Long history of St Francis Xavier Catholic Church

Goans have a long history with the church in Kenya. Dr  Rosendo Ayres Ribeiro, a Goan was famous for vising patients atop a zebra. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Goans have a long history with the church in Kenya. Dr Rosendo Ayres Ribeiro, a Goan was famous for vising patients atop a zebra. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

St Francis Xavier is the patron saint of missionaries in Portugal and one of the founders of the Jesuit order.

Born on 7 April 1506, in a castle near Sanguesa in Navarre (part of present-day Spain), he was part of a noble family and his childhood was one of privilege. However, it was interrupted by the death of his father and attempts by outside forces to take control of Navarre.

In 1525, Xavier went to study at the University of Paris where he encountered Ignatius of Loyola who had experienced a conversion while recovering from a war wound. Loyola implored Xavier to join him on the same path of devotion.

On 15 August 1534, in the Montmartre section of Paris, Xavier, Loyola and five others pledged themselves to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Xavier became a priest on 24 June 1537.

Impressed by the Jesuits, King John 111 of Portugal asked the order for missionaries to work in his empire. Though Loyola initially selected others for the task, Xavier stepped in when a fellow priest fell ill. Leaving Rome on 15 March 1540, Xavier arrived in Goa, India on 6 May 1542, burying two of his sailors at Malindi, en-route.

While Xavier came to be admired in India for his ability to live and work side by side with the poor, it is also on record that, vide his letter dated 16 May 1546 to King John 111, he proposed the Goa Inquisition to stop and punish heresy against Christianity in South Asia.

The inquisition punished those who had converted to Catholicism but suspected by Jesuit clergy of practicing their previous religion in secret. Punishment included imprisonment, public flogging, execution or being burnt alive at the stake.

Seeking more converts, Xavier continued to travel to Ceylon, the Molucca Islands, the Banda Islands, the Malay Peninsula landing at Kagoshima, Japan on August 15, 1549. His next target was China, landing on the island of Sancian (Sangchuan), near Canton but he could not access the mainland as borders were closed to foreigners.

Unfortunately, he succumbed to illness, before he could find a way into the mainland, on 3 December 1552 at the relatively young age of 46. His body was shipped to Goa for burial.

Goa was a Portuguese province, which existed for 450 years until it was annexed by India in 1961. The smallest state in India still exhibits the cultural influence of the Portuguese many of whom intermarried with the local populace. The people of Goa have deep Catholic roots and have traditionally been endowed with a relatively high level of education.

Seeking more sophisticated labour for administrative and professional work, the Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) company, which was running Kenya on behalf of the British Empire, encouraged Goans to come and settle towards the end of the 19th century.

Being Christian and many having Portuguese ancestry (and citizenship) Goans were accorded non-Indian status, which carried special immigration and even tax benefits. Many came to Kenya as businessmen, lawyers and doctors.

Dr Rosendo Ayres Ribeiro, a Goan, was the first private medical practitioner when he came to Kenya in 1899. He is famous for visiting patients atop a zebra, which was more disease resistant than the tradition horse.

Notwithstanding this special status, the Goans were still a rung below their European counterparts and they had to start their own schools, clubs and churches.

St Francis Xavier Catholic Church is situated at the junction of Parklands Road and Limuru Road (now Prof Wangari Maathai Road). Built in 1933 and funded largely by the Goan community for their own use, the church is a silent reminder of those days of racial segregation.

Designed to a neo-gothic architectural style, walls are made of butch stone buttressed at regular intervals externally beneath a Mangalore tiled roof featuring a high, vaulted ceiling.

Windows are glazed in steel casements supported in arched openings with rose windows to the higher elevations. The walls are rusticated to external elevations giving the visual impression of an impenetrable fortress.

The statue of their patron saint Francis Xavier stands in the garden.

Today, the church is open to all races.