Timothy Tye

CHIJMES, SingaporeCHIJMES, Singapore (13 September, 2010)

CHIJMES (GPS: 1.29505, 103.85215) is today a dining and entertainment centre right next to Raffles City, was the former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Middle Education School. Its address is 30 Victoria Street, Singapore 187996. Rather than dwelling on what CHIJMES is today, I would like to take you back in time, and explore CHIJMES when it was a convent. The convent was established by four nuns, the same group of Sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus Mission, that established over 80 convent schools in Malaysia, including Convent Light Street in Penang, the oldest girls' school in this region.

The nuns, Reverend Mother Mathilde Raclot, the leader of the group, Sister Gaetau, Sister Appolinaire and Sister Gregoire, arrived in Singapore in 1854, having established a convent school in Penang two years earlier. In Singapore, they were provided a place to stay at what is today Caldwell House by Father Jean-Marie Beurel, the French missionary who founded the St Joseph's Institution (today the Singapore Art Museum) and the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.

Caldwell House was designed in the Neoclassical style by George Drumgoole Coleman, the architect who designed numerous colonial buildings in Singapore including the Armenian Church and the original building of St Andrew's Cathedral. Built between 1840 and 1841, Caldwell House is the oldest surviving residential building in Singapore.

Within ten days of moving into Caldwell House, the Sisters were already taking in pupils. Two classes were held, one for paying students, and another for orphants and the poor.

The first Chapel at the Convent was built around 1850, before the arrival of the missionary Sisters. By the end of the 19th Century, it was in such a dilapidated state that the nuns dared not use it. So the Sisters embarked on various events to raise funds to build a new one. Father Beurel had earlier acquired all nine lots of land between Victoria Street and North Bridge Road. He handed them to Reverend Mother Mathilde as land for the new convent complex.

The first chapel of the Convent, which had been built around 1850, was in such a bad condition that it was necessary to build a new one. At the end of the 19th century, the Sisters started fund-raising by various means for the new chapel. The old one was becoming so dangerous that the Sisters decided to celebrate mass in Caldwell House.

Father Beurel acquired all the nine lots of land between Victoria Street and North Bridge Road, originally belonging to the Raffles Institution, that would constitute the entire convent complex. He presented them all to Reverend Mother Mathilde. Father Charles Benedict Nain, a priest at the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, was the architect of the Convent chapel. Construction commenced in 1901, and the chapel was completed in 1904.

Much of what we know about the going-ons at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus comes from the diaries which the nuns meticulously kept. These diaries, handwritten in French, are entitled Annales de Singapour. They documented life within the walls of the convent, offering a glimpse of a cloistered existence which is surprisingly eventful.

The closing chapter of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus came on 3 November 1983, with the last service at the chapel. After that, the chapel was deconsecrated and the convent closed after almost 130 years of operation. The whole complex was reinvented for modern usage, and this being Singapore, the only choice has got to be retail. With a rebranding exercise, the convent became CHIJMES, pronounced "chimes", and the Convent chapel became CHIJMES Hall.

The restoration work was done with great sympathy to the original structure. It was a conservation project that took five and a half years, costing S$100 million, and was honoured with an Award of Merit from Unesco Asia Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation in 2002. It joined other recipients including Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Cheng Hoon Teng Temple and Thian Hock Keng Temple.

The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Chapel and Caldwell House were a National Monument of Singapore since 26 October 1990. The ensemble was a winner of the 2002 Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation, Award of Merit.

CHIJMES, SingaporeCHIJMES, Singapore (13 September, 2010)

CHIJMES, SingaporeCHIJMES, Singapore (13 September, 2010)

CHIJMES, SingaporeCHIJMES, Singapore (13 September, 2010)

CHIJMES, SingaporeThe ornate cast-iron gate of CHIJMES (13 September, 2010)

CHIJMES is on the map of Victoria Street, Singapore

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