On March 17, 1865 (Keio 1), a small group of villagers from Urakami (浦上) in Nagasaki approached French priest Bernard-Thadée Petitjean (ベルナール・プティジャン) at Oura Cathedral (大浦天主堂 Oura Tenshudo) in Nagasaki and confessed that they were Christians.
It eventually became clear that some 30,000 Japanese had been secretly practicing Christianity. Not only in Kyushu, but also in other regions of Japan. They were descendants of early Japanese Christians who went into hiding after the Shimabara Rebellion (島原の乱, Shimabara no ran) in the 1630s.
The Catholic faith had been introduced to Japan in 1549 (Tenbun 18) by the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier (1506–1552), but it had been banned since the early 17th century. That there were still practicing Christians two centuries later caught everybody by surprise, not least the Japanese government.
Some of the Kakure Kirishitan (隠れキリシタン, Hidden Christians), as they are now known, had adopted new ways of practicing Christianity. But most of them were still able to recognize that Petitjean’s Roman Catholic Church was related to their beliefs.
Bernard-Thadée Petitjean (ベルナール・プティジャン) was born in Blanzy-sur-Bourbince, France on June 14, 1829 (Bunsei 12). On May 21 1853 (Kaei 6) he was ordained as priest with La Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris (パリ外国宣教会). By 1862 (Bunkyu 2), he was in Yokohama as a missionary for that organization.
By August of the next year, Petitjean was in Nagasaki to oversee the construction of Oura Cathedral. It was dedicated on February 19, 1865 and less than a month later the Kakure Kirishitan approached him.
As Christianity was still banned in Japan, the Japanese government began persecuting the Hidden Christians in 1867 (Keio 3). More than 3600 Urakami villagers were banished and 650 of them died. After their return from exile in 1873 (Meiji 6), they decided to construct their own church. They purchased the land where for centuries they had been interrogated and forced to tread upon an icon of the Virgin Mary or Jesus. The location was symbolic for centuries of persecution.
Construction of Urakami Cathedral began in 1895 (Meiji 28) and was finally completed in 1925 (Taisho 14) when it was the largest Catholic church in East Asia. On August 9, 1945, the atomic bomb detonated only 500 meters from the cathedral, completely destroying it. A new church was completed in 1959 (Showa 34).
Petitjean died in Nagasaki on October 7, 1884 (Meiji 17).