CHIJMES in Singapore
CHIJMES (pronounced "chimes", Chinese: 赞美广场) is a historic building complex in Singapore, which began life as a Catholic convent known as the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) (圣婴女修院) and convent quarters known as Caldwell House (古德威尔屋). The complex is located at Victoria Street in the Downtown Core, within the Central Area, Singapore's central business district.
This complex of convent buildings has a Gothic-style chapel. It was used as a Catholic convent for 131 years, with Caldwell House constructed in 1840–1841 and the chapel in 1904. The chapel, now a multi-purpose hall, is known as CHIJMES Hall (赞美礼堂), and Caldwell House, now an art gallery, have both been gazetted as national monuments. The complex has been restored for commercial purposes as a dining, shopping and entertainment centre with ethnic restaurants, shops and a function hall, providing a backdrop for musicals, recitals, theatrical performances and weddings.
In October 1852, four French nuns arrived in Penang after having travelled overland from their native country in caravans. Reverend Mother Mathilde Raclot, leader of this group, was to become a key personality in the early history of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus on Victoria Street.
From Penang, the nuns sailed to Singapore on a mission to build a Convent, which is now known as CHIJ Secondary Toa Payoh. At the beginning of 1854, CHIJ Secondary Toa Payoh was the first CHIJ school built. It was located at Victoria Street, but was then moved to a site in Toa Payoh. On 5 February 1854, they reached the island's shores and took up residence at the first convent quarters, the now gazetted Caldwell House. The house had been purchased for the convent by Father Jean-Marie Beurel, a French missionary, who also established Saint Joseph's Institution, the former site of which is now the Singapore Art Museum, and the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, where he was the parish priest.
Caldwell House was designed by George Drumgoole Coleman, and is an example of his Neoclassical style. The bay on the upper floor became the sisters' lounge.
The nuns began taking in pupils only ten days after moving in. Reverend Mother Mathilde staffed her school with sisters from the parent Society, the Institute of the Charitable Schools of the Holy Infant Jesus of Saint Maur. She dedicated 20 years of her life turning the convent into a school, an orphanage and refuge for women. Two classes were conducted, one for fee-paying students and another for orphans and the poor. Slowly, the nuns managed to restore the house into a simple but austere residence.
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.
After being granted land in 1849 for the formation of Saint Joseph's Institution, Father Charles Benedict Nain, a priest at Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, tried his luck once more for the building of a school for girls. He was refused but, undaunted and after returning re-inspired from his voyage to France in 1852, he was engaged as an architect for the construction of the chapel at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and, on behalf of the Roman Catholic community, was in charge at the same time of the construction of the extension of the Saint Joseph Institution. The construction of the chapel started in 1901 and it was completed by 1904. Father Nain was highly involved in the worksite. He is the author of all the fine architectural details found in the chapel.
Much of the knowledge about the daily activities of the convent comes from seven volumes of diaries that were meticulously kept by convent scribes. These diaries cover over a hundred years of convent history, from 1851 to 1971; they are handwritten in French and entitled Annales de Singapour. From their observations, it is known that life within the convent walls was anything but sedate. Apart from daily chores, the nuns also had to organise and attend mass, grade papers, maintain the buildings and the grounds as well as raise money to support their activities.
Saint Nicholas Girls' School was established in 1933. The school first held classes in the four old bungalows which formed the Hotel Van Wijk of the 1890s. It later moved into its new premises at the town convent in 1949 when the school was incorporated in the convent grounds. The school has since relocated to Ang Mo Kio in 1985.
The last religious service was held in the chapel on 3 November 1983, after which the chapel was deconsecrated and the town convent was closed. Careful restoration work has preserved much of the original structure of the convent and the chapel. After almost five and a half years of conservation and construction work, what was once the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and the seat of education for generations of Singapore girls, has been converted into a plaza of theme retail and food and beverage outlets interspersed with ample outdoor spaces and courtyards, cloistered walls and long, covered walkways. This haven in the city hub of Singapore, now known as CHIJMES, is a S$100 million project unmatched for its location and unique ambiance. It won a Merit Award in the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2002.
The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Chapel and Caldwell House were gazetted as a national monument on 26 October 1990.
The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus is distinctive for being an architecturally self-contained city block in Singapore. It contains groups of buildings of different styles and periods in order to maintain a diversity in aesthetics. They are formed around courtyards and other expansive spaces, landscaped and enclosed with walls which scale with its urban surroundings.
George Drumgoole Coleman's house built in 1840–1841 for H.C. Caldwell, a magistrate's clerk, is the oldest building in this enclave, which also includes the Gothic chapel and Saint Nicholas Girls' School buildings. It was in the Caldwell House that the nuns did their sewing, reading and writing for so many years in the semicircular upstairs room whilst the first storey served as a parlour and visitors' room. The early Gothic style chapel has finely detailed works, such as the plasterwork, the wall frescoes and stained glass panels.
The grand Gothic chapel was established with the support of the Catholic community in Singapore and beyond. Designed by Father Nain, the chapel is one of the most elaborate places of worship ever built in Singapore. The chapel was completed in 1904 and consecrated the following year.
A five-storey spire flanked by flying buttresses marks the entrance to the chapel. The 648 capitals on the columns of the chapel and its corridors each bear a unique impression of tropical flora and birds.
The various buildings are related by design with the intent to form exterior spaces which would be pleasing for its users, and were used for church school activities until November 1983 when the school vacated the premises. The spaces contained within the whole block have been adapted for public use, and form one of the major buildings in the Central Area.
- National Heritage Board (2002), Singapore's 100 Historic Places, Archipelago Press,
- Norman Edwards, Peter Keys (1996), Singapore - A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, Times Books International,
- Preservation of Monuments Board, Know Our Monuments
- CHIJMES Online
- Uniquely Singapore article
- Interactive VR (Virtual Reality) image of CHIJMES Exterior view
- Journey to Singapore's Yesteryears - CHIJMES