The fascinating journey of St. Francis Xavier's sacred remains from China to Goa.
The fascinating journey of St. Francis Xavier's sacred remains from China to Goa.

The long journey of SFX to his final resting place in Goa

St Francis Xavier died on the island of Sancian in December 1552 and his body reached Goa in March 1554, where it remains to this day

FRAZER ANDRADE

St Francis Xavier died on the island of Sancian in 1552. There, his Chinese friend Antonio de Santa Fe buried him in a coffin made of wood, as was the custom in China. Only four persons were present at the grave site (Antonio, two slaves to dig the grave and a Portuguese, Francisco Sanches by name).

Just as the coffin was about to be covered by earth, one of the persons present suggested that Antonio pack the coffin with lime, above and below the body. Two layers of quicklime were added so as to facilitate the process of decomposition and thus easing the transfer of the bones.

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Antonio has made a mention that he actually put some stones around the grave as markers, so that if he or anyone from the society happened to come to the lonely spot in the future and wished to see where the body of the blessed priest rested, they would find it.

Two and a half months later when the Santa Cruz was to sail to Malacca, Antonio requested that the grave be opened and the bones be brought for transportation. When the grave was excavated the man who dug the grave found the body showing no sign of decomposition.

Statues of Saint Francis Xavier 
(LEFT: Late 18th century, material polychrome gilt wood) (RIGHT:  Late 19th- early 20th century, material bone)
Statues of Saint Francis Xavier (LEFT: Late 18th century, material polychrome gilt wood) (RIGHT: Late 19th- early 20th century, material bone)Photo: Frazer Andrade

Dauntlessly he cut a piece of flesh from below the left knee and brought it to the captain to examine. The captain ordered that the coffin be brought onto the ship as it was, with the lime in it, and stored it securely. He thought that the lime would do its work quicker on the open sea during their voyage to Malacca.

The ship reached Malacca on March 22, 1553. Here, many Christians and non-Christians had gathered to receive the body of their beloved priest. Here the body was buried a second time in a grave near the high altar of the church of Our Lady of the Monte but this time without a coffin.

Many Christians and non-Christians had gathered to receive the body of their beloved priest.

However, as customary in Malacca, the face was covered with a handkerchief during the burial. Here, as the grave was found to be too short, they pressed the head over his breast, thus breaking his neck. This position of the head has remained ever since.

They filled the grave with earth, which was hard, thumping it down using weights, thus inflicting even more injuries to the body. The body remained under the earth for about five months until August 15, 1553.

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At that time, Juan de Beira, the successor of St Francis in the Malacca missions, was on his way back to his post. He could not leave Malacca, without viewing the remains of his former superior and model.

So in the dead of night, he, along with Diogo Pereira (a good friend of Francis, from Malacca), had the grave opened and the body taken out. To their great astonishment the body was still fresh, showing absolutely no signs of decomposition.

To their great astonishment the body was still fresh, showing absolutely no signs of decomposition.

It now began to dawn on them that such a life-like body should not again be consigned to the grave. They filled up the grave quickly, removing all traces of the exhumation of the body. The body was then secretly taken to Pereira’s home, clothed in rich linen which Pereira and Xavier had prepared as presents for the emperor of China and laid it in a new coffin.

It thus lay in secret until December 11, 1553, when it was placed on a ship bound to Goa. Along with the body, sailed Br Emmanuel de Tavora. When the crew heard of this they were glad and arranged for a room to house the body, constantly burning light and incense before it.

Exposition of the sacred relics of St Francis Xavier is held after every ten years at Old Goa.
Exposition of the sacred relics of St Francis Xavier is held after every ten years at Old Goa.Photo: Gomantak Times

On March 16, 1554, the Friday before Palm Sunday, the body reached Goa. The entire town moved and flocked to the dock. The authorities, both civil and ecclesiastical, the viceroy with his retinue, the chapter of canons and confraternities, lay people including children came out in their festive clothes.

The viceroy ordered all the bells of all the churches to ring and the canons of all forts to fire.

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With difficulty did the Jesuits prevail upon him to allow the usual funeral services to be carried out and not to anticipate the judgment of the church about the deceased. Crowds pressed upon the coffin and filled the street, making it really difficult to carry the coffin to St Paul’s College.

When the procession reached the church of the college, the coffin was opened for inspection by the viceroy and other dignitaries, civil and ecclesiastical.

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For three months, there was an endless procession of people to pass by the bier, kiss the feet, and touch their rosary beads, crucifixes, medals, handkerchiefs and other small objects to them, making them relics themselves. At the dead of night on the last day, the body was placed in a new coffin and enclosed in the tomb near the altar.

Later when the Igreja do Bom Jesus was built, with the attached residential wing called Casa Professa de Bom Jesus, the body was kept on the third floor of this Casa Professa. In 1622, the Catholic Church canonized Francis, but the news reached Goa in 1623 and the occasion was solemnized with great pomp and fervour, only in 1624.

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