For starters, the first nuns were French. Malaysian convent school girls – both past and present – may be forgiven for being unaware of this, however.
Back in the mid-19th century, English-speaking French people were rare, and even to this day, after centuries of rivalry and war, visitors to France are often advised to introduce themselves in any language except English.
So it should not be a surprise that three of the five missionary sisters who set sail from Paris en route to Singapore in 1851 were completely inept in English.
One other French sister had previously learnt some of the language and the group was rounded up by one English nun who had emigrated to France.
Unfortunately, neither of these sisters lasted long, author Chen Yen Ling discovers in an eight-year endeavour researching the path and progress of the women who founded convent schools in Malaysia.
The first nun, Sister St Euthyme, was injured by a falling pulley aboard La Julie – the ship that carried the sisters East on their first ever foreign mission – and would suffer ill health until her untimely death in Penang in 1861.
The English nun left her post even earlier, rumoured to have fallen in love with the captain of the ship and opting to leave the institution to stay in Singapore as a lay person, while the remaining nuns were sent to Penang.
What’s worse, the delegation had already lost its leader – Mother St Pauline – at sea due to what was believed to be tuberculosis.
So we can safely say that the start of the Infant Jesus Sisters’ (IJS) work in the country was more than a bit bumpy.
However, not everything that starts off badly ultimately fails and as Chen aptly writes: “The originally non-English speaking French nuns who brought English proficiency and changed lives of women in a non-English speaking part of the world were indeed a phenomena to be reckoned with.”
(Main image above is a composite of some of the illustrated pages from Chen’s book, 'Lessons From My School', showing archival material from her research.)
A Labour Of Love
Book authors don’t always start out as writers in their careers.
Chen, for instance, was a successful chartered accountant who spent a quarter of a century in the rat race.
“I had always set 45 as the age at which I would take a career break,” she begins her story at a recent interview in Penang.
“After my father passed away, my mother had a hard time adjusting to living with me in Kuala Lumpur so we headed back to our hometown of Kulim (in Kedah).
“I handed in my resignation two days before my 46th birthday, so I achieved my original goal!” Chen laughs.
Eager to explore her love of different people and cultures, Chen spent a semester at the University of Adelaide in Australia studying anthropology and later completed a correspondence course in freelance journalism.
It was during this period that her interest in the origins of her first school – St Anne’s Convent School Kulim, or simply Kulim Convent – was piqued.
It would be several years later, however, that a document ended up in her hands and would change an eager curiosity into a 383-page book, Lessons From My School: The Journey Of The French Nuns And Their Convent Schools.
“In about 2011, I got hold of the annals of St Anne’s Convent School.
“My neighbour in Kulim was the senior assistant of the school and she made a request to the office assistant in charge of the archives.
“He pulled out what I call the ‘Humble Brown Book’ and that started everything,” Chen explains.
The simple brown exercise book, bearing the inscription “Kulim Convent Annals” and in one corner “1940-1958”, narrated the daily chores, duties, accomplishments and events of the school during this time, Chen writes.
Calling it “invaluable”, Chen says entries included routine activities at the school to notes on “surprise inspections” from Kedah’s state education department officers and sisters from the bigger Bukit Mertajam Convent to visits from important dignitaries.
Black and white photographs and a handmade invitation card were also among items slipped between the fading pages.
“When the annals came along, I made up my mind to write a book about IJS and their journey in Malaysia,” Chen says.
The Beginning Of An era
A Buddhist herself, Chen adds the religion of the nuns – being Catholic sisters – was not an impediment to her interest in their work in the country.
“This book is not for the nuns, it is about them. I find their story so fascinating and surprisingly.
“How they persevered through very difficult times to keep opening schools is very motivating and inspiring.
“I think it is important that people know the story of the sisters because they changed so many lives in Malaysia, and their contributions should be recorded in our history books.
“Can you imagine where women in Malaysia would be now if we never had the convent schools?” Chen asks, explaining that IJS convent schools were the first in the country to educate girls, regardless of whether they were able to pay school fees.
Chen, born in 1958, knows firsthand about the charitable reach of the early IJS nuns.
Her father managed a rubber smokehouse where her mother also worked scrubbing sheets of rubber; both her parents were working-class people and illiterate in English.
Chen herself knew not a word in the language when she started school at Kulim Convent at the age of seven.
“The convent school was aptly the place for me to grow up and out of the poverty stricken community.
“Real powers of change lay with the ability to read and write so that one may progressively acquire further knowledge and communicate at different and higher levels,” she writes in her book.
Chen says she is ever grateful for the education she managed to receive that has undoubtedly contributed to her success later in life.
To accurately articulate and tell the story of IJS, Chen travelled to their landmark sites in the country as well as across the globe to Maison Nicolas Barre, the order’s Mother House in Paris.
The stories she tells in Lessons From My School take readers not only through the humble beginnings of St Anne’s in Kulim but also into the origins of the order of St Maur, the perilous sea voyage aboard La Julie, the dangers of tropical disease and poor healthcare in early Malaya, as well as into the British and Japanese occupations and up to Malaya’s Independence Day.
It is in1957 that she largely ends her tale, though Chen does briefly mention the eventual nationalisation of convent schools and the phasing out of nuns teaching at the institutions.
Convent Light Street – the first girls’ school in not only Malaysia but also South-East Asia – and Convent Pulau Tikus in Penang were in the headlines in 2017 after rumours began that IJS was contemplating turning both schools private.
Denial of any plans for redevelopment of the school sites was made in a rare press release issued by the IJS, which is known to greatly value its privacy.
The order also stressed that it would never abandon its mission of education in Malaysia.
In her own personal take on the matter (she is not an IJS member nor does she represent the order), Chen urges everyone to keep an open mind going forward.
“It is clear that IJS has always and will continue to serve public interests, especially where poor students are concerned.
“I believe their goals remain unchanged and I trust in and support any of their future intended projects,” she says.