Q & A with James Creedon, chronicling the life of an Irish missionary sister

James Creedon is an Irish journalist based in Paris, where he is media editor on France 24's English-language network. He recently completed a documentary film, "Thanks to your Noble Shadow," on the life of his cousin, Sr. Paschal O'Sullivan.

Born in 1912, O'Sullivan was the last Irish missionary nun to serve in Japan. A member of the Infant Jesus Sisters (or Drishane Sisters, as they were known in Ireland), she spent 75 years on mission in Japan before she returned home to Ireland in 2009 at the age of 98. She died Dec. 17, 2013, at the age of 101.

In the film, O'Sullivan recounts how she only once saw her father cry — when he bid her farewell as she entered the convent. She arrived in Japan in 1935 without knowing the language and was ill-equipped to deal with a radically different culture. She spent most of the war years interned. But when the war was over, she returned to teaching and came to love her Japanese students, colleagues and friends, who in turn loved her.

The film is due to be shown at a private screening in the Japanese Embassy in Dublin in August. It is currently awaiting responses from several film festivals and may also be shown in Tokyo later in the year.

GSR: 'Thanks to Your Noble Shadow' is a warm insight into a disappearing phenomenon: an Irish missionary nun. How did it come about?

Creedon: My grandmother stayed in contact with Jennie O'Sullivan — or Sr. Paschal — over her 75 years in Japan. She was a wonderful letter-writer and kept up the contact with the family back in Ireland.

Shortly after her 100th birthday, I went to visit Jennie at St. Joseph's Convent in Cork. I wanted to record a family video, but it became clear that Jennie's story deserved much more than that.

As her much younger cousin, I was fascinated by her story and its epic quality. We quickly struck up a bond. She and I both left Ireland at the age of 23. But leaving for France in 2005 was not the same as leaving for Japan in 1935. I just clicked with her from the moment we started talking.

She was a natural in front of the camera and a born storyteller, full of joy and humor. That family video turned into a documentary film project as I recorded her memories over the course of a year. The film is based on more than 60 hours of interviews.

The documentary recounts how, as a young woman, Sr. Paschal journeyed by boat to Japan in 1935. She did not speak the language and believed she would never return home from this country, which was heading into war.

She also spoke about the Ireland of her youth and the Catholic culture that saw thousands of men and women become missionaries. But mostly, she spoke of her love for her vocation as an English teacher and the strong bonds she formed with generations of Japanese women who came through her classrooms at Denenchofu Futaba School [in Tokyo] or in her private English lessons, which she continued until the age of 98. She recalled her experiences of the Second World War in four different camps.

I visited the head house of the order she joined, the Infant of Jesus Sisters in Paris, where I live, and I also contacted as many of her past pupils as I could, traveling to Japan to meet them. What I discovered was an outpouring of goodwill and gratitude for this woman. It provides a rare insight into a life dedicated to the missionary cause at a time when this worldwide movement is drawing to a close.

Is this a religious documentary, or did you have a wider audience in mind when you were making it?

This is not a story about a nun, but the story of a woman who happened to be a nun. The aim of the film is to peel back the layers to reveal her core. Part of the story is her socialization in Ireland and Japan and the influences that formed her and how she managed and integrated them.

She is a fine example of an Irish missionary. In her is the distillation of the best of her world — of Ireland, Europe, the Catholic church and the Land of the Rising Sun — that she came to deeply cherish. She had strength of character, and she was brave.

For a woman of Jennie's generation, those who wanted a career and adventure and a sense of purpose, to teach or run a school or a hospital and travel, to influence and spread ideas and knowledge and spirituality — the church offered that opportunity. In the course of my research, I visited many priests and nuns who spent their lives abroad, and it became clear to me that they were among our best and brightest. Whatever one may think of the church itself and its teachings, most of these men and women made a valuable human contribution to the communities they served and asked for no personal recognition or recompense. This era is now coming to a close.

Ireland and the situation of the Catholic church has changed so much in recent years. You took a bit of a gamble in focusing on a nun. Why?

What happened in Irish society in the last 10 to 15 years was this big, cathartic revelation of the dark side of the Catholic church's influence on Irish society. But maybe we've forgotten some of the essential aspects and some of the truth that was at the core of how Sr. Paschal lived her life.

I was raised a Catholic, but like many Irish people of my generation, I am not practicing. As an institution, the church no longer has the strong influence over Irish society it once had, in particular after the series of abuse scandals.

Yet this woman seemed to embody a different face of the church. She had given up everything to be a part of the missions, and pretty much everyone I met during that yearlong journey only had positive things to say about her.

Jennie lived a life of generosity, love, self-sacrifice and kindness — values that are much less common in Ireland today. Her entire life overflowed with love, self-sacrifice, generosity, kindness and joy. I was trying to figure out what was it about how she lived that she got right that's worth transmitting. If this woman was so happy, fulfilled and healthy at such a ripe old age, she is somebody we can all learn something from in terms of how to age and how to look back over your life and how to not have regrets.

There was a lot of laughter among those watching the film: She had a dry Irish wit. There were also some red eyes at the moving moments she recalled. Personally, I am very proud of her, the dynamism of her personality, and the breadth of her experience.

Irish missionaries went all over the world. I think this film will be of interest to a younger generation that has little sense of the beliefs of Jennie, but because she embodies universal qualities, every culture and age can relate to that.

[Sarah Mac Donald is a freelance journalist based in Dublin.]