Sr. Gwendolyn Hoeffel talks about 50 years of ministry in Japan

Sr. Gwen Hoeffel. (Brett Davis)

New York, N.Y. — Sr. Gwendolyn Hoeffel is a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and spent most of the last 50 years living and working in Japan. From the 1960s to the 1980s, she taught at the International School of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo, eventually serving as principal of kindergarten to fourth grade. She spent the following two decades working with immigrants, refugees and the poor in Nagoya. Hoeffel currently lives in New York City, where she is adjusting to life back in the United States. Brett Davis met Hoeffel at her apartment in New York City's Hell's Kitchen to interview her for his oral history book project about Catholic women religious.


I was always concerned about people on the margins. My father would talk about going into housing settlements that still used latrines. Pregnant women would have to go out to the bathroom and would be afraid of losing their babies down the latrine. Things like that really made an impression on me.

From high school and into college, I was very interested in the missions. In high school, I was introduced to prayer and religious life. I spent a lot of time with the sisters and began thinking of religious life. I took that wish with me to Manhattanville College, where I majored in Spanish because I wanted to read Teresa Avila and John of the Cross. I knew when I graduated that my parents would not approve me going into convent life after being in boarding school for so many years.

I was saved by work of the Society of the Sacred Heart, which allowed laypeople to join the sisters in their works around the world. There was a little booklet called Mitte Me (Send Me), which I discovered and prayed about. I thought, "This is what I could do after graduating and stay within the society," but as a layperson in another part of the world. I applied for that, and I was thinking that having taken Spanish, I would be sent to Latin America. I was also interested in Africa and India. On the application, it asked, "Where would you like to go?"

Sr. Gwen Hoeffel visits an immigrant family in Nagoya. (Courtesy of Gwen Hoeffel)

I didn't know where the society could use me. I didn't have any certificates for teaching. I went to college for Spanish. I wasn't sure what I could do, so I left that blank. The powers in Rome, so to speak, were being nagged by Sr. Brigid Keogh in Japan to send her English-speaking women to teach in the international schools that they had started. There was a language school that had morphed into an international school after the war for English-speaking people. Their fathers were there for the rebuilding of Japan after the war. They had one in Taipei and one in Seoul. I was sent to Japan. 

It was 1964, and Vatican II was in session. I had been aware of it from my studies at Manhattanville. I landed in the Olympic year in Japan, and I had a wonderful one year there with other volunteers teaching at the school. We had people from 35 different nationalities at the school. People from all over Japan were coming to Tokyo for the Olympics.

During my time there, I realized I really like the Japanese people, the culture, the environment, the various places, the connection the Japanese people had with nature, their dress, their food and their homes. There was a refinement in their culture. From the beginning, I felt I didn't come here to teach anything, but to learn from this ancient culture.

I also thought I could enter here and be on the mission from the beginning. I asked the provincial about this, which left her speechless, and she was not usually one that didn't have words. She said, "Come back next spring if you're still interested." And indeed I was!

I joined the noviceship out in the country near Mount Fuji. We had tea fields and a farm. It was such a beautiful place called Susono. And because of Sister Keogh's expansion of the province, she was very mission-oriented. She started work in Taiwan and Korea. She had young women interested in joining the society from the Philippines. There was a Jesuit there sending these women to the Sacred Heart. The noviceship was a very international mixture, including women from Korea and China, as well. In Susono, we had to carry things on half in English and half in Japanese. 

I joined after my first year, so in 1965. Vatican II was ending, and all the documents were coming out. I was watching things changing, but I had a rather traditional noviceship. Then they started sending us down to this little school for the handicapped. That gave us a little exposure as novices, before we were completely closed in.

I had nine months of the habit with its frills and everything. It wasn't fun during the summer. In Japan and Taiwan, they changed the habit material to silk or lighter material because the sisters were burning up. It was hard to keep on straight, too, so I cut my hair really short, which you weren't meant to do as a novice in case you decided to leave.

Little by little, things were changing. I took my first vows in 1968 and was sent back to the international school. I still remember being put in the truck that carries all the vegetables and all the stuff to sell to the university in Tokyo. So I was in the back with this tarmac over it and couldn't see anything the whole trip.

Sr. Gwen Hoeffel and Sister Maribel from the Philippines at a nursery school near the Susono noviceship. (Courtesy of Gwen Hoeffel)

I worked at the international school for a year and a half and then was offered the opportunity to either go back to the States for theological studies or have a year for language study. I said, "Language study, please." I think they were testing my vocation for the mission. 

Most missionaries get two-plus years of one-on-one tutoring for their language studies. I jumped into the second year and hardly kept my neck above the water trying to learn all the kanji and grammar. I continued to limp along because of that choice. After that, they sent me to Sapporo in the north during the Paralympics. Our community chapel looked out onto the ski jump. It was a little distracting to prayer.

Because of Vatican II and our special chapter, we wanted to go back to the visions and charism of our original foundresses. Sister Keogh was really wanting to move the Japanese province to have an alternative mission.

Education is major in Japan. It begins in kindergarten through university in the same school, if you can manage it. In order to get the schools more varied, she stopped the kindergarten. The parents and alumni went to the pope to complain. We did stop that kindergarten, though. She was looking and eager to go someplace else. There was an Augustinian priest who knew her who was really into being with the working people. He had started in Nagasaki. He started the first parish school and church in Nagasaki, where there was a very strong Catholic presence. At that time, the poorer fisherman, truck drivers, carpenters of Nagasaki were having a difficult time making a living and were emigrating to bigger cities. 

The priest followed the workers to Nagoya, which had a port. Toyota was a new city nearby. There were many factories subcontracting for parts for cars, computers, faxes, telephones. This is where his people from Nagasaki had come to work on ships in the port, as truck drivers, and they lived in company apartments, which were wretched. He started a little church in a garage.

He was really great with relationships. He knew everybody and their cousin. He got these people into a sort of co-op, found money, bought land at the edge of the city of Nagoya and filled in rice patties so they could build their own homes. He also needed sisters to run a kindergarten and give catechism classes to keep all these very traditional Catholics — Catholic as they came — into the very secular city of Nagoya and went to public schools. He needed to keep his flock together.

Sr. Gwen Hoeffel teaches English to seventh-graders in Sapporo school. (Courtesy of Gwen Hoeffel)
Sr. Gwen Hoeffel in Nagoya with a Filipina single mother at her daughter's middle school graduation. (Courtesy of Gwen Hoeffel)

Sister Keogh was approached, and I was one of the sisters to start that foundation. She knew of my desire to be with poorer people. That was 1971-73, when it came to the point where I needed to do my theological studies. 

I did come back to the States for that. I went to Andover Newton Theological School in Boston, and I ended up being in the States for three years. I did a two-year program at Andover Newton. Then the sister provincials wanted to make sure I didn't want to return to Japan to escape life in the USA, so I had a third year teaching in Miami, Florida.

I was encouraged to stay an extra year in Miami, but I just needed to get back to Japan. That year, while I was in Miami, my father died. My mother said, "Now your heart is free to go back to Japan." She knew my attachment to my dad.

I went back to the international school in Tokyo because they needed sisters there. That principal knew I was eager to get back to the poorer people and would be looking for replacements. She wanted me to be able to go, but I hung in there until we found the right person.

That was 14 years. I loved the children, the families and the teachers. I eventually got replaced, and as an excuse, I came back to the States to recycle. I went into clinical pastoral counseling. I did a program at Emmanuel College. I did my first year at Boston City Hospital with the poorest of the poor. There were a lot of problems then with AIDS, drugs, domestic violence, shootings, stabbings. It ended up being a three-year time. I went to Emmanuel College to do a master's degree in clinical pastoral education and then was assigned back to Nagoya.

After 20 years away from Nagoya, I came back. All my children were grown up and marrying. The parents were now grandparents. It was such a close-knit and wonderful group of people. However, the new poor were the immigrants versus the emigrants. They were coming from the Philippines and from Brazil and other South American countries like Peru, Colombia and Argentina. They were those of Japanese descent who had been sent to South America because they were the youngest of the family and there wasn't enough land to divvy up. People went there in the early 1900s and received terrible land. They were deceived. They struggled and looked back to Japan in its heyday. It was a bubble time that eventually burst. They thought they'd go back and make their money doing the dirty, dangerous work. So those were a lot of Catholic people. The Filipinas originally came as entertainers and were often forced into prostitution. Then they married Japanese men and had families. Nagoya was quite a center of this immigration because of the factory work and the entertainment industry. 

Sr. Gwen Hoeffel in Susono, Shizuoka prefecture, with a Japanese teacher, summertime. (Courtesy of Gwen Hoeffel)

This time back, I started meeting a lot of these people and getting involved in the problems of their lives: their marriages, illnesses, children, education, visa issues. I would deal with the ward office or immigration office. Fortunately, I was put in contact with an NGO of the Catholic church, a commission for reaching out to refugees, migrants and people on the move. They had one of those offices in each diocese. Besides working in the church, I worked in this office. They really educated me in how to help people. They sent me to jails, immigration detention and prisons. I learned how to deal with officials to be able to get visas because these women had children of Japanese nationality, but the men just didn't help them go through the rigmarole of paperwork that was needed. There was a lot of that going on.

I was there from 1993 to 2014. My last years there, we met a lot of people coming from African countries who were fleeing government persecution of different kinds. They were from Uganda, Rwanda, Togo, Ethiopia, Burundi, Nigeria and the Congo and were French-speaking and English-speaking. They would arrive with a tourist visa, overstay, then end up at our office homeless and penniless and would want to be accepted as a refugee, which is almost impossible. Maybe 27 a year out of thousands and thousands of applicants are accepted as refugees. 

It took a couple of years to even think about leaving Japan. After it was decided, we could not tell our people in Nagoya that I was leaving until three weeks before I departed. It was all very heart-rending and sudden. Thanks to Facebook and email and telephone calls, I am still in touch. I'm still in that transition mode. Having spent 50 years in Japan, it does take time to get back into life here. I'm very grateful being in New York. I'm excited to get into USA life!

[Brett Davis is a Brooklyn, New York-based photographer and writer. He is currently working on an oral history book project about Catholic women religious communities.]