Father Francis Kolenchery  administrator of St Christopher's Cathedral says a prayer with the relic of St Francis Xavier.

Father Francis Kolenchery administrator of St Christopher's Cathedral says a prayer with the relic of St Francis Xavier. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

A hearse pulled up at St Christopher's Cathedral in Manuka at 3.30pm yesterday and stood glinting in the sun as more than 60 Catholic faithful arrived and filed into the church.

Passers-by may well have assumed a funeral was about to get underway, but closer inspection would reveal something far more unusual.

The right forearm of St Francis Xavier, on an Australia-wide tour, had arrived in Canberra that morning and was about to begin a short residence at the cathedral.

Attendants opened the sides of the vehicle so the forearm and attached hand, child-sized by today's standards, could be seen through layers of protective perspex and encased in a specially made wooden box.

St Francis Xavier founded the Jesuit order of priests and brothers, and his forearm is rarely taken from its home in the main Jesuit church in Rome, the Gesu, but will be touring Australia for 2½ months as part of the Catholic celebration of the year of grace.

The saint died in 1552, but his forearm was not removed from his body until 1614, chosen as an object of devotion because he used it to bless and baptise thousands of people in Asia.

Students of St Francis Xavier College in Florey got up close to the relic at a school assembly before it was moved to St John's Parish in Kippax for a church service, and then on to the cathedral, where it will remain until 1pm tomorrow. Administrator Father Francis Kolencherry chose four parishioners to carry the forearm like pall bearers up to the altar. As the church bells rang the small crowd followed the relic inside, where it was placed upright, blessed, and the mass began.