Angèle Regnier uses a very Canadian analogy to explain why the Catholic Church has held onto the grisly-looking forearm of St. Francis Xavier for 465 years and is now touring it across the country.
"It's like the Stanley Cup," she said Tuesday, as hundreds of people lined up in the centre aisle inside downtown Winnipeg's St. Mary's Cathedral, waiting for their turn to view the glass-encased arm and hand still sheathed in shrivelled, blackened flesh.
"When the Stanley Cup tours Canada, nobody wants to see a replica," said Regnier, co-founder of the Catholic Christian Outreach missionary organization who also helped organize the relic's 15-city, month-long Canadian tour. "And as I touch the Stanley Cup, I'm thinking, 'OK, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky hoisted the Cup above their heads.'
"There is a connection, just like touching the Stanley Cup."
Another organizer of the event had a different explanation: "It's just what Catholics do," she said.
The mummified right arm of the Jesuit missionary who died in 1552 at the age of 46 is enclosed in a glass case and laid inside a brass-like indenture.
"When we have relics, we’re touching something of their eternal life." -Rev. Darren Gurr
During the relic's lone Winnipeg stop, some people caressed the glass case gently with their fingertips or brushed it with a prayer card provided by the cathedral. Other people rolled their rosary beads along the case. Some were there to seek healing of an affliction.
The relic reflects the Catholic reverence of the body and of their saints, Regnier said. "We believe in the communion of saints. They're our friend in heaven."
"When we have relics, we’re touching something of their eternal life," agreed Rev. Darren Gurr of St. Gianna Beretta Molla Roman Catholic Church, in an earlier interview with the Free Press. "This is the way of touching something of the saint in our midst."
Organizers were expecting up to 2,000 people would see the holy relic Tuesday, but it appeared that estimate would be low; about 700 had already viewed it by noon, following a special morning mass. There was another mass at noon, and viewing was to be open from until 10 p.m.
The relic will then be transported to Saskatoon for a one-day viewing Thursday, marking roughly the midway point of its 15-city tour that ends Feb. 2 in Ottawa.
The arm rarely leaves its home in the Church of the Gesu in Rome. In 2012, it was taken on tour in Australia. It also toured the United States in 1953.
Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, a Jesuit, wanted to bring the relic to Canada, in part, because St. Francis Xavier was one of the founders of the Jesuits.
St. Francis Xavier is also the patron saint of missions. He spent his life in the 16th century preaching and converting people to Catholicism in Asia, particularly India, Japan and Malaysia.
Another factor was the Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO) agreed to bring the holy relic to cities where the missionary organization is based.
The CCO feels an affinity to St. Francis Xavier because he was converted by his two roommates while a student in university, said Regnier. The organization has a chapter at the University of Winnipeg.
St. Francis is buried in Goa, India. However, his right forearm, used to baptize so many people, was severed and kept as a holy relic.
Regnier said the church wouldn't keep the body part of a deceased saint today. But sensibilities were different a half-millennium ago during the Middle Ages, when public torture and executions were regularly staged.
The flesh on the arm today looks more like a well-worn glove. Regnier said it is "incorrupted," meaning its flesh has defied natural decay.
After St. Francis Xavier died in China in 1552, his corpse did not decompose. The Catholic Church says the incorruptibility of Xavier’s body is a sign he was a saint.
St. Mary's Cathedral visitor Miriam Licera found Tuesday's viewing "very spiritual." She said she's from the Philippines, which is more than 90 per cent Catholic.
"We get our Catholic Christianity from the Spanish," she said. Explorer Ferdinand Magellan arrived in 1521 and began colonizing the region, forming alliances with some natives and conquering others, and converting people to Catholicism.
Another woman, Janine, who didn't want her last name published, said she came looking for an intercession into the life of a family member.
"For me, it's another occasion to ask for special grace. It's asking in person for (St. Francis) to intercede" for someone who has substance-abuse issues, she said.
Ray La Fleche of Ste. Anne said he came to see the relic because he's a Jesuit. "I have a Jesuit education and it was the best thing that ever happened to me," he said. "Anything in the Jesuit tradition, I will support."
However, he cautioned the relic is "not an idol" and shouldn't be treated that way. "It's a relic of someone who did missionary work."
About 70,000 Canadians are expected to see the relic during its cross-country tour.
Updated on Tuesday, January 16, 2018 at 5:30 PM CST: Adds more images.
6:08 PM: Adds video.
January 17, 2018 at 1:43 PM: Swaps photo.