Maria of Ant Village Statue - Atlas Obscura

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Maria of the Ant Village

Catholic Shiomi Church

This church commemorates a venerable, yet nigh-forgotten woman who dedicated her life to the poor in post-war Tokyo. 

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Much of Tokyo was left in ruins after World War II. The city’s poor lived from hand to mouth as scavengers and ragpickers called bataya, who in 1950 established their own neighborhood nicknamed the “Ant Village” around Kototoi Bridge.

As the government worked to rebuild and redevelop the city, the bataya community of the Ant Village faced the constant threat of eviction. To buy some time, its central figure, essayist Touru Matsui made up a plan to found a church for the community with the help of Franciscan missionary Zeno Żebrowski and humanitarian Satoko “Elisabeth Maria” Kitahara.

Unexpectedly, it caught national attention and moved the public. As a result, the Ant Village was permitted to construct a Catholic church, which was completed in 1951. Rejecting the sins of fame and social privilege, Kitahara continued to work among the ragpickers as the community grew, but the labor wore her out. She died at 28 years old due to tuberculosis. 

In 1960, the Ant Village was relocated to the Fukagawa area, a better-developed district with social welfare facilities. Today, the former scavenger community is a suburban neighborhood named Shiomi, which is a few train stops between Tokyo Station and Tokyo Disney Resort.

All that remains of the Ant Village is the Catholic church, where there stands a statue of Elisabeth Maria Kitahara. Her life was adapted into a film in 1958 (immediately after her death) and, in 2015, the Pope gave her the title of Venerable.

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January 12, 2024

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