NOT many people realise that smack in the heart of Penang’s spanking new mall in Gurney Drive is an old gem with a rich history – the former St Joseph’s Novitiate building.
Now the go-to spot for both locals and tourists, the Gurney Paragon lifestyle mall which opened in July this year has incorporated the 88-year-old chapel building as its centrepiece.
Developed by Hunza Properties Berhad (HPB), it involves the preservation of a three-storey colonial building that was completed in 1925.
The building, now a venue for special events and functions, was used by the novitiate in the early days. Started in 1918 by the De La Salle Brothers, the novitiate trained young men to enter the religious order. It was later utilised as a teachers’ training college before being leased to a private school.
Hunza reportedly purchased the 4ha site from the Christian Brothers School in December 2004 for RM97.86mil to build Gurney Paragon, which also houses two residential towers and an office tower apart from the mall.
Its executive chairman Datuk Khor Teng Tong says the group invested over RM10mil to restore the heritage structure and spent another RM3.5mil for underpinning works.
He says the building, now known as St Jo’s, is Hunza’s contribution to Penang’s collection of restored heritage as well as tourist attractions.
“We engaged experts in the heritage and conservation field to help us restore this majestic old building as we wanted to stay true to its original plans. For the restoration, we only used original materials but to ensure the place is user-friendly for the disabled, we installed certain modern amenities.”
Khor says they engaged a team of specialist consultants, Arup Jururunding Sdn Bhd, for the project. Arup had previously worked on the Bird’s Nest National Stadium, an iconic venue for the Beijing Olympics.
Measures were taken to safeguard and strengthen the foundation of the heritage building through underpinning works during the construction of two levels of basement car parks beneath it. It was an engineering feat that won Arup the Association of Consulting Engineers Malaysia (ACEM) Gold Award of Special Merit 2013, the association’s highest award.
“It was certainly worth the effort. The local council was also supportive of the construction project and we made sure we planned accordingly and followed all the guidelines,” he says.
“Before this, the chapel was a private building but now St Jo’s is open to the public and everybody can enjoy this piece of heritage in Penang.
“We must do our part in preserving such heritage. In fact, we must do more than just preserve them. We must develop them in such a manner that will strengthen them structure-wise, bring back their shine and glory, make them accessible to the people and tourists to enjoy, and of course make them economically feasible.”
Khor says Brother Felix Donahue, who represented the Christian Brothers School, was initially apprehensive of the project.
“But he was very pleased and impressed with our efforts to preserve St Jo’s,” he shares.
An interview with Brother Felix can also be found on Hunza’s website where he sheds some light on the history and memories of the novitiate.
“The beautiful stained glass windows were brought in from Italy and the altar and railings were made from imported marble. Apart from being a novitiate, it was a teachers’ training college as well.
“Initially, only brothers were accepted to be trained as teachers. In the late 1950s, it accepted lay students too,” Brother Felix says.
“You know, when we bought this piece of land, it was an orchard. At St Joseph’s, we produced fruits of a different kind.”
He is said to have given Hunza 99 marks for their efforts, saying that “there is always room for improvement as long as we are humans”.
St Jo’s now serves as an event venue for private dinners, company events, product launches, exhibitions or wedding ceremonies.
The twain can meet