In the dead of night along a quiet street, a chill wind blew. Filled with trepidation, a mother approached the gate with a bundle in her arms. Furtively, she looked around and placed the bundle gently at the foot of the gate. With a heavy heart, she quietly bid farewell to the little face peeking out from the bundle and hurried off.
Fast-forward to the present. The exact spot where babies have been abandoned still exist today. Along busy Victoria Street, many will recognise the gothic style building with its five storey high spire and a cluster of surrounding buildings. CHIJMES, a place for fine dining coupled with a variety of retail outlets. Occasionally, one gets to see a wedding service held at CHIJMES Hall. In the past, the building was home to many girls who have been brought up and studied there. Known as CHIJ (Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus) founded by the Sisters of the Infant Jesus in 1854, it was a place that the older generation may remember as the Convent Orphanage where abandoned babies were received, nurtured and educated.
^ The Gate of Hope located along Victoria Street. The text inscribed on the plaque reads…
At this small gate of the former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ), many babies were abandoned to be picked up by the Sisters of the convent. This was the origin of the Home for Abandoned Babies. For over 100 years, the orphanage was born to children from poor or broken families as well as unwanted babies. The orphanage took in many Chinese baby girls born in the Year of the Tiger, “Tiger girls”, because of the strong superstition belief then, that they would bring bad luck to the family. In 1968, the Mother Superior noted that the practice was stopped as there was a marked change in this superstitious belief. The Home for Abandoned Babies ceased functioning in 1983 when CHIJ was relocated. The CHIJ was founded in 1854 in Singapore by the French Catholic Missionary, Father Jean Marie Beurel.
^ Restoration works carried out at CHIJ. (Photocredit: National Archives of Singapore, circa 1994)
^ CHIJ Chapel and Caldwell House were gazetted as monuments on 26th Oct 1990 by the Preservation of Monuments Board.
^ A directory showing the plan of the premises. The red star marks the location of the “Gate of Hope”.
^ Caldwell House was designed by well known architect George Drumgoole Coleman. The building possess the charm of the Neo-classical style. It was named after H.C. Caldwell. a Senior Clerk to the Magistrates.
^ As you walk up the stairs in Caldwell House, a few photos adorn the walls recalling the history of CHIJ. Seen in this photo is a Sister with her charges.
^ An old photo of CHIJ.
^ A photo of the semi-circular room in Caldwell House where the nuns did their sewing, reading and writing. Although I am unable to ascertain, I believe this semi-circular room located in Caldwell House is the room seen at the bottom-left of the earlier photo of old CHIJ above.
^ The corridor on the second floor of Caldwell House. Bright and breezy. An old spiral staircase is located at the end of the corridor. Unfortunately, there was a barrier preventing access to the third level.
^ An intricate design of the spiral staircase at CHIJ. This one was located on the ground floor that leads to the next storey above.
^ A view from the second storey of Caldwell House with the columns framing the spire of The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd which is located across CHIJ.
^ Due to a wedding service that was held in CHIJ Chapel (now known as CHIJMES Hall) during my visit, I could only take a quick snap of the stained glass seen at the far end in the interior of chapel while standing at the chapel’s main entrance.
^ A sight to behold. A reflection of Jesus Christ cast on the glass pane from the stained glass motif at the entrance of the chapel. View the previous photo above for the motif at the entrance to the Chapel. It was a rewarding experience though I did not have the opportunity to enter the chapel to capture the beautiful stained glass artworks.
^ The works of the stained glass artists aim to depict a message. This photo may be just an ordinary side-door with a glass panel located on the flank of the chapel.
^ From a closer view, the stained glass motif is actually the image of St Peter holding the keys to the gates of heaven.
^ Standing on the lawn outside the chapel, the image that the stained glass may not be clearly visible. Perhaps the next photo will give a clue.
^ If I am not wrong, the stained glass depicts the scene at the foot of the Cross during the Crucifixion. Much appreciate if someone can share your thoughts if you have seen the image of the stained glass from the inside the chapel.
^ The lawn area where tranquility beseech you for a quiet moment of reflection.
^ There was a huge tree located alongside Caldwell House. It must have been the same tree that provided much shade from the searing sun judging by the large roots jutting out from the earth as well as the girth of the trunk. Seen growing on the tree was little clusters of berry-like fruits.
^ A quiet stroll along the corridor.
^ An iconic structure of CHIJ @ Victoria Street.
The sounds from gleeful girls playing on the convent grounds and perhaps the stern reprimand from a Sister has all faded from this place. Nevertheless, it held the memories for the mothers who have left their babies at the doorstep of the “Gate of Hope” out of poverty or superstitious beliefs. The Sisters of the convent were unwavering in their missionary work to receive these abandoned babies and nurture them with education and love. So were the many girls who have studied at the convent with the experiences of their school days forever etched in their hearts as they live their lives upholding the school’s motto “Simple in Virtue, Steadfast in Duty”.
The school has since been relocated to Toa Payoh now known as CHIJ (Toa Payoh). The missionary work of the Sisters also saw to the establishment of CHIJ schools in Singapore such as CHIJ (Katong), CHIJ (Kellock), CHIJ (Our Lady of Good Counsel), CHIJ (Our Lady of the Nativity – formerly CHIJ Ponggol), CHIJ (Our Lady Queen of Peace – formerly CHIJ Bukit Timah), CHIJ (St Joseph’s Convent), CHIJ (St Theresa’s Convent), CHIJ (St Nicholas Girls’ School).
Today, CHIJ schools look after the educational needs of the pupils. Nevertheless, homes have been set up to cater for abandoned children. You may like to browse for more information at Infant Jesus Homes & Children’s Centres.
The next time you happen to pass by the old CHIJ at Victoria Street, do take a stroll around the premises for its tranquility and charm. You are walking back into a piece of the school’s history.