The church is known locally as the Church of the Black Christ due to the depiction of a Fijian-looking Christ figure in the muralby French artist Jean Charlot above the altar. It’s offical name is the Church of St Francis Xavier, Ra Province.
This is an exquisite work, blending Fijian motifs with the teachings of Christ. Charlot painted the mural in 1962 at the invitation of Monsignor Franz Wasner, the then-caretaker of the mission. (Prior to coming to Fiji Monsignor Wasner was at one time the singing teacher of the Von Trapp family of Sound of Music fame.) The mural was painstakingly completed by the dim lamplight of the church – apparently Charlot had a great deal of trouble applying the fresh mortar to the wall.
The central image of the mural is the figure of a black Christ on the cross, wearing masi (tapa) cloth around his waist. He is being paid homage to by a number of Fijian figures. In the immediate background are breadfruit leaves and fruit which express his close relationship with nature and, according to Charlot’s wife, are a vital symbol in the fresco. The Fijian word for breadfruit, uto, is also used for ‘heart’.
At Christ’s feet is a tanoa (yaqona bowl), symbolising the Eucharist. To his right are a child in a mission school uniform, St Peter Chanel (a martyred Saint in the Pacific), Father Mataca (the first Fijian Catholic priest), a Fijian woman bringing Christ an offering of woven mats, and a Fijian man offering Christ a tabua (whale’s tooth) – the highest form of respect a Fijian can confer. To Christ’s left an Indian woman is portrayed offering a garland of flowers and an Indian farmer is pictured with a pair of oxen. Also shown are St Francis Xavier (whom the church is named after) and an acolyte. (Photo courtesy of Steve Leavitt, Union College).
According to accounts, when the mural was complete the entire parish of Naiserelagi held a feast in Charlot’s honor. Cows were slaughtered and the traditional yaqona ceremony was observed. As in the mural, women presented the artist with mats. After visiting what has to be the finest non-Fijian work of art in Fiji, you should not forget to drop some money into the donation box at the door. Proceeds are used to maintain the church.