The Remarkable Story of Sister Angela Fitzgerald and the Empress of Japan. By Maurice Egan

Mary Angela Fitzgerald had a tough life by most measures, but nonetheless, it was a life fully lived in the caring and serving of others. Despite enormous hardship, her generosity of spirit was learned early in her life. Angela, as she was called, was the eldest daughter and was born in 1890, in Galbally, County Limerick, Ireland. When aged only 10 years, her beloved father from Killenaule Co. Tipperary, Walter J., a national schoolteacher, died of typhoid fever. He died at the workhouse in Mitchelstown on 15 October 1900, he was 35. Her widowed mother Julia Fitzgerald (nee O’Flynn), aged 37, became solely dependent on her own national schoolteacher’s wage and was fully stretched rearing her four daughters and three sons. Tragedy struck once more, when just over four years later, Angela’s mother, age 42, died of pneumonia at her home in Galbally, on 8 February 1905. Her older brother Willie (born in 1888) and her younger brothers John (1895) and Innocent (1896) along with her three younger sisters Nora (1891), Madge (1898) and Kitty (1900) were all orphaned at a young age.1

Infant Jesus Sisters

Founded by Père Nicolas Barré in Paris in 1662, The Infant Jesus Sisters came to Ireland from France. The shortage of English teachers forced the Sisters to turn to the British Isles and Ireland in hopes of recruiting and training potential missionary teachers. In 1909, Mother St Beatrice Foley, returned from Singapore, and established Drishane Convent in Millstreet, County Cork, Ireland. It had a “knitting school” for younger girls and was also used to train teachers for the Asian missions. Less than half a decade after opening, the convent was sending teachers and Sisters to British Malaya, and Japan.2

Angela was now 18 and was one of the first novitiates to join Drishane Convent. By 1919 she had taken her holy vows having been professed Sister Enda and was sent to the missions in Yokohama, some 30kms south of Tokyo, Japan. She became a renowned teacher of English and piano. With her fellow Sisters, she helped set up and build educational facilities, schools and places of learning for the poor and for girls. Angela would spend her lifetime serving the people of Yokohama and would not see her family for another 27 years, visiting in March 1946, and only thereafter post Vatican II, December 1965, when she returned to visit Ireland in 1967. In that time, much joy and notable hardship was to come her way. Yet her unbending faith kept her going through all that was to unfold.

The Yokohama Earthquake (The Great Kantō Earthquake) 3

By 1919, Angela and her fellow Infant Jesus Sisters, had continued to build upon the work of their fellow Sisters, which included a fine well-built bricked Catholic Church and School at St Maur’s. It was and remains, the first and oldest International School in Japan, established by them in 1872. While attending 11am morning mass and at the exact moment of receiving the host and sacrament of Holy Communion from the priest, Japan’s largest ever earthquake struck the city of Yokohama. The roof of the church caved in and the priest with all the congregants died. Only Sister Angela Fitzgerald survived. It was September the first,1923. 140,000 people perished as a result of that dreadful 7.9 earthquake. 90% of all homes were damaged or destroyed throughout Yokohama that day.4

The Rebuild

It was an enormous task for the authorities, the businesses and the hundreds of thousands of homeless people to tackle. Much strife, jealousies and violence followed. Sister Angela and her fellow Sisters sought international help and set about providing as much assistance as they could to those devastated by the earthquake and the resultant twelve metre tsunami. Rebuild they somehow did. By the early 1930’s St Maur’s had re-established its school and church buildings and was well recognised as an International centre of learning.

The Future Empress of Japan

In 1938, Sister Angela was summoned by one of the city’s well known and respected businessmen, Hidesaburō Shōda, who was the president and honorary chairman of Nisshin Flour Milling Company. He and his wife Fumiko Soejima commissioned her to teach their young five-year-old daughter, modern English. The young girl’s name was Michiko.

Sister Angela’s only connection to Ireland was through writing letters and receiving much looked forward to, mail from Ireland and home. Her favourite nephews and nieces were her younger brother Innocent’s children Brian, Betty and Bunny. Sister Angela would teach the young Michiko English and how to become pen-pals with the three Fitzgerald’s who spent their annual summer holidays in Ballybunnion, County Kerry. The following ditty would be recited out loud for Michiko by Sister Angela, and with the required proper English pronunciation;

‘Brian, Betty and Bunny on the beach of Ballybunnion, now repeat after me’ 

‘Brian, Betty and Bunny on the beach of Ballybunnion and repeat after me’

Michiko Shōda later graduated summa cum laude from the Faculty of Literature at the University of the Sacred Heart (a Catholic university in Tokyo) with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature. She too was an accomplished pianist. In August 1957, she met then Crown Prince Akihito on a tennis court at Karuizawa near Nagano. At that time, the media presented their encounter as a real “fairy tale”, or the “romance of the tennis court”. The engagement ceremony took place on 14 January 1959. The wedding took place as a traditional Shinto ceremony on 10 April 1959. The wedding procession was followed in the streets of Tokyo by more than 500,000 people spread over an 8.8 km route, while parts of the wedding were televised, thus making it the first imperial wedding to be made available for public viewership in Japan, drawing about 15 million viewers.  Empress Michiko is a known Hibernophile with an interest in the Children of Lir and recites ‘I See His Blood Upon The Rose’ by Joseph Plunkett as a party piece, and even speaks passable Irish.

Dark Clouds Gathering

During World War 2, from January 1944 until August 1945, the U.S. dropped 157,000 tons of bombs on Japanese cities, according to the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey.

Fifteen million of the 72 million Japanese were left homeless. Once again, the church and buildings of St Maur were flattened to rubble. Running for their lives with the school children in tow, Sister Angela in her understandable fear ran out of her only pair of shoes. They lived for many days in the relative safety of the rural hills. Sister Angela writing back to her brother Willie and sister Nora in Ireland, spoke of the devastation. The Red Cross were out of many supplies and so she humbly wrote home requesting her sister Nora to send by post, a pair of simple, size four one-inch rubber heeled shoes to her, as she no longer had any to wear. Being born in a former British colony, Sister Angela had been interred along with her fellow sisters, in the Japanese concentration camps. Under petition from the Irish government she was released after two very difficult years, only to face the U.S. blanket bombing.

The school did not reopen for a number of years after the war but recommenced in the late 1940’s and once again within 20 years had established the school and church of St Maur, as an exemplary International School of learning, which it is to this day.

Empress of Japan on a State Visit to Ireland 2005 5

On 7 September 2005, Emperor Akihito and his wife Empress Michiko, paid a state visit to Ireland. Empress Michiko, in an interview given before they travelled, said she had been taught by Irish nuns and recalled “the charm and loveliness of each one of them”.

Betty Fitzgerald now married and residing in Tullamore, Ireland, known as Betty Egan, read this article in the Irish Times newspaper. She lifted the phone to the Japanese Embassy in Dublin and requested to speak to the Japanese first secretary. She relayed her story of how the Empress was educated. She mentioned the ditty ‘Brian, Betty and Bunny on the beach of Ballybunnion, now repeat after me’, andpassed on her very best wishes to her former pen pal on her visit to Ireland. Within 60 minutes the excited first secretary had phoned Betty Fitzgerald back. He conveyed the Empress’ delight on hearing from her and wished to convey her memory of:

‘Brian, Betty and Bunny on the beach of Ballybunnion now repeat after me’

as being as clear as a bell, as if it was only yesterday. Betty Fitzgerald had in her own way, reconnected two remarkable women and, she gently put the phone down and was indeed satisfied.  Sister Angela (Enda) Fitzgerald died on 26 July 1980 and is buried in the Infant Jesus community cemetery in Yokohama, Japan. She died in her ninetieth year.

Maurice Egan is a son of Betty Egan (Fitzgerald) and a grand nephew of Sister Angela Fitzgerald. He too was fortunate enough to first meet Sister Angela and where you may ask? Back in the late 1960s with his mother and uncles,

          ‘Brian, Betty and Bunny on the beach at Ballybunnion’

Fig 1. Sister Enda (Angela) Fitzgerald c 1967.

Fig 2. Mother Enda Fitzgerald, courtesy of Jeanette Thomas, Head of School, St. Maur’s, Yokohama.

Fig 3. Letter of acknowledgement from Japanese Embassy, Dublin, 2017.

Fig 4. Michiko Shōda, 1958.      

Fig 5. Grave of Sister Enda Fitzgerald, St. Maur’s, Yokohama. (note those who perished in the 1923 earthquake), courtesy of Jeanette Thomas.

1 ‘Genealogy Ireland’ (2019). Wikipedia. Available at: 2 Wikipedia (Accessed: 17 July 2019).

2 ‘Sisters of the Infant Jesus’ (2019) Wikipedia. Available at: (Accessed: 20 July 2019).

3 ‘1923 Great Kanto earthquake’ (2019) Wikipedia. Available at:                 (Accessed: 22 July 2019).

4 Schencking, C.J. (2013) The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan. Columbia University Press.

‘The Irish Times’. (2005), 7 September.