Faithful, curious fill Winnipeg church to view severed forearm of St. Francis Xavier

About 350 people headed to St. Mary's Cathedral Tuesday to view the severed forearm and hand of St. Francis Xavier - the right forearm, to be specific, said to have baptized tens of thousands of Catholic converts.

The 465-year-old relic is being toured across Canada

The 465-year-old relic stopped in Winnipeg on Tuesday as part of a cross-country tour. 0:54

About 350 people filled St. Mary's Cathedral in Winnipeg Tuesday to view the relic of St. Francis Xavier — the severed right forearm, to be specific, said to have baptized tens of thousands of Catholic converts.

Both the faithful and the curious descended on the church as the 465-year-old relic stopped there on Tuesday, part of a cross-country tour expected to be attended by 75,000 Canadians when all is said and done.

"I think the people come to an event like this expecting to have a spiritual experience," said Father John O'Brien. "It's very Catholic to have a spiritual experience through tangible things, and there's nothing more tangible than the bones of a saint."

While this kind of tour is common in Europe and other parts of the world, it's rare in North America, O'Brien said. 

"The figures of the saints kind of loom large. They're remembered, and they represent deep, deep spiritual experiences that Catholics have had over the centuries.

"They bring their prayers, they bring their dreams, petitions, desires forward to God, but it's an opportunity."

A woman communes with the relic of St. Francis Xavier in Winnipeg Tuesday. (CBC)

Participants took part in a service before getting in line for a close look at the relic.

"I'd like a closer experience with the Lord," said a woman in line who identified herself as Catherine. "It's nice to see the church filled and people singing with great heart, and it's very interesting."

Catherine travelled from Garson, Man. to get up close to the relic: "We're all part of God's creation and that's our ultimate goal, so here we are."

Karen Mendoza called her encounter with the relic "a great blessing." 

"It will help me enrich my faith with the Lord. [I asked St. Francis] to [help] persevere in my life, because as an immigrant, I have a lot of struggles in life and I asked him to give me the blessings that I need."

The faithful and the curious line up at St. Mary's Cathedral to view the relic. (CBC)

The forearm is carried around in a large, padded duffel bag with an appointed guardian and is being kept in a Plexiglass case to protect it from theft, loss and damage. A unique seal is on the arm's container, so that church officials know the arm has not been swapped with another.

As the tour organizers don't trust checked baggage or the overhead bins, the patron saint's arm flies in its own economy class airline seat.

This is the relic's first visit to Canada, and can usually be found at Rome's Church of the Gesu. It's believed that it has only left that church five times.

Bishops call the arm 'uncorrupted'

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 saintliness and the revered right arm, which did all the baptizing, was severed at the request of the head of the Society of Jesus (Jesuit) order and sent to Rome. Bishops refer to the arm as "uncorrupted."

The rest of his body was transferred to Goa, India, where the saint 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.

With files from David Common