Vernacular education

Singapore Infopedia

by Ho, Stephanie


Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) is the oldest Catholic girls’ school in Singapore. Founded in 1854 by the French sisters of the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus, the school was established at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Victoria Street (present site of CHIJMES).1 It moved to Toa Payoh in 1983, and henceforth the primary and secondary sections were renamed CHIJ Primary (Toa Payoh) and CHIJ Secondary (Toa Payoh).2

Father Nicholas Barré, a French Minim priest, founded a new religious congregation – the Charitable Mistresses of the Schools of the Holy Infant Jesus – in France in 1666, and its mission was to educate girls, especially the under-privileged. The order arrived in Singapore in 1854 to set up schools for girls.3

The order’s establishment in Singapore is attributed to Father Jean-Marie Beurel of the Missions Étrangères de Paris. While establishing a Christian school for boys (known today as the St Joseph’s Institution) in Singapore, Father Beurel also saw the need to educate girls and wrote to the Infant Jesus Sisters in France to send nuns to Singapore for this purpose. He personally accompanied the first mission of five sisters from Antwerp, Belgium, to Singapore in 1851. However, the treacherous five-month journey claimed the life of one, lost one and saw the remaining three sent to Penang instead. It was only in 1854 that Singapore received its pioneering mission of Infant Jesus Sisters comprising Mother Mathilde Raclot, Mother St Appollinaire, Sister St Gregory Connolly and Mother St Gaetan.4

The sisters lived in a house called Caldwell House, which was located at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Victoria Street. Father Beurel had acquired the house with his own money as help from the government was not forthcoming. They began work immediately and commenced classes, in the process establishing the first CHIJ school – known as Town Convent due to its location  in the city area – in Singapore with 14 fee-paying pupils, nine boarders and 16 orphans just 10 days upon their arrival.5 In addition, the sisters established an orphanage and a boarding house within the school grounds.6

As the work of the sisters expanded over the years, Father Beurel acquired several neighbouring plots of land that stretched from Bras Basah Road to Stamford Road. By 1862, the school enrolment had reached 145 students. In 1881, the government declared the convent a government-aided school. The Junior Cambridge examinations were started in 1904 and secondary education began the following year.7

A new Gothic chapel designed by Father Charles Benedict Nain was added to the convent. It was completed in 1903 and consecrated in 1904. Father Charles was a French priest of the Missions Étrangères de Paris who had arrived in Singapore in 1898 to become the assistant parish priest at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.8

In 1931, the convent bought over the former premises of Hotel van Wijk along Stamford Road. It became the Chinese section of the school named Victoria Girls’ School, and later renamed St Nicholas Girls’ School. The convent reopened two months after the Japanese Occupation began, and was renamed Victoria Street Girls’ School under the Japanese authority.9

In December 1983, the school on Victoria Street moved to a new site in Toa Payoh to make way for the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) headquarters. Classes at the new premises started in 1984 and since then the primary and secondary sections had been split and renamed CHIJ Primary and CHIJ Secondary.10 The schools were officially opened on 17 August 1985 by the Vatican Ambassador to Singapore, Archbishop Renato Martino.11

In 1985, CHIJ Secondary began offering the Art Elective Programme for students to pursue higher art education.12 In 1994, CHIJ Secondary was granted autonomous status by the Ministry of Education,13 and in 2007 the school was named a Centre of Excellence for Language and the Arts.14

Located within CHIJ Secondary is the CHIJ Museum, which officially opened on 25 May 2012. It showcases the history and culture of the school through historical artefacts.15

In 2014, CHIJ celebrated its 160th anniversary. The event saw students, teachers and alumni gathered around the school’s original Victoria Street site forming a human chain and singing the school song at the same time. During the occasion, the CHIJ alumni association also launched the IJ Spirit Fund to assist CHIJ primary and secondary students who need financial assistance.16

Notable alumni
Among the school’s alumni are war heroine Elizabeth Choy (Town Convent 1929–33); academic and diplomat Chan Heng Chee (Katong Convent 1948–58, Town Convent 1959–1960; and lawyer and sportswoman Annabel Pennefather (Town Convent 1955–1966).17

Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus schools in Singapore18
Katong Convent (1930)
St Nicholas Girls’ School (1933)
St Theresa’s Convent (1933)
St Joseph’s Convent (1938)
Bukit Timah Convent (1955; now known as CHIJ Our Lady Queen of Peace19)
CHIJ Punggol (1957; now known as CHIJ Our Lady of the Nativity20)
Opera Estate Convent (1959; merged with the primary section of Katong Convent to form CHIJ Katong Primary in 1990)
Our Lady of Good Counsel (1960)
Kellock Convent (1964)

School crest and motto
The CHIJ shares the same crest and motto as the Infant Jesus schools all over the world. The school crest comprises a red shield with silver band edged in gold running across it. On top of the shield is a gold cross surrounded by a garland of white marguerites. The school motto is “Simple in Virtue, Steadfast in Duty”.21


Leong Hui Chuan

1. “Former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Chapel and Caldwell House,” National Heritage Board, accessed 29 December 2017; Elaine Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus: 150 Years in Singapore (Malaysia: The Lady Superior of Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 2004), 47. (Call no. RSING q371.07125957 MEY)

2. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 77.
3. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 18, 20, 22, 29; “CHIJ History,” CHIJ Secondary, accessed 29 December 2017.
4. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 30, 40, 44.
5. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 47; Saradar Panicker, 135 Years of CHIJ in Singapore: 1854–1989 (Singapore: CHIJ, 1990), 21. (Call no. RCLOS 372.95957 ONE)
6. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 47, 49.
7. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 47, 49, 52–53.
8. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 52.
9. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 53, 57, 60, 148.
10. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 77–78.
11. Panicker, 135 Years of CHIJ in Singapore, 51.
12. Ministry of Education, Little Book of Art Lessons (Singapore: Ministry of Education, 2015), 8–11.
13. Leong Chan Teik, “Six Schools Gearing Up for Autonomy with Different Plans,” Straits Times, 23 July 1993, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Language & Arts,” CHIJ Secondary, accessed 29 December 2017.
15. Don Gurugay, “CHIJ Toa Payoh Launches Museum,” Catholic News 62, no. 12 (17 June 2012), 3.
16. “CHIJ Girls Celebrate School’s 160th Anniversary,” Straits Times, 11 November 2014, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 264, 269, 281.
18. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 90, 100, 146, 148, 170, 188, 200, 212, 226.
19. “School History,” CHIJ Our Lady Queen of Peace, accessed 29 December 2017. 20. “History of CHIJ Schools,” CHIJ Our Lady of the Nativity, accessed 29 December 2017.
21. “Mission, Vision, Our Crest and Motto,” CHIJ Secondary, accessed 29 December 2017.

The information in this article is valid as at 19 March 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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