Father Jean-Marie Beurel

Father Jean-Marie Beurel (b. 5 February, 1813, Plouguenast, France - d. 3 October, 1872, Paris, France), priest and missionary, founded the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, the St. Joseph's Institution and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus schools in Singapore.

Early Life
Beurel was ordained as priest at the age of 25 years. In August the same year of 1838, he joined the Missions-Etrangeres at Paris. He left France on 28 April 1839 and arrived in Singapore on 27 October 1839 to work in the Mission of Siam (which included Singapore).

On 24 April 1840, Beurel was appointed to serve the Catholic community in Singapore. He became the Parish priest of the Good Shepherd Parish in Singapore. He obtained a grant of land from the colonial government and started working on constructing a larger church for the then growing Catholic community. This has since become the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore and the seat of its archbishop which is located along Queen Street. A memorial plaque to Beurel can be found at the Cathedral.

When building the church, Beurel faced shortage of funds and went as far as Manila, Philippines, to seek help. The church was later built and was officially blessed and opened on 6 June 1847 by Beurel, four years since the foundational stone was laid by John Conolly, a merchant resident in Singapore. A letter that Beurel wrote to the Fathers at the Paris Seminary mentioned that the event was "a beautiful and impressive ceremony that attracted about 1,500 people". European and Eurasians aside, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd also attracted Chinese Christians, for whom Beurel was a zealous pastor. He baptised more than a hundred adults annually, and was involved in producing a magazine for missionaries as well as founding a parish library.

The Desire for a Christian School
Beurel's ambitions went beyond the building of the church. He wanted to open a school for boys, which would be managed by the Brothers of the Christian Schools. He rationalised that the school was necessary for implanting in the hearts of children a truly Christian faith. He made arrangements for Brothers from France to be given free passage to Malaya to assist him in the school although this was easier said than done. The revolution of 1848 in France led to the end of the reign of King-Louis Philippe and the change in administration worried Beurel as he had been in negotiation with the Foreign Minister for free passages for the Brothers.

Beurel left for France on 28 October 1850 to engage in discussions with the relevant authorities on his school building mission. While in France, he took the opportunity to convince the Reverend Mother Superior General of the Infant Jesus Sisters, Mother de Faudoas, to send some sisters to Singapore to begin a school for girls. On his return to Singapore on 29 March 1852, Beurel brought along with him an initial team of six Christian Brothers and four Infant Jesus sisters (one had died at sea).

In 1852, Beurel founded St. Joseph's Institution (originally known as St. John's Institution). He subsequently asked the colonial government in Singapore for land next to his church for a girls' school. He was told that sufficient land had already been given to him for building the church and more land would not be given for this purpose. In August 1852, Beurel used his own money to purchase a house at the corner of Victoria Street. The house was built by G. D. Coleman for H. C. Caldwell, Senior Sworn Clerk and later, Registrar of the Court. On 5 February 1854, Beurel started the first Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in this house that he had bought (present-day CHIJMES). In 1856, Beurel was appointed Pro-Vicar; and as procurator, he assisted the neighbouring missions. In 1859, Beurel completed the parochial house next to the Church of the Good Shepherd (present-day house of the Archbishop). He also helped build the Church of St. Peter and Paul along Queen Street, the Church of St. Joseph in Bukit Timah and the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Upper Serangoon Road.

Final Years

In 1868, having spent nearly thirty years in Singapore, Beurel fell ill and returned to France where he passed away on 3 October 1872 at the Seminary of the Foreign Missions in Paris. He was buried in the Montparnasse cemetery. It was said that when the Catholic community in Singapore heard of his death, they requested for the body of Beurel to be buried in Singapore where he had worked for almost thirty years of his life. The wish could not be granted, despite the offer from the community here to defray all costs involved in transporting his remains. Today, Beurel is remembered as the "founder of Catholic Singapore" with schools set up by the La Salle brothers and Infant Jesus sisters bearing testament to his labour in Singapore.

Dinesh Sathisan

Lee, Geok Boi. (2002). The Religious Monuments of Singapore: Faiths of our Forefathers. Singapore: Landmark Books.
(Call no.:  English 726.095957 LEE)

Meyers, Elaine (2004) Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus: 150 years in Singapore. Penang: The Lady Superior of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus.
(Call no. RSING 371.07125957 MEY)

St. Joseph's Institution. (2001). St. Joseph's Institution Founders Day, 6 April 2001: Official Opening of the JM Beurel Library. Singapore: The Institution. 
(Call no.: English q373.5957 SAI)

Tsang, Susan. (2007). Discover Singapore: The City's History and Culture Redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.
(Call no.: English 959.57 TSA)

Wijeysingha, Eugene. (2006). Going Forth: the Catholic Church in Singapore 1819-2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia.
(Call no.: RSING English 282.5957 WIJ)

Further Readings
McNamara, Anthony Rev. Brother (1987). The Letters of Fr. J.M. Beurel Relating to the Establishment of St. Joseph's Institution Singapore. Singapore: SJI.
(Not available in NLB holdings)

The information in this article is valid as at 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic

Beurel, Jean-Marie, Father, 1813-1872
Philosophy, psychology and religion>>Religion>>Christianity
Personalities>>Biographies>>Religious Leaders
Religious leaders
Catholic church--Clergy--Biography

All Rights Reserved. National Library Board Singapore 2009.