Melaka Heritage Tip :: St. Paul Church

The ruins of St. Paul’s church stand at the summit of St. Paul’s hill near the remains of A’ Famosa fortress. The site was originally occupied by the “Chapel of the Annunciation”, which was built in 1521 by Duarte Coelho in gratitude to the Virgin Mary for saving his life in the South China sea. In 1548 the Archbishop of Goa in India handed over the church to the Jesuits, who began renovating it in 1566. The present building was completed in 1590, with the tower on the right side of the sacristy added in 1593.

The church is renowned as the place where the body of Francis Xavier, the pioneering Catholic missionary of Southeast Asia, was laid to rest for a period of eight months after his death at sea (from arch 22nd, 1553 to December 11th, 1553). The open grave in the church, now covered by a wire mesh, marks the place of Francis’ temporary burial.

Xavier had been an active missionary in the Maluku region of Indonesia from 1546-47. His work there paved the way for permanent missions in the years to come. Afterward, Xavier continued his missionary activities in Japan. He was such a success that the Catholic Church considers him to have converted the most number of people to Christianity since Saint Paul.

In late 1553, Xavier returned to the Portuguese bastion at Shangchuan island in the South China Sea (about 14 kilometers off the coast of present day Guangdong). On November 21st, he took ill during a mass and fainted. Realizing he was about to die, he asked the sailors accompanying him to return his bones to Goa. The sailors agreed, and remained with him until he died on December 3rd.

Transporting a body back to Goa was not an easy process, so to make the corpse easier to transport, the Portuguese sailors at Shangchuan dumped quicklime into Xavier’s coffin. They hoped to quickly reduce the corpse to recover the bones. The sailors then temporarily buried his body on the island and attended to other matters. When it came time for the ship to set sail, the coffin was brought on board and opened. According to legend, the body was in a condition as fresh as it had been when the sailors first buried it. When one of Xavier’s fingers was cut off, blood even seemed to flow.

The ship proceeded to Melaka, where Xavier was buried for nine months at St. Paul’s church. At the end of this period, the body was placed in a new coffin and brought to Goa.

The Pope canonized Francis in 1614, but only upon condition that Francis’ right arm be brought to Rome (this was the arm Francis used to bless his converts). The arm was detached by Pr. Gen. Claudio Acquaviva in 1614 and put on display in a silver reliquary at the church of Il Gesu in Rome. Legend says that when the arm was removed, blood flowed as freely from the wound as it had when Xavier’s finger was removed.

These legends could be easily dismissed but for the fact that the body still exists in fairly good condition in Goa, where it was laid to rest in 1637. Xavier’s preserved corpse can still be seen once every 10 years during public expositions (the most recent of which was in 2004). Debate continues as to how the body could have remained “incorrupt” for so long. Some say that St. Francis was expertly mummified, while others say that the incorruptible body is evidence of a miracle.

In 1641, the Dutch took over Melaka from the Portuguese, renamed the chapel to St. Paul’s Church, and used it as their praying place until they completed the construction of their own church – Christ Church. When the Christ Church was established, St. Paul’s Church became a Dutch graveyard with monumental tombstones scattered around.

In 1952, a statue of St. Francis Xavier was built to commemorate the passing of the saint. Originally, the statue was completely constructed with the right arm in place. However, on the morning after the consecration ceremony, a large casuarina tree fell on it and broke off the right arm, resulted in a statue with missing arm until today. This story is coincident with his right hand was cut off for the canonization purpose.

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Category: Heritage @ Melaka