‘He’s our hero’: Why St. Francis Xavier’s 465-year-old severed arm will be a draw for many Canadians

More than four centuries after his death, St. Francis Xavier is touring Canada, or, at least, the part of him most revered by Catholics — the right arm said to have baptized tens of thousands of converts.

“Some people are repelled by it. Some are attracted by it,” says Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa. “But if it helps you, it’s good.”

Seventy-five thousand Canadians are expected to view the relic, as it moves across the country this month beginning Wednesday in Quebec City with stops in 14 other cities, including Antigonish, N.S., home of St. Francis Xavier University.

Angèle Regnier will be with the forearm at every stop. Francis Xavier is the patron saint of Catholic Christian Outreach, an organization she co-founded to keep young Catholics engaged with their faith through their university years.

“We admire him. He’s our hero,” Regnier says. “It’s like having the Stanley Cup come to your tournament. He’s so cool, so identifiable.”

St. Francis forearm

Young Catholics in Ottawa hold commitment cards up to the relic of St. Francis Xavier. (CBC)

Arm gets own airline seat

The relic of St. Francis Xavier is treated, in some ways, like the Stanley Cup. It is carried around in a large padded duffel bag, escorted by an appointed guardian, D’Arcy Murphy. Organizers don’t trust the checked baggage experience, and it’s too large for the overhead bin, so the patron saint’s arm flies in its own economy class seat.

It’s believed the relic has only left its usual resting place at Rome’s Church of the Gesu on five other occasions, and this is the first visit to Canada.

Guardian of the relic D'Arcy Murphy

Guardian of the relic D’Arcy Murphy, left, is seen at the Catholic Christian Outreach’s Rise Up conference in Ottawa. (Pierre-Paul Couture/Radio-Canada)

Before leaving Italy, church officials placed a unique seal on the arm’s Plexiglas container, to ensure no one tries to switch out the contents. Organizers have also insured the relic against loss, damage or theft for an undisclosed amount.

Petula Fernandes

Petula Fernandes is of Goan descent who believes her ancestors were baptized by St. Francis Xavier. (CBC)

Church asked for a relic 

Francis Xavier died in 1552 not far from China, but the body reportedly did not decompose. At the time, it was considered evidence of his saintness and the revered right arm, which did all the baptizing, was severed at the request of the head of the Jesuit order and sent to Rome. Bishops refer to the arm as “uncorrupted.”

The rest of his body was transferred to Goa, India, where Francis Xavier carried out much of his work, converting more than 100,000 people, many of them Hindus. As with many religious figures, the historical record includes good work combined with challenges, including a multi-century Inquisition, sparked at the time of Francis Xavier, leading to an unknown number of executions.

During the Canadian tour, the arm will be displayed at the large Goan-Canadian community in Mississauga, where 12,000 visitors are expected to venerate, or honour, the relic.

Joseph San Jose

Joseph San Jose was among nearly 1,000 young Canadian Catholics privy to an early opportunity to venerate the arm during the Catholic conference in Ottawa on Saturday. (CBC)

“This is profound,” says Petula Fernandes, who was part of the first large group to see the arm in Ottawa.

She points out, it would be the same arm that “converted my ancestors to Christianity and if it wasn’t for his mission, I wouldn’t be here in Canada with my Christian values.”

‘Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’

Three-quarters of Catholics drift from the religion during the university years, and it’s hoped the arm will help guide them back.

Francis Xavier was said to be a playboy, intellectual and athlete, until he met Ignatius who urged him towards what became a life defined by faith. Organizers hope young Canadian Catholics today will find inspiration in the story.

A thousand of those young Catholics were among the first to get a sneak peek of the arm shortly after its arrival in Canada at the Catholic Christian Outreach’s Rise Up conference in Ottawa last weekend.

Many had emotional reactions, breaking into tears, hugging and praying as they sought guidance and, in some cases, healing from illness or disease.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of this ever happening,” says Joseph San Jose. “And I don’t know if it’ll ever happen again, so it’s kind of like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

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