CHIJMES was originally known as the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ), which was a premier girls’ school established in 1854 by an order of French Catholic nuns. It was originally located within a self-contained city block bound by Victoria Street, Bras Basah Road, North Bridge Road and Stamford Road, and encompassed the English-language primary and secondary schools of CHIJ, a Chinese-medium school called St Nicholas Girls’ School, an orphanage, nuns’ quarters, and a chapel.1
In 1983, the CHIJ schools relocated to their current premises at 626 and 628 Lorong 1, Toa Payoh respectively. The Victoria Street site was redeveloped and partially demolished to build the Mass Rapid Transit Corporation (MRTC) headquarters.2 The remaining complex includes Caldwell House, the chapel now known as CHIJMES Hall, and the orphanage building, as well as a number of retail and food and beverage outlets. The complex was gazetted as a national monument on 26 October 1990.3
In 1851, Father Jean-Marie Beurel, priest of the Good Shepherd Church, was sent to Paris to recruit teachers on behalf of the Apostolic Vicar of Malaya. He approached the Institute of the Charitable Schools of the Holy Infant Jesus of St Maur, an order of well-educated and socially conscious nuns. In October 1852, the order sent a group of nuns, led by Reverend Mother Mathilde Raclot, to Penang, where they established the first Infant Jesus school in Asia.4
In February 1854, Mother Raclot and three companions travelled to Singapore, where they moved into a house on the corner of Victoria Street and Bras Basah Road.5 They purchased the house from a magistrate’s clerk, H. C. Caldwell, and it became known as Caldwell House. This house formed the beginnings of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus.6 Despite the initial austere living conditions, the sisters commenced lessons for two classes of students within two weeks after their arrival.7 Later referred to colloquially as the “Town Convent”, the school soon expanded and became known for providing education of a good standard.8
It is less well-known that boys were also educated at the Town Convent between the 1910s and ’30s, though this practice ended after the Japanese Occupation. The boys studied at the school from age six, leaving at age 10 to complete their education at St Joseph’s Institution across the street.9
The following year in 1855, the convent acquired the house adjacent to Caldwell House. This became an orphanage for children who were unwanted, came from poor or broken homes, or abandoned due to superstitious beliefs.10 Single mothers or women who could not afford to keep their babies often left them at the orphanage’s side gate, which came to be known as the “Baby Gate” and “Gate of Hope”.11 Such abandoned children were often female, Chinese, and suffering from poor health. Many died after being abandoned, with some already dead upon arrival. Those who survived, learned vocational and domestic skills and received a free education at the school.12 The orphanage or convent crèche closed with the convent schools’ move out of Victoria Street in 1983.13
Over the years, the convent steadily acquired adjacent plots of land that became part of the growing complex.14 In 1860, the convent bought land that had belonged to Raffles Institution. In 1892, aided by contributions from the government and wealthy benefactors, a boarding house was built on the Stamford Road side of the complex.15
By the 1890s, the simple chapel that had been constructed in 1855 had become inadequate for the expanding school and orphanage. In 1898, a new Gothic chapel was designed by Father Charles Benedict Nain, a priest from the Church of St Peter and St Paul and a trained architect who also designed the distinctive wings of St Joseph’s Institution.16 Father Nain, while influenced by the Gothic revival, was also inspired by the churches in his native town of Farges, France. The chapel was completed in 1903 and consecrated on 11 June 1904.17
Classes were started for Chinese-speaking girls at four bungalows rented from Hotel Van Wijk (also known as Hotel Van Dyke), adjacent to the convent site. In October 1931, the convent bought the hotel and demolished it.18 A new block of classrooms was built in 1933 that became Victoria Girls’ School, later renamed St Nicholas Girls’ School.19 This block was subsequently deemed unsafe following a collapse of a room, and later demolished. A new building designed by Swan & Maclaren was completed in 1951.20
Relocation of school and development
As early as the 1960s, there was talk of developing what was known then as Raffles International Centre, where Raffles City now stands.21 By the early 1970s, the government was considering this in tandem with plans to develop a mass transport system.22 All these plans had earmarked the large convent site for redevelopment. The government eventually acquired the land from the convent in 1983, and the schools were allocated a new site in Toa Payoh.23
On 3 November 1983, mass was held in the chapel for the last time, after which it was deconsecrated for non-religious use.24 By December, the primary and secondary schools had vacated the site and moved to their new premises in Toa Payoh, where they began operations the following year.25
At the original convent site, the secondary school building was demolished in 1984 to build the MRTC headquarters.26 After initially indicating that it would undertake the restoration of the site, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) put up the site for sale in March 1990.27 To preserve the ambience of the remaining buildings, URA gazetted Caldwell House and the chapel as national monuments in 1990, and designated the entire complex a conservation area, with high restoration standards and strict usage guidelines.28
The buildings underwent extensive restoration works before the complex re-opened in 1996 as CHIJMES. Pronounced “chimes”, the name incorporates the initials of the original school and echoes its history as the site of a chapel and schools.29 The original name proposed by the developer was The Cloisters, on account of the links with the chapel.30
The three main buildings within the CHIJMES complex are Caldwell House, the orphanage and the chapel.31
Built between 1840 and 1841, Caldwell House is the second-oldest building in Singapore and the oldest building within the complex.32 Designed by architect G. D. Coleman, who was also Singapore’s first Superintendent of Public Works, it is one of the few surviving examples of his work. The building is said to be similar to Tollygung House in Calcutta, also designed by Coleman.33 The front of the two-storey building extends in a semi-circle, creating a distinctive profile. The nuns received visitors in the parlour on the ground floor and did their sewing, reading and writing upstairs for many years.34 The upstairs lounge originally contained a large octagonal wooden table that now resides at the LASALLE College of the Arts.35 The room still features an original wall inscription that reads Marche en ma presence et sois parfait (French for “Walk along with me and be perfect”).36
Continuing Coleman’s neo-classical style, the two-storey orphanage is the second-oldest building within the complex. The interior of the upper floor, formerly the dormitory, features a grand gallery with large Doric columns supporting a vaulted timber ceiling.37
The centrepiece of the CHIJMES complex is the Gothic chapel with its flanking linkways. Renamed CHIJMES Hall, the building exterior features flying buttresses and a five-storey spire.38 Carved letters on the chapel façade stand for Iesu Homine Salvator (Latin for “Jesus, Saviour of the World”). Each of the 648 columns of the building and linkways feature unique, intricate carvings of tropical birds and plants.39
The chapel interior features delicate stained glass windows that were produced in Bruges, Belgium by Jules Dobbelaere, considered the finest stained glass craftsman in late 19th-century Europe.40 The glass panels depict scenes from the Bible as well as the 12 apostles.41 Below a cross-vaulted ceiling, the floor of the chapel is laid with multi-coloured terrazzo tiles. The chapel originally contained wooden pews imported from Toulouse, France.42
Joanna HS Tan
1. Peter Keys, “Haven-ly Quiet,” Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewpaperSG; “Heritage Trail,” CHIJMES, accessed 31 July 2016.
2. Elaine Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus: 150 Years in Singapore (Malaysia: The Lady Superior of Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 2004), 80. (Call no. RSING q371.07125957 MEY)
3. Ray Tyers, Singapore, Then & Now (Singapore: University Education Press, 1976), 54, 62 (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 TYE); “CHIJ Chapel and Caldwell House Gazetted as National Monuments,” Straits Times, 31 October 1990, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Lily Kong, Convent Chronicles: History of a Pioneer Mission School for Girls in Singapore (Singapore: Armour Pub, 1994), 32, 41 (Call no. RSING 373.5957 KON); “Caldwell’s House,” New Nation, 15 October 1971, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Kong, Convent Chronicles, 43; Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 47; Keys, “Haven-ly Quiet.”
6. “Caldwell’s House.”
7. Kong, Convent Chronicles, 45; Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 453–4. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
8. “Convent Education,” Straits Times, 25 November 1924, 10 (From NewpaperSG); Kong, Convent Chronicles, 45.
9. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 48.
10. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 47; Liau Nyuk Oi, “The Tragedy of the Unwanted Child,” Straits Times, 18 August 1950, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Kong, Convent Chronicles, 143.
12. “Tragedy of Singapore’s Unwanted Babies,” Straits Times, 14 November 1946, 8; Liau, “Tragedy of the Unwanted Child.”
13. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 63.
14. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 52; “Caldwell’s House.”
15. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 453–4; Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 49; “Caldwell’s House”; CHIJMES, “Heritage Trail.”
16. CHIJMES, “Heritage Trail”; Gretchen Liu, In Granite and Chunam: The National Monuments of Singapore (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1996), 255–9. (Call no. RSING 725.94095957); Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 52.
17. “New Convent Chapel,” Straits Times, 10 June 1904, 5 (From NewspaperSG); Liu, Granite and Chunam, 255–9; CHIJMES, “Heritage Trail.”
18. Tyers, Singapore, Then & Now, 54, 62; Kong, Convent Chronicles, 62; “Van Wijk Hotel Sold,” Straits Times, 9 September 1931, 12 (From NewpaperSG); Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 148.
19. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 151; “Van Wijk Hotel Sold”; CHIJMES, “Heritage Trail.”
20. “New Classrooms for Catholic Convent,” Singapore Free Press, 8 March 1951, 5. (From NewpaperSG)
21. “The Straits Times Says... Full of Eastern Promise,” Straits Times, 12 July 1983, 14. (From NewpaperSG)
22. “Raffles Centre Plans: Second Look,” Straits Times, 25 February 1971, 5. (Ffrom NewpaperSG)
23. Tyers, Singapore, Then & Now, 54, 62; “Raffles Centre Plans”; Sandra Davie, “URA: Serenity and Ambience of CHIJ Site Will Be Kept,” Straits Times, 1 April 1990, 13; Irene Pates, “Before We Say Goodbye,” Straits Times, 5 November 1983, 1. (From NewpaperSG)
24. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 255–69.
25. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 77.
26. Tyers, Singapore, Then & Now, 54, 62; Davie, “Serenity and Ambience of CHIJ Site.”
27. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 255–69.
28. Tyers, Singapore, Then & Now, 54, 62; Davie, “Serenity and Ambience of CHIJ Site”; Kong, Convent Chronicles, 180.
29. Kong, Convent Chronicles, 179.
30. Julia Goh, “Exit CHIJ, Enter The Cloisters,” Straits Times, 27 February 1991, 22 (From NewspaperSG); Kong, Convent Chronicles, 179.
31. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 255–69.
32. Tyers, Singapore, Then & Now, 54, 62.
33. Jane Beamish and Jane Ferguson, A History of Singapore Architecture: The Making of a City (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1985), 31. (Call no. RSING 722.4095957 BEA)
34. Kong, Convent Chronicles, 54.
35. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 46; Liu, Granite and Chunam, 264.
36. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 255–69.
37. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 255–69.
38. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 255–69.
39. Kong, Convent Chronicles, 61.
40. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 255–69; Kong, Convent Chronicles, 61.
41. Meyers, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, 52; Liu, Granite and Chunam, 255–69.
42. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 255–69.
The information in this article is valid as of 2010 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.