The devoted pioneers of girls’ education in Malaya

loading Sisters with orphans. IJS

They came from afar, across land and sea, to educate poor girls. Meet the Sisters of Infant Jesus.

The Convent Light Street School, modestly nestled along Lebuh Light, proudly declares its motto to passersby: “Simple in Virtue, Steadfast in Duty”. This motto and the school’s name are reminders of the pioneering nuns who founded the oldest girls’ school in Malaysia.

Convent Light Street and its sister institutions, including Convent Green Lane in Penang and Convent Bukit Nanas in KL, are now fully integrated into the Malaysian national education system. Since the 1970s the state has chosen its head mistresses and the school has taught the Malay curriculum. Nevertheless, on Founders’ Day, celebrated in April, students are happy to celebrate the early days of the Convent as an orphanage and school for girls; the hall is also crowded with nostalgic alumnae. It is not only the beautiful buildings of the school that inspire this loyalty, but also genuine admiration for the single‐mindedness and determination of the nuns who founded this institution in 1852. It is the oldest such school in Malaysia.

The Sisters of Infant Jesus (IJS) (also known as the Dames de Sainte Maur) belongs to a religious order that was founded in the mid‐17th century in France, with the express purpose of educating poor girls. Its founder, Nicolas Barré, was the inspiration for Jean Baptiste de la Salle, who, some years later, created the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (or La Salle Brothers) to offer education to poor boys. Both orders founded schools all over France and arrived side‐by-side in Malaya in 1852. By that time the Brothers were already active in North America, but remarkably, for the Sisters, this was their first mission outside of France.

History is unclear as to why the Sisters chose to send their first missionaries to such an ill‐suited destination. Speaking only French, clad in heavy wool habits suitable for French winters and with no preparation for the tropical diseases that would torment them, a first mission of five Sisters and their Mother Superior nevertheless set off for Singapore in December 1851. The Mother Superior died during the five-month journey, aged only 30, and the only English‐speaking sister decided to leave the order on reaching Singapore. Another sister became seriously ill with “brain fever” during the journey and remained ill for the rest of her life. Now too small a group to be effective in Singapore, the Sisters were sent on to Penang, where the La Salle Brothers were already active and could support them until reinforcements arrived.

Young, inexperienced, exhausted and far from their comfort zone, the Sisters arrived in Penang on April 12, 1852. Almost immediately, they set up a school on Lebuh Church with 16 orphans, nine boarders and 30 day students, in a building offered to them by Missions Etrangères de Paris (Paris Foreign Missions Society, or MEP), which had also sponsored their journey to Malaya. They raised money for food and clothing by sewing at night. Four more French sisters arrived in October 1852, including the formidable Mother St Mathilde, who went on to found schools in Singapore and Japan, where she died in 1911 at the remarkable age of 97.

Mother Mathilde had been born in France as Marie Justine in February 1814. She became a nun in 1834 despite her mother’s opposition, and was soon recognised as a born teacher who was authoritative and sensitive to children’s needs, and perceptive enough to find ways to help them in their difficulties. She fulfilled her ambition to become a missionary when she left for Asia at age 38 to reinforce the struggling mission in Penang as Mother Superior. The journey took six weeks, and she travelled through the Egypt overland as the Suez Canal had not yet been opened.

Orphans at work.

On arrival in Penang she was greeted by three traumatised Sisters and an MEP that was angry at having been sent non-English speakers again. Despite the oppressive climate, Mother Mathilde vowed to hold the nuns to their traditional dress and long periods of prayer and meditation. She found an Irishman to teach them English. In the meantime she employed a young English lady to teach arithmetic, reading and bible study to the children. She wrote constantly back to the Mother General in Paris to request for money and Englishspeaking Sisters. In addition to the lack of funds and comprehension difficulties, she and the other Sisters suffered constantly from scabs, rashes, heat sores and stomach upsets.

After a little over a year, Mother Mathilde was called to establish the mission in Singapore, and Sister St Damien became Mother Superior of Convent Light Street. Formerly Emma Dejean, Sister St Damian had travelled to Penang together with Mother Mathilde, who was her role model. Like Mother Mathilde, she regretted the nuns’ lack of English capability, and continued to encourage the nuns to learn Malay and English. Finally, in 1856 two English‐speaking Sisters arrived, although one of them died of delirium, fever and nausea less than a year later, aged only 30. Despite these challenges, under Mother St Damien’s guidance, the influence of the Sisters spread far beyond the convent school. Mother St Damien was known to all the townspeople for her fearlessness in treating the most unpleasant diseases and for visiting the poor, the sick and the lepers of George Town. She herself fell victim to smallpox and died in 1863, aged 42.

Despite unrelenting heat, humidity, disease and lack of money, the Convent’s school in Penang took off astonishingly quickly and successfully. By 1859 the school was able to acquire the former “Well Estate”, named for the two wells that had been sunk by Penang’s founder, Francis Light; one for himself and the other for the general public. This estate included Government House, built in 1793, which still stands within the school grounds today. The nuns began admitting fee-paying boarders, including members of the Thai and Malay royal families. They continued to take in orphan babies and infants, some of whom were given schooling, but the majority of whom helped with the cooking, cleaning and gardening. More Sisters arrived to work in Penang and to help set up other schools across Malaya. Later, some old Convent girls embraced the Order and began teaching themselves. The first Malayan was Sister St Emile, who later became principal of Alor Setar School in 1905. By 1952, the 100-year anniversary of the first school in Penang, the IJS Sisters in Malaya was comprised of 330 Sisters, 40 schools, 26,269 pupils, eight orphanages with 1,283 orphans and seven baby homes.

Kindergarten study.

Before the outbreak of World War II, as many as 74% of boys and most of the girls attending English-medium schools in Malaya were educated in Mission schools – primarily those of the IJS and La Salle Brothers. Despite being run by nuns, and unlike church schools elsewhere in the world, the schools in Malaya accepted girls from every race, religion and social class. The colonial governments of the Straits Settlements and Malaya had directed that “no child shall be compelled to be present when religious instruction is given, nor may any child be refused admission… on grounds of religious belief.”

After the war, the Convents and other religious schools were allowed to continue their work even as preparations were made for Malaya’s independence. It was recognised that they could play a role in bringing about unity in the mixed population, that education could be a unifying factor. However following Merdeka, attitudes became ambivalent, or even hostile. This is perhaps understandable, given their aim, albeit secondary, to proselytise. The previously prominent position of the Convent schools began to diminish. Boarding was discontinued at Convent Light Street in 1961, and no more babies were accepted to the orphanage. Absorption into the national education system followed and the school shield was redesigned to remove the cross.

Poignant reminders that the tropics were a very harsh place.

The nuns no longer teach, although they remain owners of the school buildings, currently on long-term lease arrangements with the government. They maintain an interest in the schools’ affairs and continue to educate the poor in outreach programmes. Their legacy lives on, not least in the prominent alumni of the last generation of girls who were educated by them, for example Ambiga Sreenevasan, former President of the Malaysian Bar Council, and Datuk Ng Poh Tip, former editor of The Star newspaper.

The graves of the nuns at the Western Road cemetery bear witness to their short lives, but the few remaining Sisters in Malaysia regret not the hardship their predecessors suffered, but the loss of their schools and the very real impact they made on the educational standards and achievements of Malaysia in decades past.

Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for six years.

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