Convent Light Street, at Light Street, George Town, is the oldest girls' school in Southeast Asia. Founded by French Catholic nuns in 1852, it is one of the most highly regarded missionary schools on Penang Island; in the past, it educated daughters of the wealthy and the royalties from abroad.
Today, like other missionary schools on Penang Island, Convent Light Street follows the standardised Malaysian education system.
The convent was founded by three French Catholic nuns of the Holy Infant Jesus Mission in 1852. The three were part of a group of five nuns who had travelled from France to Singapore to form a Catholic institution in Singapore. At the request of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Boucho in George Town, the three nuns then sailed from Singapore to Penang Island.
Upon arriving in George Town, the three nuns settled inside an attap hut near the Church of the Assumption at Church Street (the church has been moved since to Farquhar Street). In July, they received 16 orphans, 9 boarders and 30 day pupils.
While the nuns taught during the day, they also sewed clothing at night to raise funds for food and clothing. In addition, they had to adapt to the climate and the local languages, as well as having to deal with pests.
The three nuns were soon joined by Reverend Mother St. Mathilde Raclot, who went on to establish more than 80 convent schools all over British Malaya, including the Convent Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJMES) in downtown Singapore.
With the increase in the number of children under their care causing the attap hut to be overcrowded, the nuns had to find a new place for their convent. Mother St. Mathilde went about finding a suitable place until she found the Government House at Light Street. The Government House had served as the residence of Captain Francis Light after he founded George Town in 1786.
In 1859, the nuns bought the Anglo-Indian-style building and the surrounding seven-acre compound for F50,000 (French franc). The House was converted into the Novitiate, while the surrounding wood and attap structures were used as dormitories, kitchens and classrooms.
A field formed part of the seven-acre compound. The field was later sold to the neighbouring St. Xavier's Institution, the oldest Catholic boys' school in Malaysia. A wall separating the field from Convent Light Street was also constructed; interestingly, the wall now serves as the boundary between the Core Zone and the Buffer Zone of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The nuns continued taking in orphans, both male and female, regardless of race and background. The orphaned boys would be taken care of until the age of 11, when they would leave to enter St. Xavier's Institution.
In addition to taking in unwanted orphans, the convent also functioned as a boarding school for the wealthy and the royalty. Even the Thai royal family sent their princesses to the school.
In the next 80 years, the convent continued to expand within the compound. The Old Chapel was added in 1867, followed by the Old Hall, cloisters and classrooms in 1882. More expansions were made until 1934, gradually forming the Convent Light Street we see today.
During the Second World War, the Imperial Japanese Navy took over the school, and used the Government House as a base and an interrogation centre. 22 United States Navy sailors from the crippled submarine, USS Grenadier, were interrogated inside the House. The walls inside the House still bears the signatures of some of these American sailors, who etched their names with their belt buckles.
After the war, the convent continued where they left off, believing that, in the event of a Malayan independence, they could play a role in bringing about unity within the multi-ethnic Malayan society. However, since 1957, the school, like many other missionary schools on Penang Island, has faced discrimination from the Malaysian federal government. Boarding was discontinued in 1961 and the school stopped receiving orphans ever since. After missionary schools were absorbed into the standardised Malay national education system in 1971, Convent Light Street was forced to remove a Christian cross from its shield.
In spite of this, the convent still maintains a strong reputation to this day and is one of the highly-regarded girls' schools on Penang Island.
Simple Dans Ma Vertu, Forte Dans Mon Devoir (French)
Simple in My Virtues, Strong in My Duties
Convent Light Street is a girls' school that offers secondary education up to SPM (Malaysian Certificate of Education) level, equivalent to Form 5.
- The Government House had been the residence of Captain Francis Light, the founder of George Town. It is among the oldest structures still standing on Penang Island, older than most cities on the Malay Peninsula including Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
- Francis Light's Well was dug by Light himself and is one of the two wells within Convent Light Street. The well sits right next to the Government House.
As this is a girls' school, access is strictly prohibited to all visitors. Call ahead to obtain special permission to visit the school grounds in the evenings or during school holidays.
Telephone number : +60-4 263 3894
- Hockton, K., Howard Tan, 2012. Penang : An Inside Guide to Its Historic Homes, Buildings, Monuments and Parks. MPH Group, Kuala Lumpur.
- Langdon, M. A Guide to George Town's Historic Commercial and Civic Precints. Penang : George Town World Heritage Incorporated.