The Saints are Still Marching in


Now 165 years old, SXI continues to touch hearts and change lives.

The long history of St. Xavier’s Institution is both a humble saga and an inspiring story. Back in 1786, the year Penang was founded, French Catholic priest Reverend Father Domino Arnaldo Antonio-Garnault arrived from Kedah1. Garnault and his Christian congregation had fled Siam to escape persecution.

He set about establishing a school in a mangrove swamp in a small attap shed, using Malay as the medium of instruction. This is where Church Street now stands.

Four decades later, in 1825, Monsignor Jean-Baptiste Boucho took over the administration of the school, converted it into an English-medium school, and moved it to a brick building that he had constructed. The school was subsequently renamed the Catholic Free School, to set it apart from the newly established Penang Free School set up by Protestants.

Shortly thereafter, in 1852, the school’s administration was taken over by the De La Salle Brotherhood at the invitation of Boucho. Soon renamed St. Francis Xavier’s Free School, it was headed by two French religious brothers, Brother Lothaire-Marie Combes and Brother Venere, and an American brother, Brother Jerome2.

In 1858 the school moved to a newly completed building on Farquhar Street, and renamed again, this time to St. Xavier’s Institution3. And there, its name and location have remained till this day. The building continued to expand and by 1900 it had an enrolment of over a thousand students.

During the Japanese Occupation, the school was used as the Japanese navy’s headquarters. This made it a major target for Allied bombing. After the war, classes resumed in makeshi attap huts in what is now the school field – reminiscent of the shed in which Garnault first established the school. It was only in 1952 that the current school building was finally ready to be moved into.

Today, St. Xavier’s Institution provides secondary education up to sixth form and has two suburban feeder primary schools: Sekolah Kebangsaan St. Xavier’s in Air Itam and Sekolah Kebangsaan St. Xavier’s Cawangan in Pulau Tikus. It is one of a number of Lasallian schools throughout Asia, which includes St. Michael’s Institution in Ipoh and St. Joseph’s Institution in Singapore.

St. Xavier’s Institution is a capital-aided school and receives funds from the government only for the teachers’ pay and per capita grants based on student population, explains Dr Sim Hock Keat, the school’s current principal. It relies on donations and fundraising drives to expand and improve its facilities – the most notable being the recent funding and building of its first annexe since the building’s completion.

The School Spirit Lives On

Doubtless, each educational institution has its own culture, mission and ethos; and while most government schools may vary very little from one to another on that score, those that were once headed by the De La Salle Brotherhood stand apart, even today.

The popular belief that missionary schools like St. Xavier's Institution indoctrinate and convert students to Christianity is far from the truth. The De La Salle Brothers made it a matter of principle to never discriminate against their students and staff based on race or religion; above all, they were passionate and disciplined educators who emphasised faith, empathy and excellence.

The magnificent Baroque-styled building that was destroyed during World War II.


The new block.

The school vision remains the touching of hearts and the changing of lives. For example, it introduced two vocational classes – baking and automotive – to provide students with more than just a textbook education, especially to those who are not academically inclined. During the school’s annual Worship Day, students are encouraged to grow in their respective faiths and are ushered to separate parts of the school to perform prayers and receive lectures on their faith.

Charity drives are held every year to raise funds for the school and numerous other charitable bodies and homes. In 2012, for example, a donation campaign was held for a school for refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border.4 Lasallian training and activities continue to play a big role, including the Lasallian Youth Convention for student leaders from Lasallian schools in Malaysia and Singapore, and the Lasallian Educators Conference which is to help pass on the Lasallian tradition and spirit to teachers.

A New Chapter

In 2009 St. Xavier's Institution bid goodbye to Reverend Brother Paul Ho, the 29th and last of the De La Salle Brothers to serve as school principal.

With that, there was great concern that the school would lose part of its identity – a concern that Sim allays: he aspires to maintain the school's culture and cultivate concern for the three L's (the Last, the Lost, and the Least).

There is much work to do, and Sim wishes to inspire the staff to realise the mission and vision of the school as laid down by the Brothers. After all, it is through the teachers that the ethos is passed down to the students. To this end, Sim, who previously served as a teacher under Ho’s leadership, is looking to seek assistance in the form of finances, equipment and expertise from alumni members and the school community.

St. Xavier's Institution holds a special place in the hearts of many, especially those who have walked its lively halls. Its legacy does not stop at its gates. Following the example of those who founded and led the school, its students realise that the privileges they have enjoyed are not given to many others. The call to touch hearts and change lives continues to resound in them.


2 french-connection.
3 Langdon, Marcus. A Guide to George Town’s Historic Commercial and Civic Precincts. George Town: George Town World Heritage Inc, 2015.
4 st-xaviers-institution-picks-its-first-foreign-aid-recipient.

Jeremy Koay is a business student and proud former Xaverian who is a strong advocate of e-sports and potatoism

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