Danny Thomas and the Maryknoll Connection

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Maryknoll Father Caffrey (from left), Mrs. Danny Thomas, Marlo, and TV entertainer Danny Thomas at Father Thomas Takahashi’s first Mass celebrated at Maryknoll Chapel in 1953, Born in Little Tokyo in 1919, Fr. Takahashi was the first Maryknoll School graduate to be ordained at Maryknoll Seminary in Ossining, N.Y., in 1953. (Photo Courtesy St Francis Xavier Chapel JCC)

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By HARRY K. HONDA
RAFU CONTRIBUTOR

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The U.S. Postal Service issued a “Forever / 45¢” commemorative stamp Feb. 16 honoring Danny Thomas on his 100th birthday and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which he founded some 60 years ago (June 1962) in Memphis, Tenn.

But what I remember about this late humanitarian has a very personal connection with Maryknoll School and the late Father Thomas “Watson” Takahashi (1919-1989), a classmate of mine from Maryknoll School from 1925 in kindergarten through the 1930s. He was in the Class of 1933,

Then known in Little Tokyo proper and at Manzanar as Wataru (or Watson), he was Maryknoll School’s first graduate to be ordained a Catholic priest. While a seminarian in the third year of theology, he underwent surgery for a malignant tumor in the abdomen at Queen of Angels Hospital, Los Angeles, and after recuperation returned to Maryknoll-on-the-Hudson to be ordained with his class in 1953.

At Fr. Takahashi’s first Mass at St. Francis Xavier Chapel that year, Danny Thomas and family were among the first communicants to kneel and receive at the altar rail in thanksgiving, prayers and for their generous support of the Nisei seminarian.

Such was not the first time a celebrity from Hollywood was to ever visit the Japanese American Catholic community, about to celebrate its 100th anniversary come Christmas Day.

The stars of filmland known to Fr. Francis Caffrey (classmate of pastor Fr. Hugh Lavery) while promoting the work of Maryknoll missions often surprised the school kids. They included Shirley Temple, who invited young students (in kimono) to her seventh birthday party in 1936 at her studio. (Ask parishioner Mrs. Nobuko Murakami about that party.)

After the Maryknoll Sanatorium in Monrovia for Issei tubercular patients closed (1930-1958), it was TV comedian Danny Thomas who emceed the grand opening and dedication of the new Maryknoll Hospital for Tuberculosis and Diseases of the Chest (49 beds) in June 1959.

Little Tokyo businessman Kiyoharu “Kiyo” Yamato praised the efforts of the Nisei community in fundraising and beautification of the grounds. Maryknoll Sister Mercy, MD (first physician to join Maryknoll), and Sister Mary Angelica, RN, headed the medical staff. Both had been stationed at the Maryknoll Clinic during the 1940s in Pusan, South Korea.

About the sanatorium, the Sisters in the 1920s were conducting school on Hewitt Street and a children’s home on Boyle Avenue.  In 1930, they began to nurse tubercular Japanese patients after acquiring a facility in the Monrovia foothills run by Miss Katherine Decker. A generous gift of $10,000 from Catholic Issei physician Dr. Daishiro Luke Kuroiwa helped make the purchase possible.

Originally, the patients were housed in small cottages, widely screened for fresh air, good food and complete rest. Sister Mary Edward (the first-grade teacher in the late 1920s) was the first superior at the sanatorium, assisted by Sister Mary Ellen RN, Sister Mary Leonard RN, Sister Mary Melanie (in charge of the kitchen), Sister Mary Bernadette Yokomochi (who, with Sister Mary Susanna Hayashi, stayed with Maryknollers at Manzanar) and Sister Mary Ancilla, office.

With development of new drugs to treat TB and the declining number of Issei and Nisei patients, the Maryknoll Sisters finally sold the hospital in 1968. Encountering three separate buyers who defaulted on payments, the Sisters had to pay $66,000 in back taxes and penalties and converted the facility as their convent-retirement home.

The low buildings amid garden and trees at Norumbega Drive and Oak Park Lane are home to elder Sisters who engage in a variety of ministries, conducting CCD classes, tutoring non-English speakers, Bible classes and assisting the archdiocesan Peace and Justice Committee.

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