Moyra Denka Chudenko was a Nisei. Born in Japan, she came of age in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after spending a good part of her early childhood in a section of Colorado that she could hardly remember. But her real beginning, the beginning that defined who she was and who she was apt to become, was almost six thousand miles away in a small industrial city on the mysterious Japanese Inland Sea: Hiroshima. It was Hiroshima to which she returned in the flower of her life, a homecoming she eventually came to understand.
Her mother, Françoise Beauregard Devereaux, was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she was educated in Catholic dogma while attending a local parochial school. All of her teachers had been nuns. That is why, at least in part, she, too, became a nun as soon as she was of age. Her taking of the vows had been viewed as a great and mysterious thing by her mother and her numerous aunts: finally, a Devereaux was following the will of God. On the other hand, her father was mute on the subject of his daughter becoming a Bride of Christ. After all, she was only sixteen when she became an aspirant in the Order of Mary the Blessed Virgin.
Sister Françoise enjoyed her life in the cloister, a life of silence, of service, and of prayer. She took great pride in wearing the habit. She especially enjoyed the covering of her head as this allowed her most striking feature, her dark and inquisitive eyes, to be enhanced, and with her head covered, she had little concern for the unruly reddish blonde hair that was so gloriously kept from sight. She was a nun who beamed when she pronounced herself wedded to Christ. It was the reason she had been born, or so she convinced herself.
By her twentieth birthday, she was fully embraced within her order. All she knew of life was the church and its restrictions and blessings. For her, there was no other life force. She was content.
If Françoise Beauregard Devereaux had truly been called to the nunnery, Moyra Denka Chudenko would not have been born and this story would not be told. Françoise, in spite of herself, would be pulled into another part of her womanhood, one that would force her to accept another male other than Christ into her life, a more present man, a man she could touch and smell and from whom receive a physical touch in return. It would take, however, a very special human being to accomplish this transformation, a man who could and did replace Christ in the life of the good and faithful novitiate. However, wresting Françoise free of Christ was not Hikaru Chudenko’s intention. It never crossed his mind to do such a thing. He simply fell in love with a woman. He could not help himself.
Hikaru Chundenko was a Japanese calligraphist and translator of English language and literature. How Moyra’s parents met is significant to her flowering. Let us then examine this initial meeting and the influence it had on the Nisei’s journey into being.
TWO: Noborimachi Cathedral, 1938
The order of Mary the Blessed Virgin required its aspirants to serve the totality of human needs, not only those related to the individual or to the society from which that individual came. As Mother Madelyne instructed each aspirant and postulant class, there was far more to being a Bride of Christ than tending to the daily chores of the cloister. It meant more than serving in soup lines, a task that slowly diminished as the Great Depression winnowed away. It meant more than planting watermelons in the spring and selling them from the back of pickup trucks in the sweltering summer heat of south Louisiana. It meant serving the cause of Christ, wherever the call might be.
And the Order of Mary the Blessed Virgin had met that call for decades by sending its novitiates to witness for Christ in heathen countries around the world.
This is how Moyra’s mother came to meet the man who would become her mate.
It was Françoise’s fortune to be chosen to serve the Noborimachi Cathedral in Hiroshima, Japan. It was her charge to help win the infidel, the Buddhists and Hindu residing in Hiroshima, to the truth and light of Christ. A two year mission was her assignment. And she wept as she packed her small valise for the long and dangerous trip overseas and prepared for a culture significantly different from that of her upbringing.
She did not have to bid farewell to her mother and father, both of whom she missed greatly. That task had come when she entered the cloister at such a tender age. She wrote her parents of her mission abroad, assuring them that when she returned to Louisiana two years hence, she would be a full-fledged nun, ready to take her final vows and enter a lifetime of service to the church, her God, and her people.
Hortense, her older sister by two years, was not so easily swayed. When she read the note her parents received, she was not only incensed: she was driven to confrontation. Hortense arrived at the cloister the day before her sister was to depart for Los Angeles and points further afield. She was reluctantly admitted and she proceeded with her intent.
“What is going on with you, Franny!” she virtually screamed at her pious sister.
“I’m Sister Dorcas now, Hortense. Dorcas ‘who abounds in good deeds and gifts of mercy.’ I’ve put Françoise aside, as you know.”
“You’re not putting me aside, not if I can help it. Look me in the eye, Franny, or Dorcas, or whoever you are and tell me: you no longer care about your family?” Hortense was striving to stay as calm as possible.
Françoise lowered her head. “My family is here, Sister. I thought you understood that.”
“I fail to understand anything about you. Seriously. Look me in the eye. Now, tell me.” She seemed to gird herself for the inevitable question that compelled her to defy the strictures of the cloister. “Is it essential that you go to that God awful place—where is it again? Japan?”
Hortense became more than angry. She was confused as well. “They hate us there, you know. The Japs can’t stand us and that is a well documented fact. Believe me!”
“It is God’s will.” Françoise wanted the confrontation over, so she turned away. “I must do God’s will.”
“God’s will!” Hortense fumed. “How in the hell would you know”—
“Hortense, please. You are in God’s house.”
“Two years ago when you began this fantasy of yours, I figured you’d come to your senses, return home, get married, have kids. You know, do all the things that you and me dreamed of doing when we were growing up.”
“I am married. To Christ.”
Her fuming depleted, Hortense hugged her sister as tightly as she could. “Herman and I are getting married the end of next month,” she whispered.
“So, tell me. How are you going to be my maiden of honor if you’re six thousand miles away?” She was crying now. She couldn’t keep her tears at bay any longer.
“I will pray for you,” Françoise said, ashamed of her lack of empathy at such a telling moment.
Hortense pushed away, her anger returning with such emphasis that it was sure to last a lifetime. “Okay. Pray. That’s something, I guess. You pray and I’ll forget that you ever existed.”
“Goodbye, my dear,” Françoise said through a sigh.
Hortense rushed out of the cloister and into the hot, Louisiana sun. “Jesus,” she said to the world, knowing full well that the world was deaf.
The Noborimachi Cathedral was less than impressive: red brick and sturdy, dour in complexion and in attitude. Its saving graces for the aesthetic were a view of the sprawling city from the river to the sea and its proximity to the peace and quiet of the Shukkei-en Garden, a respite for the weary, a haven for those wishing removal from the swirl of the urban world. Françoise’s accommodations on the grounds of the church were far more confined than those she left behind in Louisiana. She had a cot of her own and a place to say her prayers and not much else. But best of all, she discovered that Hiroshima was not the heart of primal man that she had been led to expect. Instead, it was a thriving modern city of a quarter million, and her job, serving as an assistant inside the maternity ward of the Cathedral’s small but well equipped and highly functional hospital, was far more satisfying than ladling barrels of tepid soup down less than thankful throats in Baton Rouge soup kitchens.
She kept in touch with her childhood friend, Valina Brown, an aspirant like herself, with whom she had joined the cloister. Valina had been assigned to a small mission in Togo. Françoise had no idea where Togo was aside from the basic fact that it was somewhere on the African continent. Valina was having the harsh and unrelenting experience Françoise had expected, only much worse. Valina’s letters, few and far between, depressed Françoise for her friend’s sake, but made her delight in the pleasures that marked her days at the Japanese Cathedral.
Françoise’s days were simple. She rose at dawn, bathed communally as per the Japanese tradition, prepared her minimal but filling breakfast of rice and baked fish, ate in solitude, and prayed. Throughout the morning, she performed her housekeeping duties of washing clothes, hanging them to dry, ironing the wash from the previous day, and putting clothing away in the chests of the other Brides of Christ. Her lunch was usually a bowl of fish broth with an egg swirled in along with a side of rice and seaweed. She at first missed beef and chicken, but soon came to admire the various ways fish could be prepared.
In the afternoon, after a Spartan snack again of rice and broth, she gave her attention to the maternity ward. Here, she came in touch with the mysteries of the birthing process and the constraints and blessings of motherhood. Here, she was introduced to the other side of being a woman. And she admired God’s miracles greatly. Her first delivery was lengthy but satisfying, resulting in a healthy boy and a jubilant mother. Françoise was jubilant as well. Her second delivery, a six pound four ounce girl, born in half the time and the mother even more delighted, caused her to consider the possibility that female children require less labor than males. How thrilling such an idea seemed to her. She was quickly disabused of this notion when the third child, another girl, required over twenty hours of intensive labor, leaving the mother deliriously exhausted and incapable of any vestige of joy.
Françoise was quite taken by the skills of the doctors and nurses in the small hospital connected to the Cathedral. Since none of them spoke English, she was unable to visit with them about their efforts or even where they lived when not on call. She felt a need, though, to share her feelings about God’s miracles with someone. Fortunately there were the other aspirants from America and with them she spent precious moments in quiet discussions of health and the glories of Christ.
“The babies are so fragile,” one said in a guarded whisper.
“And the mothers so angelic,” said another.
“Christ’s blessings on them all,” another said with a smile to illuminate that dark cloister.
“I wonder what it must be like,” said Françoise, allowing her female side a moment of relief.