This parish — the first Japanese mission in the U.S. — began in 1912 with a strange request by Kumataro Hatakeyama, a Russo-Japanese war veteran living in Los Angeles who spoke only Japanese. Without a local priest who could converse with him, he wrote to Bishop Alexander Berlioz in Japan requesting permission to confess by registered mail. That request was denied, but the bishop promised to send a Japanese-speaking priest. And so it was that French-born Father Albert Breton, who was on his way from London to Japan, arrived in Los Angeles that October and celebrated the first Mass in Japanese on Christmas Day 1912, in the settlement chapel of Brownson House at 711 Jackson Street.During the ensuing 99 years, the Japanese Mission has survived enormous challenges, including a near-collapse of the church and school. If anything, such challenges have fostered greater faith and devotion.Father Breton named the mission in honor of St. Francis Xavier, one of the original members of the Jesuit society, and the first to bring Christianity to Japan in 1549. The example of his fortitude (he converted some 40,000) and faith (a miracle worker) have enabled the community to survive many difficulties and continue to thrive. Known as the patron of all foreign missions, the feast day of the Spanish-born saint is December 3. During his eight years of service in Los Angeles, Father Breton worked tirelessly to bring recruits from Japan, open a school and establish a convent for the Visitation Sisters. He also opened a TB sanatorium in Monrovia before he returned to Japan in 1920. That year the Maryknoll Sisters arrived here and the Maryknoll Fathers assumed responsibility for the mission, beginning with Father George Staub. A two-story school was constructed at 226 South Hewitt Street, replacing the old wooden structure and by 1922, 200 children were enrolled. Bishop Thomas Conaty, in dedicating the Japanese mission and school soon after they began, prayed “that it will be a source of great blessings … as the Church is here for all races and for all people.”Maryknoll Father Hugh Lavery from Connecticut arrived as the second superior in 1927 and for almost 20 years administered the Japanese mission, and built a new church, parish house and auditorium while improving the school. His greatest contribution, however, was his concern and support for the Japanese people evacuated to internment camps during the war. He fought for fair prices of their property that had to be sold, stored personal belongings and aided in their relocation by finding jobs and homes. Many other Maryknoll priests, brothers and sisters traveled to the internment camps to offer spiritual and material help to the thousands interned, the majority U.S. citizens. Before his death in 1970, the Japanese government bestowed on Father Lavery one of its highest honors in recognition of his efforts.The next pastor was Father Michael McKillop who served St. Francis Xavier for 10 years. In a 1960 Tidings article, he explained why the Church appeals to the Japanese: “They like ritual and ceremony, respect discipline and authority and the definiteness of doctrine (even General MacArthur said that, he noted).” The Japanese government also honored the Maryknoll priest for his postwar relief work. During his pastorate, a new school building opened in 1964 with the participation of three generations of Californians of Japanese descent — Issei, Nisei and Sansei — and 413 students. At the dedication Father McKillop declared, “The ultimate test of any school is not what goes into it but what comes out of it.” Maryknoll was the only Catholic school in Southern California with a majority of pupils who were non-Catholic. During the 1970s and ’80s, the enrollment gradually declined as parents used neighborhood schools, and the site became the Japanese Catholic Center in 1995.From 1968 to 1996, several Maryknoll priests served as pastors and administrators. Father Clarence Witte from Indiana, pastor at St. Francis Xavier for eight years, was also one of the first Maryknoll missioners in Latin America. He was followed in 1986 by Father James Habenicht from St. Louis. In 1987 Cardinal Timothy Manning celebrated the 75th anniversary of St. Francis Xavier on the feast of the Assumption, the same day the saint had set foot in Japan 439 years previously. In his homily, the cardinal said: “The tradition and gift of Maryknoll to this archdiocese is vivid and real and deeply rooted.” That September, when Pope John Paul II visited the city, he spoke at the Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo.Father Joseph Klecha, from Michigan, was the last Maryknoll pastor and in 1997 two Society of Atonement friars, Henry Mair and David Doerner, took up residence to assist at the Chapel. Father Doerner, from New York, was fluent in Japanese and served as an associate and administrator for five years. The current administrator is Father Richard Hoynes, born in the Philippines and ordained with St. John’s class of 1988. Previously pastor at St. Albert the Great in Rancho Dominguez for six years, he is fluent in Japanese, a fitting tradition for the center founded to honor the first missionary to Japan.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0701/xavierside/{/gallery}