Final journey of relics into Portuguese Goa
Sanjeev V Sardesai
Having passed away on Sheng Chuan (Sancian) island on the intervening night of December 2-3, 1552 in the company of his assistant Antonio de Sainte Foy and another boy, whose origin was supposedly Goan,
Francis Xavier was buried on the island itself.
When the party returned to remove and transport his relics, months later, they found the body to be incorrupt. It was exhumed on February 17, 1553 AD, and taken to Malacca on March 22, 1553 AD, where it was re-buried in a masonry grave in the Church of Our Lady of the Mount (now dedicated to St Paul).
However, the devotees, fearing the Portuguese Governor D Alvarez D’Athayda at Malacca, who had been on bad terms with Francis, in a hurry created a grave smaller than required; and when the body was being lowered, the neck vertebrae snapped and cracked, while other bones were crushed. This was later noted in the report of the Health Department’s doctors in Goa, who inspected the body.
The body was removed from the grave in April 1553 AD, taken to the house of his friend D Diogo Pereyra, in Malacca, and kept in a wood-carved coffin. On December 11, 1553 AD, the incorrupt body was loaded on board a rickety ship of Lopez de Norogna, and set sail to Goa. It is said that on the way many miracles took place.
In Goa, the Viceroy himself welcomed the ship along with four other priests of the society and all the ships and forts are said to have acknowledged the arrival by firing their
canons in salutation.
On March 15, 1554, the galley carrying the coffin anchored at Ribandar. At that time, there was a small chapel at Ribandar, in place of the present Church of Our Lady of Ajuda. The coffin was taken to this chapel.
The next day, the coffin with the body covered in a gold cloth offered by his friend D Pereyra, was carried from this chapel in procession, down the road to Fondvem Ward, and taken back onboard the mother ship. Today, the place where the coffin may have rested in Fondvem has a huge cross marking this site, with a small idol of St Francis Xavier in its glass
On March 16, 1554, the beautifully decorated ship carrying the coffin, accompanied by many small sea vessels, with hundreds of people carrying lighted tapers (tall candles), made its way to the pier or Quay de Vice Reis. It is to be noted that the Arch of Viceroys was not yet constructed.
The Viceroy himself received the coffin. Thousands gathered at the jetty as well as along the route to get a glimpse of the body. It is written that the coffin was carried by the members of the society and was preceded by 90 children wearing white robes, chaplets of flowers on their head and holding olive branches, followed by the Brotherhood of Mercy carrying a banner, and then the members of the clergy. The coffin was taken to the Colegio de Sao Paul and kept for public veneration on the right side of the altar; sadly today, only the main archway of the college exists, protected by the Archeological Survey of India.
It is recorded that to appease the large impatient crowds at the college, the coffin had to be lifted and held upright, almost three times. From March 16 to 18, 1554, the body was kept for public veneration here and was later buried for the third time, on the epistle (left) side of the altar.
A rather odd incident took place during this first exposition. A Portuguese lady, Dona Isabel de Carom, bit off his toe in order to take away a relic. It is said that blood gushed out of the punctured area and this lady was apprehended. Today this toe is seen on display in a reliquary below the silver casket in Bom Jesus Basilica.
Later, the body of Francis Xavier was dug up from the St Paul’s College grave and transferred to a glass casket on December 2, 1637. Later, Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, gifted the beautiful mausoleum of Italian marble in 1636 AD, grateful that he was presented with a pillow on which had rested the saint’s head. It was carved in Italy and was fitted at Bom Jesus Basilica, by Florentine sculptor Giovanni Battista Foggini. It took 10 years to complete this platform with two cherubic angels. The silver casket, atop it, was created by Goan silversmiths having 32 silver plates displaying the facets of St Xavier’s life.
The saint’s right arm was removed by Superior General Claudio Aquaviva in 1614 AD, and is preserved in a silver reliquary in the main chapel of Gesu in Rome. During the exposition, we can see a royal scepter carried by the Viceroy, next to the right side of the body. A legend related to this scepter, wherein the saint’s aid was beseeched by the Viceroy, to ward off an imminent attack by Chattrapati Sambhaji, bestowed the title ‘Protector of Goa’ on the saint.
Francis Xavier was beatified by Pope Paul V in 1619 and was canonised as Saint Francis Xavier, by Pope Gregory XV, in 1622.
Every 10 years, the glass casket encased body is brought down from its silver casket in Bom Jesus Basilica and kept for veneration at Se Cathedral for six weeks. The first exposition took place in 1782. During the Liberation of Goa, the 11th exposition went on from December 14, 1961 to December 31, 1961, to assure Goans that the relics were still in Goa.
From 1622 AD, the exposition was held every year till 1686 AD. From 1782 AD, it was held in 1859, 1878, 1890, 1900, 1910, after every 10 years till the Liberation. The last 17th
exposition was held in 2014.