As It Happens

St. Francis Xavier's forearm set for cross-country tour, will get its own seat on Air Canada

Angèle Regnier says travelling the country with the 465-year-old severed right forearm of St. Francis Xavier will be "like doing a road trip with a friend."
The right forearm of the Saint Francis Xavier, who died in 1552, will soon tour Canada. (Julian Smith/EPA)

Read Story Transcript

Angèle Regnier says travelling the country with the 465-year-old severed right forearm of St. Francis Xavier will be "like doing a road trip with a friend."

"I mean, I know it's bones, but connected to that is a living friendship with St. Francis Xavier," Regnier, the co-founder of Ottawa's Catholic Christian Outreach, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"I'm sure there'll be a lot of interesting conversations as we go around."

How does a saint travel? On Air Canada 

Regnier will accompany the sacred Catholic relic from Rome to Ottawa before embarking on a 14-city tour of Canada from Jan. 3 to Feb. 2.

"We're very nervous, first of all, of exposing it to the cold of Canada. I enlisted some women to make me a coat for him you know?" Regnier said.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

Fortunately, she said the church has provided her with a duffel bag lined with foam specifically made for transporting the relic. 

"In the end, I don't think I need to make him a parka," she said with a laugh.

Angèle Regnier is co-founder of Catholic Christian Outreach. She lobbied to bring the St. Francis Xavier's arm to Canada, and will be traveling with the severed limb. (Submitted by Angèle Regnier)

The saint will, however, get its own seat on the flight.

You can't just toss the arm that baptized over 100,000 people into the cargo bay and hope for the best.

"We can't put it underneath. We can't even put it in the overhead bins. Like, he has to have his own seat," she said.

"You're trying to explain this to Air Canada. We need to book a seat. He is a person in a way, but it's not a person, it's an arm."

Regnier also had to get official paperwork from Italy and clear her plans with the airline ahead of time.

An 'incorrupt' relic

Rengier said having Canada host the relic is an honour for a number of reasons. 

First of all, the saint's remains are considered "incorrupt."

"It means the body of this person has not decomposed in the natural process. It remains there," Regnier said. "It's really quite astonishing."

What's more, the church only occasionally permits the relic to be removed from its usual display at the the Church of the Gesù in Rome.

A priest holding the right arm of Saint Francis Xavier enclosed in gold and glass case. (Al Fenn/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

"It's in a really beautiful side altar. There's statues and marbles. It's absolutely stunning," Regnier said. "I'm like, 'They'll never let us take that.'"

Regnier credits Terrence Prendergast, the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Ottawa, for making it happen. 

'He was the cool guy'

The tour is organized by the Archdiocese of Ottawa and Catholic Christian Outreach, a national university student movement.

"St. Francis Xavier is one of our patron saints. We really like him a lot," Regnier said. "He came to faith at university."

St. Francis Xavier was born in 1506 into Spanish nobility. In 1525, he attended the University of Paris, where he is largely remembered for being popular and sporty.

"He was the cool guy. He was the athletic guy," she said. "Probably partying more than doing his schoolwork."

Nicolas Poussin's painting of Saint Francis Xavier bringing back to life the Daughter of an Inhabitant of Cangoxima in Japan. (Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images)

But his roommate, St. Ignacius of Loyola, took Francis under his wing to "bring him alive in his faith."

"So for us as a university student movement, we want university students to come alive in their faith, so we find a lot in common with St. Francis Xavier's history."

Coast to coast 

Today, St. Francis is remembered for having baptized tens of thousands of people on his travels throughout Asia. He died on an island outside the Chinese mainland in 1552 at the age of 46. 

His body was laid to rest in a tomb in Goa, West India, but his right arm was taken to Rome in the early 17th century.

"Everyone's kind of claiming fame from the connection to St. Francis because he was very famous," Regnier said.

"So somehow the agreement was made for the arm to go to the Mother Church in Rome. It's his right arm, so it's the arm that he would have use to baptize and heal and, you know, done amazing things with."

A worshipper touches a cabinet containing the right forearm of the Saint Francis Xavier at Saint Francis Xavier Church Montmorency in Melbourne, Australia, in 2012. (Julian Smith/EPA)

Once Regnier lands in Ottawa with the forearm, she'll set off on her cross-country tour — again, by air — which is expected to draw thousands of visitors. 

"It's quite a production," she said. "We want to touch most of Canada with it."

Check out the itinerary below to find out when and where you can see the relic for yourself:

  • Jan. 3: Quebec City.
  • Jan. 5: St John's.
  • Jan. 7: Halifax.
  • Jan. 8: Antigonish, N.S.
  • Jan. 10: Kingston, Ont.
  • Jan. 12-14: Toronto.
  • Jan. 16: Winnipeg.
  • Jan. 18: Saskatoon.
  • Jan. 20: Regina.
  • Jan. 21-22: Calgary.
  • Jan. 24-25: Vancouver.
  • Jan. 27: Victoria. 
  • Jan. 29-30: Montreal.
  • Feb. 2: Ottawa.