OUR FOUNDER – BLESSED NICHOLAS BARRÉ (1621 – 1686)
Nicolas Barré was born in Amiens, France on 21 October 1621, the first-born and only son to Louis and Antoinette Barré. He grew up in a wealthy merchant family and was educated at a Jesuit college in his hometown. As a young child, he had a deep sense of God. When one of his sisters fell ill, his strong faith in God and prayers led to her recovery.
Responding to God’s call
At the age of 19, he loved God so much that he joined the religious order of the Minims founded by St Francis of Paola. In 1642, Nicolas was ordained a priest. In 1659, when he was in Rouen, France, he saw how the poorer families lived. Many of the children, especially the girls, were illiterate and had no knowledge of God. Seeing the disparity in opportunities for education between the rich and the poor, he was inspired to establish little schools to educate girls of poor families.
Spread of Nicolas Barré’s work
In 1662, Father Nicolas Barré, with the help of some young women, set up a school for girls in the village near Rouen. Over the next four years, several more schools were established in and around Rouen. These ‘Little Charitable Schools’ proved very successful and popular.
In 1666, Father Nicolas Barré invited the women to form a community to continue this educative work. In those days, educating the poor, especially girls, was frowned upon by society. The women, in a spirit of total trust in God’s guidance, said a wholehearted ‘yes’ to this invitation. Thus, he began a new religious congregation: the Charitable Mistresses of the Schools of the Holy Infant Jesus.
Father Nicolas Barré continued similar work in Paris with great success. Believing that each child has potential and is unique, the children were taught with care and respect by the teachers who became well-known for their expertise and gentle approach. More CHIJ schools multiplied and spread across the world including Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
Celebration of Nicolas Barré’s Life
Father Nicolas Barré suffered ill health in his later years and died at the age of 65 on 31 May 1686 in France. On 7 March 1999, Father Nicolas Barré was beatified by Pope John Paul II. Blessed Nicolas Barré’s heart for the education of the poor, especially girls, continue to be an inspiration to many generations of CHIJ girls across cultures, background, race and religions. Through receiving an education in CHIJ schools, all IJ girls are called to act justly with courage and compassion in their lives with a priority to helping the disadvantaged in society.
In commemoration of this great man and what he has done, CHIJ Schools in Singapore celebrate Founder’s Day on 31 May each year.
MOTHER MATHILDE (1814 – 1911)
Early Life: “ Be Holy as I am Holy.”
Mother Mathilde was born Marie Justine Raclot in France in 1814, the first born and only daughter of a family of farmers who were deeply religious. In her childhood, Justine learned much from her father who was kind to the poor especially those stranded without shelter in the severe cold of winter. She was shy and loved the beauty of the garden and the surrounding countryside. One of her childhood joys was to dress up her dolls as little nuns and she would visualise them going away on missionary journeys. At an early age, Justine was already a prayerful child. At age 6, she went to a Primary school and at the age of 12, her father recognising her need for a secondary education, sent her to a boarding school run by the IJ Sisters, who were then known as Dames of St Maur, in France.
Responding to God’s call: “Walk in the presence of God and be perfect.”
At age 19, Justine entered the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus, in Paris and was given the name St Mathilde. After her first profession, Mother Mathilde was sent to southern France to teach in various IJ schools for 17 years. There, she acquired a reputation for being firm yet kind, with qualities of courage, integrity and sincerity.
Spread of Mother Mathilde’s work: “Leave everything and come.”
At age 38, Mother Mathilde received a letter from her superior in Paris with this message: “Leave everything and come.” Two days later, in September 1852, four IJ Sisters with Mother Mathilde in charge, set sail to Penang, Malaysia on a ship called the Bentinck. They went to Penang to guide and support the small group of IJ Sisters who had arrived earlier in Penang to set up a Convent school for girls. A year and a half later, on 5 February 1854, Mother Mathilde and three IJ Sisters arrived in Singapore. Just ten days after their arrival and move into Caldwell House in Victoria Street, Mother Mathilde and the Sisters began to take in students.
During those early years, Mother Mathilde faced many difficulties as there was little support from the small Catholic community. However, with her strong faith in God, together with a sense of purpose and mission, Mother Mathilde and the Sisters persevered with great determination and went about doing the work of caring for abandoned children, educating young girls, helping the poor and nursing the sick. They served all those in need and offered young girls hope for the future. Mother Mathilde and the Sisters started a Convent Orphanage, a Home for Abandoned Babies and laid the foundation for a school for girls, known as the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Victoria Street. She and the Sisters developed a reputation for charity and graciousness and the city of Singapore began to hold the Sisters in high esteem.
Celebration of Mother Mathilde’s Legacy: “Go, good and faithful servant. You have deserved well of the Lord.”
At age 58, Mother Mathilde set out once again on her next mission to Japan. With the same spirit and faith in God, she toiled tirelessly to build the foundations of IJ schools in Yokohama, Tokyo and Shizuoka. Mother Mathilde died at the age of 97 and lies buried at Yokohama. She is deeply honoured by the IJ schools she helped to establish in Japan and at her funeral in Yokohama was paid this compliment by a Protestant Minister in the crowd who called out, “Go, good and faithful servant. You have deserved well of the Lord.” Mother Mathilde was recognised by the government of Singapore in the Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014 for her contributions to education in Singapore. Today, the eleven Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) schools in Singapore stand as a testament to Mother Mathilde’s work.
THE CHIJ STORY IN SINGAPORE
The story of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) in Singapore began with the founding of the first CHIJ school in 1854.
In response to a request by Father Jean-Marie Beurel to set up Christian schools for girls, the first group of IJ Sisters set sail in 1851, on “La Julie”, a sailing boat that took nearly 4 months to reach Malaya. It was only in 1854 that Singapore received its pioneering group of IJ Sisters comprising Mother Mathilde Raclot, Mother St Appollinaire, Sister St Gregory Connolly and Mother St Gaetan.
The sisters lived in a house called Caldwell House, which was located at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Victoria Street. They began work immediately and commenced classes with 14 fee-paying pupils, 9 boarders and 16 orphans just 10 days upon their arrival. They established the first Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) school in Victoria Street. The sisters also started an orphanage and a boarding house and in 1903, a new and spectacular chapel designed by Father Charles Benedict Nain was added to the convent. The Chapel was a place of prayer, solace and refuge, used by nuns for quiet contemplation and reflection and by students and the schools for eucharistic celebrations.
In the decades that followed, other CHIJ schools were established throughout Singapore – CHIJ Katong Convent (1930), CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ (1933), CHIJ St Theresa’s Convent (1933), CHIJ St Joseph’s Convent (1938), CHIJ Bukit Timah (1955) (now known as CHIJ Our Lady Queen of Peace), CHIJ Ponggol (1957) (now known as CHIJ Our Lady of the Nativity), Opera Estate Convent (1959) (merged with the primary section of Katong Convent to form CHIJ Katong Primary in 1990), CHIJ Our Lady of Good Counsel (1960) and CHIJ Kellock (1964). In line with the IJ mission to educate and provide care for children and especially girls in crisis, IJ Homes and Children’s Centres (IJHCC) were also established.
Through the years, the CHIJ Schools in Singapore experienced numerous changes, including the relocation of a number of schools. Despite these changes, the CHIJ schools continue to bear witness to the ideals of our founder, Nicolas Barré, and remain faithful to our motto, Simple in Virtue, Steadfast in Duty.