In my youth, the Old Goa novenas were an annual ritual. We’d be up at dawn, get on our bicycles and join swarms of other cyclists, bells a-tinkling merrily, converging from all over the state onto the Ribandar Causeway and all the way to the early morning mass at the Bom Jesus Basilica. This was the 1980s, and it used to be so cold that we often donned sweaters, and we could actually see our breath condense as we cycled up the final slope to our destination. The nip in the air, and the euphoric camaraderie of fellow pilgrims are part of my memories of those years.
We’d also cycle past many pilgrims who had undertaken punishing vows, to walk all the way and back. Since then, I’ve met devotees of St. Francis Xavier from all over the world, many of whom I have taken on walks through Old Goa. Just some months ago, I accompanied one such devotee, who had worshipped at all the places that St. Francis Xavier visited during his life, and had just returned from Malacca (Melaka) before stopping over in Goa.
I didn’t dream that in a short while, I too would be visiting Melaka. It was an impulsive decision to revisit Malaysia, and this time Melaka had to be on the itinerary, given the many connections with Goa.
When I first studied the life of St. Francis Xavier, his life course puzzled me. Having come in 1542 to India, where there was enough work for him, why did he embark for Malacca a mere three years later? I am still not quite clear why, but it appears that he hitched a ride on a Royal Coromandel ship headed in that direction from Mylapore, on the centuries-old Spice Route.
In January 1546, he in fact headed from Malacca for the Moluccas, or the Maluku islands, known even today as the Spice Islands due to the nutmeg, mace and cloves that were originally found exclusively there, and the presence of which sparked colonial interest from Europe (the Portuguese, Dutch and British) in the 16th century. The Portuguese by then already had established settlements there. Xavier first visited Ambon island, where he stayed until mid-June, and then visited other Maluku islands, including Ternate, Baranura and Morotai.
Xavier returned to Malacca in 1547. The following year, with the assistance of fellow Jesuits Fr. Francisco Peres and Brother Roque de Oliveira, he established a school (College of St. Paul) in the premises of a chapel which was originally built in 1521 on the summit of a hill (known today as St. Paul’s hill, presumably after the college), making it the oldest church building in Southeast Asia.
Built by a Portuguese fidalgo Duarte Coelho in gratitude for surviving a storm (the information plaque at the site mentioned “enemy attacks”, not a storm) in the South China Sea, it was dedicated to Nossa Senhora da Annunciação (Our Lady of the Annunciation), also termed Nossa Senhora do Monte, or Oiteiro (Our Lady of the Hill).
The church had been deeded over to the Society of Jesus by the Archbishop of Goa João Afonso de Albuquerque in 1548, with the title deeds given over to Xavier himself. It is possible that the school or college established there was dedicated to St. Paul, as this was the name given to an similar albeit much larger institution just a few years earlier (1542) in Goa, also founded by Xavier the same year he arrived there. St. Paul’s College Malacca was the first school in the modern sense of the word to be established on the Malay peninsula.
St. Paul obviously held much significance to the Jesuits, especially in naming their colleges and schools, as they founded a St. Paul’s College in Macau in 1594 as well.
Xavier would use the Melaka church and college as his base from which he would undertake missionary expeditions to Japan and China. It was on one of these journeys that the saint would fall ill and die on Shangchuan island, China in 1552.
He was buried on the island, but the following year, his body was disinterred and temporarily buried at the main hall of the Melaka church for nine months before finally being shipped to Goa. An open grave (protected by a metal frame) still marks the spot.
Military defence of Malacca continued to be a preoccupation, and in 1590, a watchtower was built behind the church.
With the Dutch conquest of Malacca in 1641, the church was reconsecrated for use by the Dutch Reformed church and was then called Bovernkerk (High Church).
With the building of Christ Church in Malacca, this church building on the hill was deconsecrated and incorporated into the military fortification of the port city. The Portuguese watchtower was demolished, but its walls were strengthened to turn it into a fortress.
With the British occupation in 1824, the upkeep of the structure deteriorated further, and it served as an ammunition depot.
Efforts to conserve the historic site were begun in the early twentieth century. Tombstones from the Portuguese and Dutch era that were scattered in the vicinity of the church were affixed to the walls. And in 1952, a large statue of St. Francis Xavier was erected in front of the church to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the saint’s death. A day after the consecration of the statue, a large casuarina tree fell on it, breaking off its right arm.
Incidentally, the right forearm of the body of the saint was detached on the orders of Superior General Claudio Acquaviva in 1614. Since then, it has been displayed in a silver reliquary at the mother church of the Society of Jesus in Rome, the Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Gesù all’Argentina (Church of the Most Holy Name of Jesus at the “Argentina”), known for short as Il Gesù.
It is difficult to imagine from today’s ruins what the church would have looked like when completed in 1521, but it shares several similarities with our own Nossa Senhora do Rosário in Old Goa, also atop a hill (Monte Santo), and built just a couple of decades later (1543). The Rosário is widely believed, among all the churches and shrines in Old Goa, to be truest to its original form.
The Melaka church doesn’t have the cylindrical towers or buttresses of the Rosário, but it has a similar austere three-storey tower-façade, albeit with an attenuated top storey, and both have a four-paned window in the middle storey and a similar arched doorway in the ground storey.
Another Malacca connection: although the Rosário was built following a vow by Afonso de Albuquerque after the conquest of Goa, its construction was made possible by the donation of properties on Monte Santo by Pedro de Faria, former governor of Malacca, who had acquired them in 1526. And both have a connection to St. Francis Xavier: he is thought to have given his first sermon in Goa at the Rosário, and taught catechism to children there.
(An edited version of this article was published on 03 December 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)