“This little chapel was built by Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama in 1498 while passing here on his way to India before St Francis Xavier visited Malindi in 1542,” Bendrick Masha, the chapel guide says during the session.
I listened with keen, as this guide’s knowledge about this oldest church ran like a fountain, as he narrated to us the history behind the place.
Malindi is not only one of the most beautiful Coastal towns in the region, but it’s also historic having hosted Vasco da Gama’s fleet in 1498.
While it’s not easy going as Watamu or Lamu, this little Italy (as it’s always known) has several historic sites and on top of having a pristine beach, has its own marine national park. St Francis Xavier Chapel impressed my quest for knowledge about historic features in this town.
Situated on Mama Ngina Road in Malindi Old Town, this little chapel is sits just 100 metres from the waterline at Shella area and is said to be clocking nearly 517 years. If you are not keen, you might pass it walking as it’s sandwiched between flats near the Malindi Law Courts.
One thing that impressed me was how its walls have defied time and still remain strong. From Masha’s explanation, the walls are that strong because they are regularly repainted and the thatched roofing replaced after five to seven months.
The chapel, measuring 5×5 metres, has white walls that were built from coral rocks and sand. It is said that St Francis Xavier, the patron Saint of missionaries in Portugal, passed through Malindi with his two sailors who passed away and buried at the chapel in 1542.
Initially, the church was constructed to serve only 60 Christians, as that was the entire population of people at the Coast by then.
We walked to the altar and in front of us were religious paraphernalia, similar to those of the Catholic Church. Another conspicuous feature about the altar was that it faces away from the congregation. There are two chairs and eight wooden benches on a cemented floor.
Noticing how keenly I observed the church, Masha tells us that the floor was originally sandy and that the palm tree stem seats were donated by St Anthony’s Church. There is a window on one of the walls, which Masha reliably explained was employed to see foes approaching from the ocean.
The church also hosts 36 graves of sailors and well-known individuals. As we stepped outside, I noticed a grave inscribed ‘Bell Smith’ and I later learnt that he was the first District Commissioner in Malindi. He died in 1894. I also noticed the grave of Malindi pioneer Commander Lawford of Lawford Hotel.
The grave of Charles Arnold Frank Matthews, son of Canon Mathews, who was a pioneer tea grower in Kericho, was also there. He died in 1968 from drowning while on holiday in Malindi. Da Gama built a nearby pillar and the chapel to prove that he passed there on his way to Goa, India.
St Francis Xavier Chapel is run by the National Museums of Kenya as a national monument. It’s open from Monday to Friday and to access it, adult residents above 18 years pay Sh100 and those below 18 years pay Sh50, while non-Kenyan adult resident pay Sh500 and children below 18 years pay Sh25.
That ticket allows you to visit the Vasco Da Gama pillar as well as the Malindi Museum. Local Catholic churches at times hold special masses there in remembrance of St Francis. Masha tells me that people travel from all over the world to visit the church, as they believe that St Francis Xavier’s power is still present.
St Francis died at the age of 46 in 1552. He desired to extend his missionary work to China, but sadly he passed on in Shangchuan Island before he could achieve that.
In 1619, he was beatified by Pope Paul V and thereafter canonised by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. According to the Catholic books, his body had no sign of decay or corruption when they exhumed it to check whether it was fit to be transported to Malacca and then Goa for a proper burial.
What’s fascinating about this piece of history is that when a piece of flesh was cut from above the left knee, blood gushed out as if he was alive. His story after death can be said to be one of the most documented and most sensational stories ever.
An annual Mass in remembrance of St Francis Xavier is held at the chapel together with occasional services for the ancestors of British settlers who were buried at the chapel’s grounds.