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  • Chen Yen Ling, The Star

The sisters’ education crusade in Malaysia

No one would treasure the legacy of the Christian sisters more than the sisters themselves, so the controversy over the three convent schools in Penang is most unfortunate.

THE soul of the Infant Jesus Sisters institute (IJS) lies in the very foundation that was established by the pioneer sisters who risked their lives to reach Penang and struggled against all odds to raise it off the ground in the second half of the 19th century.

Convent Light Street was where the heartbeat of the institute once reverberated. It is not only dearest to the sisters here in Malaysia but also significant to the IJS global community.

Administered from their Mother House at historic Rue St Maur in Paris for over three-and-a-half centuries, the institute now serves in four continents.

In Malaya transitioning into Malaysia, the IJS institute held the record of establishing and operating the most number of convent schools in Malaysia and IJS worldwide at the height of their popularity in the 20th century. There were more than 30 serving in Peninsular Malaysia alone. These have produced millions of young women with sufficient knowledge and, in the words of the sisters – good characters ready to face the challenges of adult life for over a century.

The sisters were there when the nation at its infancy needed them most – socially and economically. Through education – academics, home science and character building, it enabled women to bring up good families (in the words of the sisters) and participate in the workforce.

The controversies that currently engulf the notification of intent issued by IJS for the return of their landed properties in Penang are unfortunate. They would not have risen if matters were handled in a less careless manner by relevant quarters. There should have been meaningful dialogue with the sisters. A plan should be put in place with regards to the purported closure of the schools concerned, if such had been intended.

The notification to retrieve its properties by IJS was done in good faith. The conduct of affairs thereafter is the responsibility of the Education Ministry.

As speculation goes, it may possibly entail cessation of new intakes at subject premises and relocation of existing students. The so-called leakage of the ministry’s letter with “alarming” content – which is “IJS’ request under consideration” brought forth disastrous reactions from the public. It was later withdrawn.

The lack of measured response from a public official to media enquiries on rumours that the sisters are selling their properties to developers for re-development was even more damaging. It did not give any consideration to the idea that the “talk of sisters’ selling out and eliminating their own heritage and legacy” was a vicious one. It added fuel to state of emotions in worried parents and opinionated public.

It is upsetting to parents whose children are now studying in the convent schools at Light Street, Pulau Tikus and Green Lane respectively. It is particularly saddening to the alumni communities of these schools. And in general, many ex-convent girls are affected.

It is difficult to accept what seems to be illogical. Will the convent schools suffer eventual demise in the hands of the sisters?

How horrible, not because it is going to happen that way but because the sensible and rational-thinking sisters have to suffer great distress on such persecuting allegations for a good plan that was being executed. They are re-activating their mission of providingwholesome education and preserving their landmark properties in the tradition of their founding sisters and institute objectives.

The convent schools in Malaysia began as private concerns, fully raised and operated by the early sisters through sheer courage, determination, diligence, commitment and sacrifice.

Through generous benefactors, supporters in kind and every cent they could possibly earn and save, they bought land with and without buildings to build their schools.

Many of the land they bought were still in jungle-state at the fringes of towns at the end of 19th and early 20th centuries. They chose these because the prices were more affordable.

The sisters cleared the jungles and constructed their schools from scratch. They received no funding support from the government either when it was the British East India Company or the later Crown administration initially.

The French sisters accepted the challenge of running their schools in English medium to produce English-literate personnel for the government but never received much support, if any, until much later. At mid-20th century, the larger convent schools began to receive partial funding and eventually, all of their schools became quasi-government aided.

The sisters’ brand of convent schools grew in popularity and they became famous themselves for their “dead-serious” disciplinary approach (they called this – character moulding).

Light Street Convent was the main and nerve centre for administration of all IJS operations in Malaysia and Singapore until the 1960s. The school displayed exemplary academic performance. The level of English mastery was excellent and it reached “international status” on its own. Royalties and elites from neighbouring countries sent their children to study here. It was also popular with expatriate children. The sisters were firmly in charge then.

But the sisters had to progressively retreat from the administration and hands-on teaching at their schools as the nationalisation programme was being installed. They were completely out of the picture after the schools were fully nationalised.

The level of monitory involvement also diminished over time, and the character of the schools has taken a different form. Is it surprising that the sisters are now reactivating their mission of education in Malaysia and in the tradition of its pioneer sisters and original objectives?

Certainly not. The sisters are most anxious and desirous of preserving their rich heritage and continuing their meaningful mission as inspired by their predecessors.

The mechanics of how this can be achieved and the name it will take to better reflect the administration of the mission in contemporary times is not an urgent matter of debate at this moment. The institute has its own set of plans and thinking on how their primary objective of offering wholesome affordable education can be done.

IJS was founded on the basis of providing charitable popular education to who and in where it was most needed. It was called the Congregation of Charitable Mistresses of Instruction of Holy Infant Jesus at the time of its inception in 1666. “Institute” is now the preferred term of reference to “congregation”.

Father Nicolas Barre, the founder, initially obtained the assistance of lay women to teach and run small schools for poor girls and young women in and around Rouen. They were intentionally located in poverty stricken areas. Father Barre believed that through education, indigent folks would have the opportunity to exit the poverty cycle they were trapped in.

Subsequently, these dedicated and sacrificing ladies committed themselves as a religious community, and it persisted until present times as The Infant Jesus Sisters.

With literacy, women were able to acquire further knowledge for themselves, have moral values according to religious principles and learn to be independent.

Today, in Malaysia, the sisters have achieved these objectives for our society since their advent in 1852. Their starting point was practically at Convent Light Street, although their first premises of operation were at Church Street. Mother St Mathilde Raclot is its first Superior and founder of the IJS convent school establishment in Malaysia. The sisters moved to Light Street Convent in 1859 during the tenure of Mother St. Damien, the second Superior of Penang.

Mother St Mathilde arrived with three other sisters in October 1852 to re-establish their St Maur Sisters’ institute – as it was then called and English-medium school.

A first team of five sisters, of which only three arrived in Penang in April earlier in the year had failed to do so under tragic circumstances. The members of this second team of indomitable sisters went on to build foundation pillars for their establishments in Malacca and Singapore in the Straits Settlements’ territories and reached Japan in 1867.

But their progress in expansion into the Sultanate states in the 19th century was sluggish until the tenure of formidable Mother St. Tarcisius Salles when the British influence leading to full colonisation was greatest. The British, beginning with the East India Company delegated the function of producing English-literate men and women to the Paris Foreign Mission Society (Missions Etrangeres de Paris or MEP). This was aimed at supporting its workforce in the government and commercial enterprises.

The MEP invited the Infant Jesus Sisters and La Salle Brothers to take over its church schools for girls and boys respectively with the condition that they convert the schools from vernacular (Malay) to English medium of instruction. From then on, the sisters and brothers operated and expanded their schools on their own. The schools penetrated deep into the peninsular hinterlands by mid-20th century.

Back to present times, it has become difficult to maintain the school buildings raised by the intrepid sisters in their original tradition. The sisters’ direct involvement in the school administration has ceased, and their monitory role has been decreasing.

However, it is still consoling to see many of these buildings remain intact albeit varying degrees of modifications. Importantly, they are able to maintain their unique physical character to remind Malaysians of the great contributions of the sisters in educating and improving the lives of women.

Many who have studied during the regime of the no-nonsense nuns have achieved high levels of affluence and assumed leadership roles.

It is no wonder that the present IJS administration has resolved to commence action to preserve their iconic convent schools and continue the culture of providing quality and affordable education when it is most needed. This would only be possible after retrieving from the government, their hard-earned establishments left in the land and buildings.

No one would treasure more of the history and legacy of the sisters than the sisters themselves. There is little doubt that they will be the safer pair of hands to ensure that their beloved heritage will remain for posterity.

Chen Yen Ling researched into the history of her alma mater St Anne’s Convent School Kulim in 2009. This led her to the stories of the early nuns of IJS and their roots back in France. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.



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