Saint's relic made a rare visit to Baltimore

Catholic faithful turned out in 1949 for St. Francis Xavier

Back Story

June 01, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Reporter

St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders with Ignatius Loyola of the Society of Jesus in 1534, journeyed to India and later the Far East, where he helped establish the mission of the Roman Catholic Church.

Known as "The Apostle of the Indies," Xavier wrote of his conquest for converts, "Give me souls. These people are the delight of my soul."

While attempting to enter China, Xavier was stricken with a fever and died on the island of Sancian Dec. 3, 1552.

After several months, his body was exhumed and found to be "incorrupt." It was then sent to Malacca and then to BomGesu Church in Goa, India, where it continues to rest in the basilica in an airtight glass coffin.

Every 10 years, most recently in 2004, the silver casket containing Xavier's remains is lowered for public viewing for six weeks.

Beatified by Pope Paul V in 1619, Xavier was canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622, and remains the patron saint of Australia, Borneo, China, the East Indies, Goa, Japan and New Zealand.

In 1614, Claudius Acquaviva, General of the Society of Jesus, ordered Xavier's right hand and forearm be severed at the elbow and sent to Rome, where the relic was then placed in a gold, glass-paneled reliquary. It now rests in a side altar in the south transept of the Chiesa del Gesu.

In early November 1949, the relic arrived in Baltimore, accompanied by a detail of Maryland State Police, for a three-day public veneration after having been in Washington at Holy Trinity and St. Aloysius churches for a three-day stay.

It had only left Rome twice in four centuries.

Accompanied by the Rev. Arthur R. McGratty, S.J., of New York, national director of the Apostleship of Prayer, the relic was first taken to the old Woodstock College in Baltimore County before traveling to Loyola High School and Loyola College.

At Loyola College, the relic was "placed on a table covered with gold cloth in front of the statue of the Blessed Virgin, opposite the college chapel, by the Very Rev. Francis X. Talbot, S.J., president of the institution," reported The Sun.

"I was a college student at Loyola at the time," Dr. Paul G. Mueller, 82, said in an interview. "The student body was allowed to venerate the relic. I remember that the bones of a forearm were inside a glass reliquary about 18 inches long with a glass cover.

"Each of the students was allowed to kiss the glass cover, after which a priest would wipe it clean for the next student," said Mueller, who retired in 1990, who lives in Pasadena and later became chief emergency physician at Mercy Medical Center.

Mueller, who converted to Catholicism, described the relic as something that "really impressed me," yet, "At the time, I am afraid none of us were aware of the honor that the exercise of veneration afforded us.

"I believe the historical significance of the event also escaped us," he said. "It is only after reading about the life of St. Francis later that I appreciated the significance of that event."

The Very Rev. Joseph Bluett, S.J., president of Loyola High School, and the Very Rev. Francis J. McVeigh, S.J., rector of St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church, then took the relic to St. Joseph's Hospital, Mercy Hospital, Bon Secours Hospital and St. Agnes Hospital and to the Visitation Convent in Catonsville.

"At the hospital, nurses, nuns, physicians and many ambulatory patients filled the chapels where they were blessed by the relic and prayers were said," reported The Sun.

After the relic completed its journey downtown by automobile, Archbishop Francis Patrick Keough presided in a "solemn entrance ceremony," and was the celebrant at a pontifical Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, observed The Sun, when the relic finally arrived at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church on North Calvert Street.

"The 1949 visit of the relic was a very rare thing and St. Francis Xavier has special significance for Baltimore. The visit was spoken of for years afterward," said the Rev. Michael J. Roach, pastor of St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester. "Many of the great churches of Europe are built around relics, and that is why people make pilgrimages to them."

During its stay in Baltimore, more than 30,000 attended the veneration of the relic, reported The Sun.

Earlier in 1949, the relic departed Rome for Japan, where it helped celebrate the anniversary of St. Francis' arrival there 400 years earlier to begin his missionary work. The first time it left Rome was in 1922, when it was taken on a pilgrimage to Spain.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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