Connecting to reconnect with the convent

10 11 2014

Several hundred girls from CHIJ Toa Payoh secondary and primary schools found themselves back in school on Sunday, not in the familiar surroundings of Toa Payoh, but in ones once familiar in Victoria Street. It had been in Victoria Street some 160 years ago, that four nuns of the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus’, having arrived following a long and arduous journey from Europe to the Singapore via Penang, began their mission in Caldwell House with just a bed, 2 mats, 2 chairs and 2 stools, establishing the convent in February 1854.

Back to school in once familiar surroundings.

Back to school in once familiar surroundings.

The convent was to grow, establishing within the walls of its expanded premises on Victoria Street,  not just an enlarged physical presence that was to be defined by the wonderful examples of architecture built to the glory of the supreme being, but also as a leading institution that provided both care for many in need as well as one that has and continues to play a significant role in providing education to girls in Singapore.

Late for school - 30 years too late! The schools moved out from the premises of the former convent at the end of 1983 after almost 130 years.

Late for school – 30 years too late! The schools moved out from the premises of the former convent at the end of 1983 after almost 130 years.

While it is sad that the magnificent buildings erected for the nuns to carry out their mission can no longer be used for the purpose – the convent having had to vacate its oasis in the city in 1983 (the schools in the premises moved to Toa Payoh in 1984 and a third school, CHIJ St. Nicholas, to Ang Mo Kio), and even sadder that the complex has been repurposed in a way that trivialises the original intent; it is good to see that there is still a connection that the schools can make with their spiritual home, now called CHIJMES.

Once familiar scenes returned for a day to the corridors of the old convent.

Once familiar scenes (except for the mobile devices) returned for a day to the corridors of the old convent.

The girls, dressed in the familiar blue pinafores, made more than that connection yesterday. Together with their teachers and members of their alumni, a physical connection was also established, with 402 lining up, tallest to the shortest, with hands joined to form what is believed to a world record for the longest human chain (tallest to shortest) – subject to confirmation by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Confirmation  of a Singapore Record.

Confirmation of a Singapore Record.

Primary school participants being arranged in order of height.

Primary school participants being arranged in order of height.

Hand-in-hand for the world record attempt.

Hand-in-hand for the world record attempt.

Part of the schools’ commemoration of their 160th Anniversaries, the apparent success of the effort dubbed IJ Link, was celebrated in song and dance immediately after. Along with the world record attempt, which surpasses the previously held record of 311, a bazaar, brunch at the former chapel and arts performances were also held on the grounds of the former convent.

The celebration after ...

The celebration after …

An assembly held in the field behind the chapel.

An assembly held in the field behind the chapel in the good old days (photograph: National Archives of Singapore).

Happy days were here again!

Happy days were here again!


More photographs:

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JeromeLim-9430

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Exposing the Convent

6 07 2013

Work has begun on a facelift which will see another significant change occur to a place I will always see as the convent, a lifestyle complex we now know as CHIJMES. The convent was one which dates back to February 1854, when three nuns from the religious order of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus arrived to set it up, with a French Catholic missionary, Fr. Jean Marie Beurel, who is also credited with work to establish St. Joseph’s Institution two years before that, instrumental in bringing them here, having purchased Caldwell House for the purpose. The current work, expected to be completed next year, based on news reports, is aimed at turning it into an upmarket venue and will see part of a wall which has featured through much of the convent’s history, come down to provide an almost full frontal exposure of the former convent – in particularly two of its buildings, the gloriously designed French Gothic style former chapel and Caldwell House, both of which have been gazetted as a National Monument.

Caldwell House and the beautiful former chapel of the convent.

Caldwell House and the beautiful former chapel of the former convent – both buildings have since 1990 been gazetted as National Monuments.

Based on the same news reports, the top part of the wall will be replaced by a grille. While this does permit a fuller exposure of the monument from Victoria Street, it does also mean that what little has been left of the character of the former convent, already significantly altered by the redevelopment on the side along Stamford Road as the SMRT Headquarters, and the digging of a huge hole in the ground behind the chapel to create the sunken courtyard, will soon be lost.

A postcard showing the convent and its walls in the early 1900s.

A postcard showing the convent and its walls in the early 1900s.

While the attempts to restore and conserve many of the buildings of the old convent, once bound by walls along Victoria Street, Bras Basah Road, North Bridge Road and the side of Stamford Canal across from Stamford Road through its redevelopment as CHIJMES in 1996, should be commended, one of the unfortunate outcomes of it is that it does take much of the dignity as well as the soul of the place away – a dignity which will be eroded further with the lowering of its walls. The convent, which was forced out of it premises by land acquisition for urban redevelopment after some 130 years in 1983, had been one established to be of service to those in dire need – providing care and education for the numerous orphans, the unwanted, and the destitute. In its place today is a very different institution – one with which the aim is serve and reap profits for those already well off by the standards of the society.

The former convent seen along Victoria Street and the part of the walls which will come tumbling down.

The former convent seen along Victoria Street and the part of the walls which will come tumbling down.

An artist's impression of how the boundary wall with the wrought iron grille will look like.

An artist’s impression of how the boundary wall with the wrought iron grille will look like.

The alteration to the boundary wall will very much change the way we see CHIJMES. What is a shame is the way conservation in Singapore does seem to focus not on the buildings in their environment, but on the individual buildings as it is the case of CHIJMES. With it this way, there will be little that we will remember, not just of what may the buildings what they were, but what it was that put them there.

A view of the Gate of Hope - and the boundary wall further down which will come tumbling down.

A view of the Gate of Hope – and the boundary wall further down which will come tumbling down.

Unholy spirits being delivered to a former holy place.

Unholy spirits being delivered to a former holy place.

A view of the offending wall through the arches.

A view of the offending wall through the arches of its walkways.

Another view through the archways.

Another view through the archways.

The out-of-character staircase from the sunken courtyard.

The out-of-character staircase from the sunken courtyard.

A view along the walkway leading to the former chapel.

A view along the walkway leading to the former chapel.

A hole where there wasn't - the sunken courtyard over which a glass cover will be put up.

A hole where there wasn’t – the sunken courtyard over which a glass cover will be put up.

The beautiful interior of CHIJMES Hall with its stained glass.

The beautiful interior of CHIJMES Hall with its stained glass.


The upper part of the boundary wall being hacked away as seen on Saturday 6 July 2013.

The upper part of the boundary wall being hacked away as seen on Saturday 6 July 2013.