The 514 years old church as it looks now.
The alter where the priest would stand facing away from the congregation.
The security hole through the wall to see enemies from the ocean.
Masha the caretaker showing me where offerings were kept.
The palm tree trunk seats.
My minute of fame in front of the church (hope I was blessed by St Francis)
One of the many old graves in the compound .
After doing almost ten interviews covering stories of drug abuse, child prostitution and poverty in Malindi town I was very tired and all I needed was to swim in the beach just infront of Baobab Beach hotel where I was staying for a week. As I was buying madafu (immature coconut) I noticed a small house with graves around it and it got me curious.
So I left my equipment at the hotel reception and there I was at one of the oldest churches in East and Central African, Church of St. Francis Xavier,
Malindi is one of the most popular tourist destination in Kenya .It is a historic Swahili town dating back to the 12th C and a modern tourist center with resorts, shopping and white sandy beaches .
The residents are very friendly and everyone you meet seems to be pleased to meet you. The most fascinating part of history in Malindi is that you can actually see and touch what you hear.
St. Francis Xavier, is still in use in Malindi and the original walls are still standing.
The little chapel that stands about 100 metres from the waterline at Shella is said to be the oldest Christian chapel in East Africa .
The church is situated next to hotels and a night club. It is sandwiched between residential houses and if not for the sign board at the gate you may confuse it for an abandoned home where everyone has died and has been turned to a grave site.
The chapel was built by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498 before St. Francis Xavier visited Malindi in 1542 .The walls have defied age and still stands strong.
According to the caretaker of this chapel Masha Bendrick, the explorer buried two sailors who died on his ship within this compound.
The chapel now St Francis Xavier Chapel, under the Catholic Diocese of Malindi initially was built to serve only 60 Christians. “That was the entire population in the East African
Coast,” he said.
The southeast wall had a crucifix painted by the Portuguese. Outside the Chapel was a graveyard of Portuguese tombstones, but today there are many modern graves.
Among them is the grave of Malindi pioneer Commander Lawford of Lawford Hotel and J. Bell Smith, the first British administrator in Malindi who died in 1894. Another graves is the last resting place of Charles Arnold Frank Mathews, buried in 1968. He was the son of Canon Mathew, a pioneer tea grower in Kericho and had gone to Malindi on holiday when he drowned while swimming.
Masha who has worked here for more than 20 years took me through the graves one by one telling me who is buried in them. The church’s 2 feet wall was originally built from sand and corals, makuti (palm tree leaves) roofs. The roof is usually replaced after every
6-7 months to maintain its looks.
The floor was originally just sand but has now been cemented. “St Anthony’s Church donated these palm tree stem seats for the church ten years ago,” said Masha. One thing that is very conspicuous in that church is the positioning of the altar, it faces away from the congregation.
Noticing the question marks on my face, Masha , a very jovial man took me through how the old church conducted their prayers. “Everyone faced one direction with the presiding
priest’s back to the worshippers,” he explained adding that that is how worship was practiced before the Vatican ruled that priests should always say Mass facing the congregation.
In this church there is also a hole in the wall that was used to keep offerings. “People just put offerings there and it was safe unlike nowadays where offering has to be taken very good care of,” said Masha.
The church which is noticeably small was built that way by design. First there were no many Christians then and second the size made it easy for it to be hidden in the forest without being noticed by the authority which was mostly Arabic Muslims.
“This church is the same way it was 513 years ago. We have renovated some part of it but it still looks the same,” said Masha There is a small opening through the wall which is big from inside and small on the outside. The hole was made for security. Just like in Forte Jesus the Portuguese used it to peep out incase of an attack.
People now travel from all over the world to wed in this small church because they believe that St Francis Xhaviers powers still exist in that church since he visited it. People also meet for over night prayers and fasting with a strong believe that their prayers will be heard. St Francis Xhaviers died in Dec 3, 1552 at the age of 46 years, seven months and twenty six days, of which he had spent 10 years and 7 months minus 4 days in Asia according to the history of the Catholic Church.
He fell ill with a fever which lasted 13 day and finally succumbed in the night between Dec 2 and Dec 3. The next day his body was given a lowly burial of the poor, on the beach
of Sancian off the coast of China. Only four persons were present at the grave: Antonio the Chinaman, two servants to dig the grave, and a fellow Portuguese, Francisco Sanches.
They had decided to pack the body with lime “as it would consume the flesh and leave
only the bare bones” in the event it would be decided to transport the remains back to Goa.
It is not just the precise details in the time and the number of people during his burial that is fascinating considering that this took place long ago but what happens after his death. According to most Catholic books narrating the events that took place after the saints death the body was exhumed three months later to see if it was fit for transport to Malacca and then to Goa. They were amazed to find the body without any sign of decay or corruption.
A piece of flesh was cut from above the left knee, from which it gushed blood as if from a living person. They took the body in an open coffin and filled it with lime, hoping the open sea would help the lime do its work decomposing the flesh quicker.
Two years after his death the little toe on the right foot was bitten off by a Portuguese lady named Dona Isabel de Carom, “as she was anxious to have a relic of the Saint.” It gushed blood. Three other toes were later removed as relics from his right foot, one which rests in its native Castle of Xavier (birthplace of Francis Xavier).
It’s now nearly five hundred-years since he died and it is believed that his hair and nails still grow and people visit his remains to have a glimpse of the miracle. The story of what happened to his body after his death is amongst the most sensational and certainly most
These days the chapel hosts an annual Mass in remembrance of St Francis Xavier plus occasional services for the ancestors of British settlers who were buried there. And in addition, weddings are still conducted there, some of the couples being celebrities from Europe.
8 Comments Add yours
I am extremely happy to read your story. I was there last year and took photographs which I have since lost. I would luke to request permission to use your photos. I need to prove to some people that this church is the oldest church in east and Central Africa. You very good photos. Please allow me to use them. Apparently Tanzanians say at a point that the Catholic Church in Zanzibar is the oldest church. Others point to Bagamoyo.
You are free to share and am glad you took your time to read it. I have more photos if you need more.
Lyne you are a true scholar, use your position to tell our story, African stories must cross the sea and bring hope to many, especially those hopeless souls that still doubt our relationship with the outside world. May God be with you on this journey.
Thanks Augustine for the encouragement. I will try my best.
Greetings, Lyne. I took pictures of this church just today as I was leaving Malindi. However I forgot to take a picture of the rifle/arrow slit in the wall. Would you mind if I used yours in my church history class?
Thanks for reading my post.Feel free to use the image.
Hey, were the photos useful?
Wonderful slice of real history Lyne. You touched the line of my passionate interest. Coincidentally, I’m working on a topic on ‘ History of Portuguese In East African Coast’ and this article is a ‘delicious’ addition. Kudos dear.