Convent Light Street Penang Oldest Girls School in Southeast Asia
Convent Light Street Penang Oldest Girls School in Southeast Asia was founded by three missionary French nuns. The Sisters arrived in Penang on April 12, 1852.
Sister Gaetau, Sister Appolinaire, and Sister Gregoire arrived after a long perilous journey by sea from France to Penang. The first Sisters to arrive suffered greatly. The pioneer nuns of the Infant Jesus Sisters institute (IJS) struggled against all odds and to lay the very foundation of early education for girls in Southeast Asia. The brave young, inexperienced nuns were exhausted from their perilous five-month journey sea voyage when they arrived in Malaya. They were not prepared for the tropics as they battled with unsanitary conditions, pests, rodents, cockroaches, mosquitoes and tropical diseases. The Sisters suffered constantly from heat sores, rashes, scabs, and stomach upsets.
Reverend Mother Mathilde Raclot later joined the Sisters in Penang. The Sisters held on to their long periods of prayer and meditation, determined to educate poor girls. The dedicated and self-sacrificing Sisters persisted with the belief that through education, the poor could exit the poverty cycle they were trapped in.
The Sisters founded over 40 convent schools in Malaya. This included CHIJMES of Singapore. For over three-and-a-half centuries, the IJS was administered from their Mother House at historic Rue St. Maur in Paris. The institute now serves on four continents.
CLS was dearest to the Sisters as it bore great significance to the IJS global community.
The early years
Life for the French Sisters was hard as they learn to acclimatize to the sweltering heat of the tropics.
Speaking only French, they had to learn the local language, culture, and customs. Despite unrelenting heat, humidity and lack of money the Sisters forged ahead to build a school.
The Sisters set up a school on Lebuh Church in a building offered to them by Missions Etrangères de Paris (French) Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP). The MEP also sponsored their journey to Malaya.
The Sisters cleared the jungles and constructed their school from scratch with help from poor villagers and kind donors. It was a mere attap hut located in the vicinity of the original Church of the Assumption. By the time the school was up and running the enrolment was 30-day pupils, 9 borders and 16 orphans.
In addition to running a school by day, the Sisters had to support themselves and raise funds for their work. They sewed at night and sold their products to the wives of the local Chinese merchants.
Convent Light Street (CLS) also functioned as an orphanage.
The Sisters raised babies abandoned at their doorsteps by poor people. They would take in unwanted newborn babies and infants of every race. Some of the orphans were given schooling. The majority of the orphans helped with the cleaning, cooking, and gardening. When the girls attained adulthood, they married and started families of their own. However, a majority of the girls chose to be single. The girls remain close to the Sisters and spend their weekends in the school, being with “family”.
Mother St Mathilde
The founder Reverend Mother St Mathilde was born in 1814. As a young girl growing up in France, Marie Justine Raclot became a nun in 1834 despite her mother’s opposition. She was a natural teacher who was authoritative yet sensitive to children’s needs.
Mother St Mathilde fulfilled her ambition to become a missionary and left for Asia at age 38. In September 1852, the Congregation sent Mother St Mathilde with four sisters to Penang. She was to provide support and guide the group of sisters who had arrived earlier.
Her journey took six weeks as she traveled through Egypt overland. The Suez Canal was only opened in 1869.
Two years later in 1854, three Sisters led by Rev. Mother St. Mathilde Raclot arrived in Singapore and set up the convent at Victoria Street. They found day-old babies at their doorstep and soon opened a Convent Orphanage and a Home for Abandoned Babies.
Rev. Mother St. Mathilde was a nun for 79 years and spent almost 60 years in Asia. In 1872, two decades after her arrival in Penang, she led the first group of French nuns to Japan. There the Sisters worked with disadvantaged Japanese women and children.
The formidable Mother St Mathilde died in 1911 at the remarkable age of 97 whilst in Japan. In 2014 Mother Mathilde Raclot was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame.
High level of English mastery
The French Sisters accepted the challenge of running their schools in English medium to produce English educated girls. The school displayed exemplary academic performance with high level of English mastery. As the school’s reputation grew “internationally” royalties, elites and expatriates from neighboring countries began to send their daughters to study here.
The Sister’s formidable reputation and dead-serious disciplinary approach succeeded in educating young women with character building, academics, and the home science. The Sisters are authoritative and sensitive to molding young girls’ characters.
It was mandatory for the girls from wealthier backgrounds to learn to cook and sew. For the girls who were weaker in their studies, commerce was introduced so they are able to join the workforces after completing high school. The Sisters’ wisdom was to equip their young charges to pursue their dreams unrelentingly with the right attitude and tenacity.
The convent schools in Malaysia were founded and operated by the early Sisters through sheer courage, commitment, determination, determination, and sacrifice. Despite being run by nuns, the schools in Malaya accepted girls from every race, religion, and social class.
More Sisters arrived to help set up other schools across Malaya. The Sisters were there when the nation was in its infancy needed them most, both socially and economically.
Malaysia’s First Women Achievers
Many notable Penang personalities who have studied during the regime of the no-nonsense nuns have assumed leadership roles and achieved high levels of affluence.
In later years, some Convent girls embraced the Order of the Infant Jesus Sisters and committed themselves to the religious community. Malaysia’s first nun of IJS, Sister St. Emile, became principal of Alor Setar School in 1905.
The last generation of girls educated by the nuns was Malaysia’s first woman ambassador to United Nation, lawyer Tan Sri P.G. Lim; Malaysia’s first woman group chief editor of The Star newspaper, Datuk Ng Poh Tip and former President of the Malaysian Bar Council, Ambiga Sreenevasan.
Convent Light Street School Motto
Convent Light Street School’s motto proudly reminds the public of the pioneering nuns who founded the oldest girls’ school in Malaysia. This motto Simple Dans Ma Vertu, Forte Dans Mon Devoir (French) means Simple in My Virtues, Strong in My Duties (English)
Historical Buildings on Site
The school is not only a collection of beautifully restored old historical buildings. The halls, corridors, and cloisters echo the footsteps of the early nuns who saw the need for girl’s education. It was the steely determination and single‐mindedness of the nuns and their sacrifices led to the establishment of the best education system for girls.
The Government House
The historically significant Government House built in 1793 following Captain Francis Light’s founding of George Town. The Sisters bought the seven-acre estate Government House in Light Street in 1859. Over the years the Sisters expanded the school to include Old Chapel (1867), the Old Hall, dormitories, kitchens, cloisters and classrooms (1882).
Other extensions included the three stories New Hall, classrooms and science laboratories were added in 1901, 1929 and 1934 until the site was built up.
The St. Xavier’s Field
The Sisters sold a spacious playing field to the neighboring St. Xavier’s Institution, the oldest Catholic boys’ school in Malaysia. Part of the agreement was for the Convent girls to use the field for exercises and games on selected days.
On other days, the field was reserved for the Xavierian boys who walked across Light Street via an overhead pedestrian bridge.
A wall was built separating the field from Convent Light Street. There was a lockable door for the Convent girls to access to the field. Interestingly, the wall now serves as the boundary between the Core Zone and the Buffer Zone of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Francis Light’s Well
Next to the Government House is the Francis Light’s Well, which was dug for his personal use. The secured well is still standing today. It was kept out of bounds to inquisitive young girls with stories repeated through the centuries. If the girls peered into the well, Captain Francis Light would wave from the bottom! That was enough to keep curious girls away from playing near a well.
The beautiful, quiet and serene chapel was a refuge for the girls. The Catholic girls would come early and join the nuns for daily morning mass. A Catholic priest would come over to say mass for the nuns. The Chinese and Indian girls would follow their Catholic friends to pray quietly before exams.
Most of the girls will beseech the Blessed Virgin Mary for help during exams. Catholic or not, when desperate, the Convent girls will pray their set prayers of the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” by rote.
The cross and the tabernacle, the most venerable elements of the Catholic faith have been removed from the Old Chapel.
The chapel no longer functions as a Catholic church building. Mass is no longer celebrated here.
Historical Relics on Site
There are a few notable Relics on site which included the framed prisoners of war scribbling etched into the walls. The Beeham Combe Hill Bell was rung as the school bell before an automated bell was installed.
Framed POW scribbling
Most notable is the scribbling on the classroom walls left by the WWII POWs (prisoners of war). Some of the primary classrooms were used as prison cells during the Japanese occupation of Malaya.
A Form 2 classroom was the most notorious site in the entire Convent. It was used as the internment camp for a group of POWs captured by the Japanese after the USS GRENADIER SS-210 was sunk in the Straits of Malacca.
During their incarceration, the POWs would scratch their names with their belt buckles, on various parts of the classroom walls. The photos of the inscription can be seen at the memorial site for the captured crew members of the USS GRENADIER SS-210.
USS GRENADIER (SS-210)
A total of 8 officers and 68 enlisted men were captured and taken to Penang. The POWs were questioned, beaten, and starved before being sent to other prison camps along the Malay Peninsula and finally to Japan.
Even though they suffered brutal and inhuman treatment, the men refused to reveal military information to their captors.
Despite the brutal and sadistic treatment, all but four of GRENADIER‘s crew survived their 2 years in Japanese hands to tell rescuing American forces of their boat’s last patrol and the courage and heroism of her skipper and crew.
GRENADIER received four battle stars for World War II service.
The full history of USS GRENADIER (SS-210) can be read at this link here.
Beeham Combe Hill Bell
The bell dated 1897 was originally installed at the Combe Hill entrance gate of the late Cheah Chen Eok‘s property. It toiled whenever the Cheah family returned home so that the door further up the hill could be opened in time. The Japanese took the bell from Combe Hill and brought it to the Convent during World War II. After the war, the Cheahs discovered the lost bell but decided to leave it at the Convent. The bell is still used today by the Primary School.
Category 1 Heritage Buildings
In the George Town World Heritage zone, there are over 80 Category 1 heritage buildings. The 165-year-old Convent Light Street (CLS), the country’s oldest missionary girls’ school is one of the listed buildings. There are seven interconnected buildings on the site.
Category 1 heritage buildings are defined as buildings or monuments and sites of exceptional interest and must be conserved as the original. George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) which manages the heritage zone in the historic town explained that these buildings can only be repaired to its original structures using authentic traditional ways of building methods and materials. These building cannot be demolished or changed in any way. For further explanation please contact GTWHI.
Getting there by bus
In the mid-morning, you can take a slow walk from Weld Quay Ferry & Bus Terminal toward the central banking district along Beach Street. Head towards the Jubilee Clock Tower and go to Fort Cornwallis and the Esplanade. You can stop by the Kota Selera Food Court adjoining Fort Cornwallis for a tasty lunch of spicy Mee Goreng Sotong and a refreshing Coconut Shake. Continue your walk along the Esplanade promenade and go by Dewan Sri Pinang, continue along Light Street until you arrive at Convent Light Street at the end of the road.
Due to strict security, the public will not be allowed to enter the school grounds.
Western Road Cemetery
The graves of the nuns at the Western Road cemetery bear witness to the Sisters’ short lives of hardship and servitude. The markers are poignant reminders of the Sisters’ sacrifices to provide an excellent education for the girls.
The Convent Schools founded by the pioneer nuns of the IJS have produced millions of young women of good characters with sufficient knowledge. The Sisters empowered women to face the challenges of adult life for over a century.
The legacy of the brave missionary French nuns continues to empower generations of Convent students nurtured through the early education for girls.
List of missionary schools in Malaysia, Wikipedia
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