In March 1852, Father Jean-Marie Beurel arrived in Singapore with the long-awaited party of Lasallian brothers and Infant Jesus Sisters that would set up English mission schools. The IJ Sisters however, faced great difficulties even before they began here. They had started with five sisters, but lost their leader, Mother Pauline, to an illness at sea. Another sister disappeared upon reaching the port and was never heard of again. The three remaining sisters were too inexperienced to start a mission on their own, and one had contracted brain fever. Bishop Boucho decided therefore to send them to Penang, where more resources were available, and wrote to Paris requesting for more sisters.
In September 1852, a second group of sisters set off for Penang, led by Mother St Mathilde. When a third group of sisters had made their way to Penang, providing the nuns with enough sisters for a community in Singapore, Mothers St Mathilde, St Appollinaire, St Gaetan and Sister St Gregory Connolly left Penang for Singapore. Meanwhile, in anticipation of their arrival, Father Beurel bought them a house at the corner of Victoria Street and Bras Basah Road for their residence and went on to purchase several plots over the years, so that convent property reached from Bras Basah to Stamford Road.
Although Mother St Mathilde started receiving orphaned babies wrapped in rags and newspapers soon after the Convent opened its doors in 1854, the school itself grew slowly in its initial years. By 1862 however, the convent’s enrolment had increased to 145 girls (although 82 were dependents of the Sisters). A decade after, the convent was making about 10 000 dollars a year, from selling French work that they imported and needlework that the students did, being able to cover their own costs in the process. The Convent grew rapidly from then on. The Sisters were able to build a new and larger chapel that was consecrated in 1904, and acquire property to add to the Convent complex. By the 1930s, the establishment of Katong Convent, St Nicholas Girls’ School, St Theresa’s Convent and St Joseph’s Convent were testimony to the increasing demand for a convent education, and the successful mission of the Sisters.
During the war, the Convent complex became a refuge for many. An air raid shelter near the chapel housed the orphans, the sisters and some Carmelite nuns and charges of the Good Shepherd Sisters. The homeless, sick and destitute turned up at their doorstep seeking help and the sisters were regularly sent orphans, especially handicapped children. One of the school’s buildings eventually became a shelter for as many as they could house. The Japanese treated the sisters civilly, and those living on the complex were allowed to do so in relative peace during the Occupation.
After the war, the Sisters continued to set up schools across the island, as well as continue their orphanage until it was closed in 1983, when Town Convent left Victoria Street. Changing social situations have also led to a need for new services. The IJ Sisters now run the IJ Home in Ang Mo Kio, as well as the IJ Children’s centre in Clementi and Galilee Centre in Ang Mo Kio for young persons at risk. They have also expanded their mission fields beyond Singapore, in Myanmar and Vietnam.
Meyers, Elaine. (2004). Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus: 150 Years in Singapore. Singapore: The Lady Superior of Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, Penang.
Read more about the mission and good works of the Infant Jesus Sisters at their website http://www.chij-sisters.org/.