the post-war era, Sister Isaac Joques provided liaison with American and Australian Army personnel. Sister Theresia remembers the assistance provided by an Australian Army chaplain, Father Ryan, during this difficult recovery period.

Additional Material

The Society of Helpers gave me some additional material on Sister Isaac Joques including photos. Talking with the Sisters was a delight. And, what more can I say about Sister Theresia’s first-person poignant account of the events of August 1945? Except for my profound respect for the resiliency of the human spirit over adversity.

Now as for my relationship to Julia Canny. Julia was a cousin on my mother’s side. The 1901 Irish Census shows Julia Canny as a seven‑year old (as of March 31, 1901), living in a household in Upper Kilbeg with her widowed grandmother; her parents; five other brothers and sisters; and John Canny, her (then bachelor) uncle and my grandfather.

As an aside, I'm also amused (perhaps mildly shocked) by one information column on the census form ‑‑‑ "If Deaf and Dumb; Dumb only; Blind; Imbecile or idiot; or Lunatic." Wow! What sensitivity! Happy to report there were no entries in that column for the Cannys from Clonbur.

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Tags: Asia, Galway, Genealogy, Hiroshima, Japan, Jesuits, WWII

Comment by Fran Reddy on July 31, 2014 at 10:06am

Very interesting and amazing story John, thanks!


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