St Francis Xavier in Mombasa, en route to Goa

An excerpt from Mombasa Mission: The growth of the church in Mombasa 1888-1990

 By Fr Edward Corcorran

St. Francis Xavier sailed up along the East African Coast on his way to Goa in 1542, and, in a letter to his Jesuit superiors in Rome, he describes his stop over there in April of that year. "We visited a city inhabited by Moors (i.e. Arabs) who are at peace with us", he writes. "We learn that Portuguese merchants were usually found there, and that the Christians who died there were interred 'in tombs of great size with crosses on them' " .

He mentions the Vasco da Gama cross "gilded and very beautiful". It is with great pride that he writes: "The Lord God knows what comfort it gave us to see it, conscious as we are how great is the virtue of the cross, standing thus solitary and victorious in a Moorish land".

St Francis buried a sailor who had died on board and said that the Muslims were greatly edified with "...the way we Christians have of burying the dead". Before continuing his journey he had lengthy discussions with some of the leading members of the Muslim community, at the end of which he tells us that ". . .their point of view remained unchanged. . . and so did mine".

Mosque attendance was a worry for one of their religious leaders. He told Francis that the faithful were attending only three out of 17 mosques in the town, and to those only a handful went regularly. He wanted to know if Christians had the same problem. From Malindi Francis headed north again and describes a visit to the island of Socotra (to which we shall return later on), and then ends his letter suddenly with the words "we reached the city of Goa on 6th May, 1542" (over a year since they had sailed from

Francis was only 36 years old and had but another ten years to live. This great pioneer missionary to the East Indies and Japan, signed his letter with the utmost humility: "Your useless brother in Christ". "Useless" as he may have been in his own estimation, he remains today patron of missionaries; and on a more modest scale his feast is celebrated with special devotion in Kenya by his spiritual children, the Goan Catholic community.

The Portuguese Period

As far as Christianity is concerned, the first stirrings seem to have been in the island of Socotra in the northern part of the Indian Ocean. We have alluded to a description of St Francis Xavier's visit there. Christianity was brought there by Christian Arabs as early as 524 AD when Cosmas Indicopleustes visited the island. We cannot say why missionary activity did not radiate from there, nor is there any trace of any penetration of Christianity further south on the well defined trade route along the East Coast of Africa.

What Christianity remained on the island itself was in a sorry state when St Francis Xavier called there. There was no longer a bishop or an ordained clergy; the inhabitants "...are Christians in their own opinion", according to Francis, "and pride themselves on having Christian names to prove it; they have churches and crosses and lamps; their 'clerics' do not know how to read or write; they know a lot of prayers by heart; they go to church at midnight, in the morning, at the hour of Vespers and in the evening at Compline time; the people are followers of St Thomas; these clerics do not baptise nor do they know what baptism is". Many of them implored Francis to remain with them and to introduce them to baptism and the Mass, but the Governor would not allow him to remain for fear of the Turks who used to come to this island, and who probably would make Francis prisoner. So he set sail and left behind him what we might call only a vestige of Christianity.