Here’s something that some ex-Xaverians found out when they attended a reunion bash: St Xavier’s Institution in Penang is probably the oldest surviving formal school in the land.

The year 1852 inscribed on the school building is a bit misleading. According to former SXI brother director Brother Charles Levin, the school can actually trace its roots back to 1787. It was then that a Fr Garnault built a Malay-medium school on a tract of land in the Church Street area somewhere in the blue bordered area below.

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A Portuguese/Eurasian Christian community from Kuala Kedah ministered by Fr Garneau followed Francis Light to settle in a part of Penang, not far from where Light had strung up the Union Jack near the present Esplanade on 11 August 1786. (Malay communities had already inhabited the Dato Kramat area and perhaps the Tanjung Tokong fishing village even before Light arrived.)

Light’s common law wife Martina Rozells may have been a Portuguese-Siamese Catholic, who lived in Phuket and perhaps had close ties with the Kedah royal house. A small Siamese-Portuguese Catholic community had fled from Phuket when faced with persecution and joined a community of settlers of mixed Portuguese-Burmese/Thai descent in Kuala Kedah. (These Portuguese Catholic settlers had earlier left Malacca when it came under Dutch Protestant rule.) It was these Siamese-Portuguese Catholics who arrived in Penang Island in 1786, and by 1799, an early map of George Town shows a ‘Portuguese Church’ and a ‘Christians Place’.

Malay was the language of the early settlement in Penang and Fr Garneau’s school in 1787, housed in an attap hut in the Church Street/Bishop Street area, used Malay as the medium of instruction.

When the bishop died that year, Fr Garnault was appointed the ‘Bishop of Siam and Queda (Kedah)’ and he had to travel to Pondicherry in India for the ceremony. While he was away, Light built a house for the new bishop along what is now Bishop Street next to the church/school that Fr Garneau had built in what is now the Church Street area. The new Bishop Garnault returned to Penang on 15 August 1787, the Feast Day of the Assumption, and that is how Fr Garnault’s timber-and-attap church on stilts in a mangrove swamp got its name ‘Assumption Church’. And that’s also how Church Street and Bishop Street got their names.

I will let Fr De Crioux take up the story (source – Penang Talk) from 1787:

On his return from Pondicherry the first care of Mg. Garnault was to provide for the education of children of the parish. Three young Siamese ladies were eager to consecrate their lives to the service of God and of the Church. They were given the Rule of the “Amantes de la Croix” a well-known Asian religious congregation, and established themselves a house in China Street known to their contemporaries as the “Little Convent”. Besides this convent the Sisters founded a school for boys and an orphanage for girls. The Malay language was the medium of instruction in the school ….

The parish of the Assumption had attached to it three schools in which medium of instruction was Malay. These schools were situated at Gelugor, at Burma Village and in the Church compound. But the need for an English education was felt by many, and a small number of Catholic children were attending the Protestant Free School (after 1815). (The first English school had been opened in 1815 in Love Lane by the Rev Mr Hutchings. Subsequently a new school was built in Farquhar Street, and the old school transferred there (1821). At that time the Free School attendance was fifty.)

Fr Boucho (in Penang from 1824-1843) felt that a change was necessary. He transformed the vernacular school in the church compound into an English School for boys. In 1825 he built a brick house to contain one hundred and fifty children, which he called the “Catholic Free School”. He then asked all the Catholic children to leave the Penang Free School, and join his new school. It opened in 1825 with a roll of a hundred. Protestant Free School lost about one third of its pupils, relations strained.

The (St Francis Xavier’s) Catholic Free School was eventually handed over to the jurisdiction of the La Salle religious order in France. Fr Jean-Baptiste Baucho, who by then had been appointed Bishop of the region, invited the La Salle Brothers, to take over the running of the Catholic Free School. He was on hand to welcome the Brothers, who reached George Town via Singapore in April 1852. The Brothers took over the existing school (whose headmaster then was a Mr Charle Attean) with Brother Venere as its Director. The Brothers then relocated to a new two-storey building, completed in 1857, at the school’s present site in Farquhar Street.

The church, which once housed Fr Garneau’s school, was also relocated along Farquhar Street in temporary premises in 1857. A permanent church building was constructed and completed at a site next to present-day SXI and to this day the church is still called Assumption Church.

The Farquhar Street SXI building (see pre-war photo), however, was bombed by Japanese Forces during the Second World War. During the Occupation, it was used as the headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The building was once again bombed, this time by US forces, and almost flattened.

After the war, attap sheds were set up in the school field – in addition, four classrooms were borrowed from the Convent nearby – to house the pupils while a new building was constructed. The construction of the new school building experienced delays especially when the piling specifications were found to be unsuitable. (This resulted in a law suit by the architect who had recommended the piling material.) The new building was nearing completion by the time Bro Charles arrived on these shores (via Singapore in 1950). In early 1954, Bro Charles was invited to join the staff of SXI and was given the privilege of leading the pupils from the attap sheds across Farquhar Street to the new school building, which was eventually declared open in 1955.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I caught up with Bro Charles, now 84, during a class reunion, one of the largest ever held on the island with over 150 ex-Form Five (classes of 1978) pupils from five continents turning up in the true Xaverian spirit on 4 June 2011. And he was determined to use the occasion to set the record straight about the origins of the school.

As a band played lively numbers over the loud banter of ‘rowdy old boys’ revelling and reminiscing about old times, I tried to have a few words above the din with Bro Charles, who had just been discharged from hospital after a bad fall that resulted in a serious hip injury. To make sure I got down what he had said correctly, I requested him to write on a napkin the gist of what he had to say.

In Brother Charles’ handwriting

Of course, other schools in the peninsula existed around this time or even earlier as Islamic religious centres or pondoks. For instance, Munshi Abdullah attended the Kampong Pali Koran School in 1804 when he was seven (National Library Singapore). Earlier, in Malacca, St Francis Xavier and his fellow Jesuits established the St Paul’s College in the premises of St Paul’s Chapel (now in ruins) in 1548 (Wikipedia). But SXI today, with its roots in 1787, is probably the oldest surviving formal school in the land, unless others can point to earlier schools still around.

The Xaverian spirit: Still alive and kicking after all these years

I have to say something about the Xaverian spirit. The old boys clearly have huge affection and esteem for all that the school has done for them (witness how they sang the school anthem with much gusto after all these years) – for their principals, their teachers and the La Salle brothers and their fellow alumni. The priceless bonds of friendship and camaraderie, irrespective of ethnicity or religion, they built in school have now been revived using web social networking tools. Brilliant work by the organisers in setting up an ever-expanding email group and organising the event.

Clearly the La Salle Brothers can tap into this enormous reservoir of goodwill as they embark on the next stage of their education mission.