Convent Light Street, George Town, Penang (8 January, 2008)
The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (GPS: 5.42156, 100.33816), universally known as Convent Light Street (GPS: 5.42146, 100.33856), is the oldest girls' school in Penang as well as in Malaysia. Often called Town Convent (to differentiate it from the one in Green Lane, Pulau Tikus, Balik Pulau and Butterworth), it was founded by three French nuns of the Holy Infant Jesus Mission, Sister Gaetau, Sister Appolinaire and Sister Gregoire, who arrived in Penang in 1852. It was a perilous sea journey in which their Mother Superior did not survive. In Penang they were joined by Reverend Mother Mathilde Raclot, who is credited as founder of the over 80 convent schools in Malaya, including CHIJMES of Singapore.
It must be noted that missionaries were then the torchbearers in bringing education to the population. Even as soon as Penang was established in 1786, the following year Bishop Arnaud-Antoine Garnault has started a school next to the original Church of the Assumption. Other missionaries included Anglican Reverend R.S. Hutchings, who founded the Penang Free School and the La Sallian Brothers, who founded St. Xavier's Institution.
When the Sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus Mission arrived, they started their school at Church Street, within the vicinity of the original Church of the Assumption. It was nothing grand. The "school" was an attap hut. Under the Sisters' tutorage were 16 orphans, 9 boarders and 30 day pupils.
Main Building, Convent Light Street, George Town, Penang (30 November, 2008)
Convent Light Street, main porch (30 November, 2008)
Life was hard for these hardy nuns. To make ends meet, they supported themselves by sewing at night. That, in addition to running a school by day. In addition to familiarising themselves to the climate and learning the local language, the Sisters also had to put up with cockcroaches, rodents and mosquitoes.
In the beginning, Convent Light Street also functioned as an orphange, taking in unwanted babies of every race and background. In addition, it also functioned as a boarding school, and some of the boarders are from the upper crust of society, daughters of royal families and wealthy families from as far as Thailand.
Convent Light Street, Penang (8 January, 2008)
Convent Light Street, Chapel (30 November, 2008)
As the school grew, it soon become necessary to move to bigger premises. In 1859, the Holy Infant Jesus Mission acquired the Government House, and seven-acre site surrounding it. Even then, it was land pregnant with much historic significance, for Francis Light lived here following his founding of George Town. The Francis Light's Well, which was dug for his personal use, was still around during the time Convent Light Street moved in, and it is still standing today.
On the site of the former government complex, the Convent Light Street school that we know of gradually developed. Over the years, new wings and annexes were added. Among the extensions added were the Old Chapel (1867), the Old Hall, cloisters and classrooms (1882) and extensions in 1901, 1929 and 1934, by which time, there was no more room to grow.
Today, Convent Light Street has fully adopted mainstream education, the halls, corridors and cloisters still echo the memory of those early nuns who sacrificed their all for the education of the girls in far-away lands.
Convent Light Street ensemble, as seen from Farquhar Street Pedestrian Bridge (29 January, 2005)
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