Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Quebec missionary killed in Japanese tsunami

For fifty years, Rev. André Lachapelle dedicated his life to missionary work in Japan's Miyagi region, teaching high school and writing religious books in Japanese for his students.

Most recently, he took up a post as parish priest in the coastal town of Shiogama and also ministered to prisoners, listening to their stories and hearing their confessions.

And it was while he was rushing to assist his parishioners in the wake of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake Friday that Father Lachapelle died, the first confirmed Canadian casualty of the disaster.

Story continues below advertisement

That afternoon, the 76-year-old was attending a meeting of the charismatic movement at the cathedral in Sendai when the quake struck. Uninjured by the tremor, he jumped in his car and headed to Shiogama, 17 kilometres away.

"His colleagues advised him to stay in Sendai and not to go," said Florant Vincent, a fellow priest who worked with him for decades in Japan. "But he left anyway. He said 'I have to be with the people there.' "

With television and other communication networks knocked out, Father Lachapelle had no way of knowing a tsunami was imminent. It struck just as he arrived in Shiogama. His body was found outside the car, which has not been recovered. He was identified by his driver's licence and passport.

Medical examiners determined that he suffered a heart attack, but it was unclear whether he had been hit by the wave.

Father Lachapelle was born June 1, 1934, in St. Jacques, a small town 65 kilometres north of Montreal and has several brothers in Joliette, Que. He had worked in Japan with the Society of Foreign Missions, an international Roman Catholic missionary organization, since 1961.

He taught courses in religion and French at a private high school for some 30 years and also served as school principal.

"He helped people, he gave his life to help them," said Father Vincent, speaking in French. "I would have done the same. We rejoin people to be with them in times of hardship."

Story continues below advertisement

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade said it was still trying to track down Canadians who might need help and that staff in Ottawa, Tokyo and other East Asian missions had been mobilized.

The department estimates there are 10,000 to 12,000 Canadian nationals in Japan, but only 1,773 are registered with the embassy. Of those, only a handful are in the area hardest hit by the quake.

One of them is Jonathan Jones, an English teacher who has lived there for the past four years.

His family in British Columbia spent an agonizing day Friday waiting to hear from him. His father, Brian, tried e-mail, Facebook and contacting DFAIT, to no avail. Then, a message on the younger Mr. Jones's people-finder page on Google Saturday confirmed he was alright.

"Everything is safe and sound," his father said Sunday.

Further south, the fear of a meltdown at five nuclear reactors was paramount.

Story continues below advertisement

At the school where Gemma Villanueva teaches English, sliding doors were ripped off walls, the ceiling crumbled, walls cracked, windows smashed and desks were tossed around the room when the earthquake hit. The 26-year-old Ottawa native lives outside the initial evacuation zone near the power plants, but amid the chaos after the quake, she decided not to take any risks and fled.

When she arrived in Aizuwakamatsu, a city to the west, stores were cleaned out of water bottles and non-perishables. Dozens of cars lined up for gas, where an hour's wait yielded only half a tank's worth.

"Grocery stores and pharmacies are not generally safe indoors. The staff have set up tables with some goods like water bottles, cup ramen, batteries and other assorted things outside entrance doors," she said.

In Tokyo, Concordia exchange student Phil McKie was at a restaurant with his girlfriend when the tremor began. Once the shaking died down, the couple made their way through the narrow streets of the Ikebukuro commercial district, which had become packed with people. A skyscraper swayed so violently, someone screamed it was about to fall over.

They sheltered next to a home when the aftershock hit. Tremors continued to shake the country.

"The feeling reminds me of turbulence on a plane, only it's the ground that wobbles, and everything above that trembles or sways. If you're standing, you can barely feel them, sitting on my bed my back to the wall I can feel the slightest vibration," he wrote Sunday.

In the capital, he said, things quickly returned to normal over the weekend, with trains back up and running and most shops open.

"Tokyo … is all back to business, it seems that even such an event must be absorbed quickly for the city to function," he wrote.

Canada has upgraded its travel report for Japan, asking its citizens to exercise a high degree of caution in Tokyo and to avoid all travel to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and surrounding areas where authorities race to combat the threat of multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns.

Canada is also monitoring the situation at the Fukushima plant for risks to Canadians after an explosion Saturday which could have exposed up to 160 people in the area to radiation. Operators have lost the ability to cool some of their reactors using usual procedures, after the quake knocked out power and the tsunami swamped backup generators.

British Colombia's public safety minister Rich Coleman said the radiological activity posed no health risk to Canadians so far.

"Health Canada has advised us that at the present time the current radiological activity at a facility in Japan is expected to pose no health risk to British Columbian's," he said in a statement released Sunday.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday he had offered Japan's ambassador any help required.

- With a report from Anna Mehler Paperny and the Canadian Press

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.