Convent Light Street Penang Oldest Girls School in Southeast Asia
Three French missionary nuns founded the convent Light Street Penang Oldest Girls School in Southeast Asia. The Sisters arrived in Penang on April 12, 1852.
Sister Gaetau, Sister Appolinaire, and Sister Gregoire arrived after a long, perilous sea journey from France to Penang.
The first Sisters to arrive significantly suffered.
The pioneer nuns of the Infant Jesus Sisters Institute (IJS) struggled against all the odds and lay the very foundation of early education for girls in Southeast Asia.
The brave young, inexperienced nuns were exhausted from their perilous five-month sea voyage when they arrived in Malaya.
They were unprepared for the tropics as they battled with unsanitary conditions, pests, rodents, cockroaches, mosquitoes, and tropical diseases.
The Sisters always suffered 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 generous Sisters persisted with the belief that the poor could exit the poverty cycle through education.
The Sisters founded over 40 convent schools in Malaya, which included the Convent 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.
Convent Light Street – The early years
Life for the French Sisters was hard as they learn to acclimatize to the tropics’ sweltering heat.
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 atap hut in the original vicinity of Church of the Assumption.
By the time the school was up and running, the enrolment was 30-day pupils, nine borders, and 16 orphans.
Besides 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 – Orphanage
Convent Light Street (CLS) also functioned as an orphanage in Penang Island.
The Sisters raised babies abandoned at their doorsteps by poor people.
They would take in unwanted newborn babies and infants of every race.
Some orphans were given schooling.
Most of the orphans helped with cleaning, cooking, and gardening.
When the girls attained adulthood, they married and started families of their own. However, most of the girls chose to be single.
The girls remain close to the Sisters and spend their weekends in the school, being with “family.”
Convent Light Street Founder – 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 provided support and guided the group of sisters who had arrived earlier in the Convent in Penang.
Her journey took six weeks as she travelled through Egypt overland. The Suez Canal was only opened in 1869.
Two years later, in 1854, three Sisters led by Reverend 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.
Reverend Mother St. Mathilde was a nun for 79 years and spent almost 60 years in Asia.
In 1872, two decades after she arrived in Penang, she led the first group of French sisters 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 while in Japan. In 2014, they inducted Mother Mathilde Raclot into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame.
Convent Light Street girls have a high level of English mastery.
The French Sisters accepted the challenge of running their schools in English medium to produce English educated girls.
The convent school displayed exemplary academic performance with a high level of English mastery.
As the school’s reputation grew “internationally” royalties, elites and expatriates from neighbouring Southeast Asia countries began to send their daughters to study here.
The Sister’s formidable reputation and dead-serious disciplinary approach educated young women with character building, academics, and home science.
The Sisters are authoritative and sensitive to mould young girls’ characters.
The girls from wealthier backgrounds needed to learn to cook and sew.
For the girls who were weaker in their studies, commerce was introduced, so they could join the workforce 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 convent 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 are former Convent Light Street girls.
Many notable Penang personalities who have studied during the no-nonsense nuns’ regime have assumed leadership roles and achieved high levels of affluence.
In later years, some Convent girls embraced the Infant Jesus Sisters Order and committed themselves to the religious community.
Malaysia’s first nun of IJS, Sister St. Emile, became the principal of Alor Setar School in 1905.
The last generation of girls educated by the nuns. We pay tribute to those Convent girls who broke barriers and established several firsts in their industries.
Malaysia’s first woman ambassador to United Nations, 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 Convent Light Street Site
The oldest convent school is not only a collection of beautifully restored old historical buildings.
The halls, corridors, and cloisters echo the early nuns’ footsteps who saw the need for girls’ 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 Penang Government House
The historically significant Government House was 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 they built the site up.
The St. Xavier’s Field
The Sisters sold a spacious playing field to the neighbouring 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, they reserved the Xaverian boys’ field who walked across Light Street via an overhead pedestrian bridge.
They built a wall separating the field from Convent Light Street.
There was a lockable door for the Convent girls to access 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 is the private which was dug for his personal use. The secured well is still standing today.
They kept the well 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 Convent Light Street Chapel
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.
They have removed the cross and the tabernacle from the Old Chapel.
The chapel no longer functions as a Catholic church building. Mass is no longer celebrated here.
Historical Relics on Site in Convent Light Street
There are a few notable Relics on the site, which included the framed prisoners of war scribbling etched into the walls.
The Beeham Combe Hill Bell was rung as the school bell. In later years, the school installed an automated bell.
Framed POW scribbling
Most notable is the scribbling on the classroom walls left by the WWII POWs (prisoners of war).
The Japanese army used some primary classrooms as prison cells during the Japanese occupation of Malaya.
A Form 2 classroom was the most notorious site in the entire Convent.
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.
We can see the photos of the inscription at the memorial site for the captured crew members of the USS GRENADIER SS-210.
USS GRENADIER (SS-210)
Eight 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 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 two 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 the USS GRENADIER (SS-210) is found on 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.
The bell 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 Cheah family 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 historic town’s heritage zone, explained that these buildings could only be repaired to their original structures using authentic traditional ways of building methods and materials.
This 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 to Convent Light Street from Weld Quay Ferry & Bus Terminal. Head towards 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, they do not allow the public to enter the school grounds.
Western Road Cemetery
The nuns’ graves 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 IJS pioneer nuns, have produced millions of young women of good character with sufficient knowledge.
The Sisters empowered women to face the challenges of adult life for over a century.
Convent Light Street Penang Oldest Girls School in Southeast Asia
The brave missionary French nuns’ legacy continues to empower generations of Convent students nurtured through early education for girls.
List of missionary schools in Malaysia, Wikipedia
Updated June 22, 2019
An English daily reported that SK Convent Light Street, SMK Convent Light Street, and SMK Convent Pulau Tikus would close by 2024, and the land on which the schools are situated would be returned to the Sisters of Infant Jesus (IJS).
The three iconic convent schools are not shutting down but “transforming for the better.”
According to Datuk Tan Leh Sah, who chairs the board of governors of SK Convent Light Street and SMK Convent Light Street, the IJS was trying to bring the schools back to their original purpose of providing wholesome education.
Since the 1990s, the nuns made a highly publicized pledge that the ‘Convent is not for sale.’ The nuns’ previous statements have always stressed that the grounds would always be an institution of learning.
Tan said the IJS would issue a statement when the mother provincial returned from a trip abroad.
She also urged everyone to give the Sisters of Infant Jesus space and time to execute their plans.
“They will release more details on the plans for the schools’ future when things firm up as there are many procedures including government applications that need to be sorted out,” she said, adding that claims by certain quarters that the nuns had failed to consult the alumni were false.
Updated September 3, 2020
Convent Light Street Finalizes Plans For International School
Convent Light Street, established in 1852, is one of the oldest girls’ schools in Southeast Asia.
GEORGE TOWN: Convent Light Street (CLS), the country’s oldest convent school, will be turned into a private international school that teaches the British syllabus.
The Sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus (SIJ) order, which runs the convent, said while the new school will retain its identity, it will function as a co-ed school.
In a statement today, SIJ said the new operators would implement the plan immediately in part of the school’s premises as soon as government approvals are obtained.
CLS’s last batch of pupils will graduate from the national education system in 2024.
In 2017, SIJ had sought to reclaim the convent, which teaches both primary and secondary levels, from the education ministry. This led to speculation that the school might be permanently closed amid opposition by the state government and a strong alumni body.
The Sisters later said they had no plans to close down the school but wanted to opt-out of the national system because of low enrolment and escalating costs in the upkeep of a heritage building. The government acceded to SIJ’s request in 2018.
Open space inside Convent Light Street where students assemble.
SIJ said it had appointed ACE Edventure, founded by the school’s alumni Anne Tham and Melinda Lim, to run the new school in collaboration with the Sisters.
“Our mission is to provide wholesome education to children, irrespective of race or creed.
“The Sisters had been actively meeting with several reputable school operators over the last one year to identify one with similar aspirations and like-mindedness.
“They found in ACE Edventure a good fit. They can provide affordable learning that is dynamic, progressive, and relevant. Most importantly, they are willing to maintain the ethos of the SIJ convent schools, which emphasizes character building,” the statement added.
SIJ said the international school would offer Year 1 to Year 10 classes leading to the International General Certificate of Secondary Education with an entrepreneurial component.
The IJ Sisters from Paris came to Malaya in 1852 and founded Convent Light Street 167 years ago. It is one of the oldest girls’ schools in Southeast Asia.
SIJ also opened Convent Saint Maur in Pulau Tikus, later renamed Convent Pulau Tikus (CPT), in 1922.
News of the closure of CLS and CPT first broke in 2017. At that time, the Sisters said they had no plans to redevelop or sell the land but would continue to use it for educational purposes.
CLS was nationalized in 1971, and CPT in 2005, with their operations controlled by the education ministry. Both schools stopped accepting pupils in 2018, with the last batch of students to graduate in 2024.
CLS started on Church Street, next to the original Church of the Assumption. As the number of students grew, the school bought over the first British settler’s home in Penang, Francis Light, on Light Street.
Government House and its 2.8ha surroundings facing North Beach have been home to CLS since 1859. It even became a top boarding school for children of prominent families and orphans alike.
Updated 24 February 2021
WHAT IS ‘CONVENT CULTURE’? By K.J.Mary
Much has been said about the need for preserving the ‘Convent Culture’.
In 1925 three French nuns and two teachers, Miss Ethel Filders and Miss Winifred Allen came to Johor Bahru and started the I.J. Convent.
They received the support of His Royal Highness, the late Sultan Ibrahim and Her Royal Highness the late Sultanah Rogayah.
The royal couple was happy with the work and effort of these pioneers and gave them a piece of land to build a proper school.
He even enrolled his grandchildren in the school.
In all these 85 years the school has grown in leaps and bounds to what it is today: – a Cluster School for Excellence, one of the top academic day-schools in the country and the only Band-A day- school in Johor Bahru!
These achievements are the culmination of the practice of a culture unique to the Convent.
There has always been a clamouring among parents in Johor Bahru to enrol their children in the Convent.
When the question is posed to the parents, ‘Why do you want your child to attend the Convent?’, the answer is always the same.
‘This is where my child can excel, there is a healthy competitive spirit, they can learn English, mix with students of all races and develop good character’, is what they say.
‘Simple in Virtue, Steadfast in Duty’. This motto of the Convent worldwide has inspired and guided girls over the years.
A large number of girls over the years serve the community in their fields of work, be it as medical professionals and healthcare professionals, people who work in non-governmental organizations, charitable organizations, grassroots and community supporters, volunteers, religious organizations and educators.
The Infant Jesus Sisters always inspired and guided the girls in the value of compassion and love for neighbours.
The nuns and teachers lived by this ethos and created an atmosphere of sharing and caring.
The students were taught to have courage and conviction to serve the community.
Even as many became successful, they remained humble and caring.
We have often heard it said, ‘You can pick out a Convent student as soon as she steps up to speak’.
This is another feature that characterizes a Convent student- the ability to speak in public, an appreciation of the Arts, confidence and poise, independence and often a wicked sense of humour.
The emphasis on character-building and the moulding of young ladies of refined character was on the minds of the early I.J.Sisters. Needlework, Home Science, Singing and Dancing were taught to complement the sciences.
They spread love and treated all alike, irrespective of race, colour or creed. Spirituality was essential to moulding character and they led by example.
I quote a past I. J. student from a Convent in Singapore, ‘I can see the difference between Convent girls and other girls.
They dress better…speak better English…they are more polite, that must come from respect, self-respect, as well as respect for others…have a wider breadth of knowledge and …they are more open-minded.”
The constant emphasis on the character was foremost in the early days and this, in turn, produced students of excellent stature and high achievements.
I must confess much has changed since those times.
When we bemoan the fact that Convent culture is being lost, many raise an eyebrow or are cynical as if is it not a big deal. It is imperative that we strive to maintain this culture that brings out the best in a student.
The by-line that I wrote for I.J.Convent Johor Bahru in 2007, “Unleashing Inherent Student Potential”, must be pursued on the foundation laid by the I.J. Sisters of old. Each child is potential for excellence.
She must be helped to reach her full potential. To this end, we must strive and maintain a culture for which we have nothing to apologize for.
Convent culture then is to build students of fine character and excellent academic qualifications. To do this we have to begin with the heart.
The teachers and students have to recognize that we are all God’s creation and we must see beyond creed and colour.
They must start wearing glasses that cannot see colours. They must learn to love each other unconditionally.
Respect for each other and the faiths they represent is crucial in maintaining the Convent culture.
I quote Sister Bernad Au and Sister Dominic Lie who say, “Your value as a person does not depend on your performance or your accomplishments now or later.
You are precious in the sight of your creator and in ours because you are you. Let your education evoke the fullness of this unique you, and be nothing more or nothing less.”
This is indeed what we have to make our teachers and students understand.
The habit of deeming one faith superior to the other must diminish. Spirituality must be emphasized and respect for another’s beliefs, upheld.
Nurturing the wholesome development of the student is part and parcel of Convent culture. It is Convent culture that teachers teach with a passion born out of wanting to be the best.
Understanding the earnest desire of parents for their children to excel, teaching must be their love, not just a vocation.
The culture of enjoyable extra-curricular activities of sport, singing, and dancing must be maintained. This freedom of expression must be encouraged.
The I.J. Sisters always gave room for these forms of expression, all of it in moderation.
As such, there must not be any covert attempt to consider these expressions as unhealthy by people who hold other personal prejudiced views.
The culture of appropriate attire for sports and other activities was also emphasized by the nuns. In the sports arena, an appropriate dress code was essential for performing well.
Modesty was always the priority then and should be now.
There must be no attempt to force a particular dress code on the students as this will impede their strife to excel.
The school must have a culture of a nurturing environment.
We were taught to curtsey when we stopped to greet the Sisters or teachers. We were always told to look up and speak up and to be confident.
School plays and concerts were the norms. There were laughter and joy in the air.
This kind of atmosphere encourages students to love school and grow into healthy individuals.
They must be taught to be warm and friendly and big-hearted. There must be a sense of wonder at being educated.
Besides this, there must be respect for discipline.
Although the Sisters were strict, they spoke kindly and they expected a show of respect for discipline.
Discipline in studies and in obeying rules because it is the right thing to do must be nurtured.
This cannot be forced on a person. Encouraging good actions and admonishing negative actions must be a daily exercise.
In a day when we find it difficult to differentiate between femininity and masculinity, we must continue churning out well-bred young ladies.
Femininity must be a feature of the Convent. The girls must have the ability to interact and socialize with people of all walks of life with decorum and maturity.
Emotional development is crucial.
They must know who they are and take pride in their personhood. This is the task of the Convent fraternity.
These are but some thoughts on what I understand as Convent culture. One Janet Ang describes her stint at a Convent as “Giving concern for others, enthusiasm to inquire and learn, gratitude for blessings however big or small, to be able to be in awe of and in the wonder of God’s creation and God’s creativity, and to have a spirit of friendship that is long-lasting, and to feel the challenge to contribute and to make a difference.
Yet in all, to recognize that by ourselves our capability is limited but in God, we can reach unlimited boundaries and do the impossible”.
This culture that we want to promote is of no threat to any faith or philosophy. It is one that wants to bring out the inherent potential of students to be respectable human beings.
We want to build in them the spirit to want to conquer the world, to love life and serve mankind with a fear of God in their hearts.
To do this, we must keep the noble values imbibed in the Convent culture.
We must never forget how important the Convent is to building this nation. Its long history of excellence must be kept at all costs.
The onus is on the next generations of teachers and students to make this a reality.
Vice-Chairman, Board of Directors (2007- Present)
Ex-Pupil, Father Barrre’ Convent, SP, Kedah. (1957-1968)
Source: ‘Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 150 Years in Singapore’ by Elaine Meyers.
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