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Gurney Paragon [St. Jo's l Photo Gallery]

Main

A chat with Brother Felix Donahue
History, memories and legacy

I spent a delightful and insightful hour+ with this 75 year old sprightly man of the cloth at the La Salle Provincialate, off Jalan Gasing, PJ on Feb 12 afternoon. The objective was to get his perspective on the 2 “heritage” buildings located on the old St Joseph Novitiate grounds, as well as to get a sense of history and memories of the place. To make it come alive, as it were.


Background

Hunza purchased this 10+ acre piece of land from the Christian Brothers in fiscal year 2005. Our development plans for this last piece of prime land along the famous promenade of Gurney Drive is for an integrated development comprising serviced condominiums and apartments, shopping malls and commercial units.



In the lay-out plan as approved by the local authorities are, inter alia, 2 buildings which are “heritage”. One is the novitiate itself, a 2-storey 40,000 sq ft building and is in the shape of a cross. On the 2nd floor of this building is a chapel about 8,000 sq ft. The date actually “cast in concrete” on this building is MCMXXV, which if I remember my roman numerals, translate to 1925. This is a “class 2” heritage building, of which we are required to maintain in-situ, as well as the façade. And, of course, Hunza, as a responsible corporate citizen, will do so. One of the clearest and closest example of what and how such building can be “heritaged” and put to use commercially and be open to the rakyat to enjoy is “CHIJmes” (Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, which was previously a school, now a hot, hopping and happening place) in Singapore.

The other, a small building of approx 430 sq ft is “The National Shrine of the Boy Jesus”. Contrary to general belief, it is not a heritage building at all. In discussion with local authorities when they were reviewing our lay-out plan, we agreed to maintain the façade. We are allowed to physically move this building. In our plan, we have identified a more visible and imposing location for it; we are planning to move it to the frontal side of the novitiate fronting Gurney Drive, hence giving it more prominence than current location.


History lesson from Brother Felix

The land was acquired by the Christian Brothers way back in 1916. In 1918, the first building was opened. This was a training centre (a novitiate) for aspiring brothers. In 1925, the current building/novitiate was opened

The beautiful stained glass windows were brought in from Italy and the altar and railings were made from imported marble. Apart from being a novitiate, it was a teachers training college as well. Initially only brothers were accepted to be trained as teachers. In the late 1950s, it accepted lay students too.

Brother Felix arrived in Penang in 1950s, attached to St Xavier’s, a Christian Brothers school. He recalls that the trainee teachers came from the region; Burma (now Myanmar), Singapore, India, Pakistan, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Thailand.

In Malaysia itself, the Brother teachers were stationed in all states except the east coast. The teaching diploma was recognized by our government until the 70s, when it was phased out, what with the change in emphasis on the curriculum etc.

The land and buildings were then leased out to Uplands School, until Hunza purchased it.

The National Shrine of the Boy Jesus

When told that we need to put the record straight, what with a lot of unwarranted press about the chapel, the novitiate, the little chapel* and conservation and heritage buildings, he didn’t quite catch the little chapel part, until we used the name “the national shrine of the boy Jesus”. (* Note that in the layout plan as approved by the authorities, the shrine is described as “the little chapel”. I understand it came to be called that through usage, amongst ourselves, the authorities and the consultants involved. Looking back, the erroneous name has stuck, inadvertently. However for the Brothers, there was no such thing as the “little chapel”.)

Not only that, he said I can quote him as stating that this is not a heritage building as “it has no architectural merit. It has no historical context nor heritage value, unlike the novitiate”. He went on to say that it should be viewed a modern building, as its age is only 50 years or so.

When prompted whether anything of historical import happened in connection with this building, his reply was a firm no.

It was built by the Christian Brothers who promoted a pious Christian movement, which wanted to use the boy Jesus as a role model for young school children.



WWII
From stories he heard, not much happened on the grounds in WWII. It was used though by the Japanese to segregate students as to which school they attended. St Xavier’s was ok; however, Chung Ling merited further questioning. So fairly soon, all the students were claiming they were schooling @ St Xavier’s!


Brother Felix

Hails from Ireland. Was sent to England for further education when he was 17. Everyone had to have a favourite football team, as that was the norm then. (Come to think of it, it still is so today). He chose Manchester United, for the fact that their captain then was from Ireland.

One of his sweetest memories of the Novitiate and his life here was when he played football on the adjoining grounds. You should see the widest of smiles that lit up his face when he fondly remembered playing like he was a team member of the “Busby Babes”.

When asked to reconcile a Christian Brother with a life-long love affair with the Red Devils (Manchester United’s nickname), he philosophically chuckled, “One must have an interest, to stay sane and human. Not to be too serious.”


The Products
400-500 lay teachers, and 200-300 brothers “graduated” from this place.

He intimated to me that part of the proceeds from the sale of St Joseph will go towards the welfare/medical of the elderly brothers in this region.


The Legacy

“You know,” Brother Felix told me, “when we bought this piece of land, it was an orchard. At St Joseph’s, we produced fruits of a different kind.”

I know, for I am a product of one of the Christian Brother schools. And I am sure that there must be lots more men and women in this part of the world that went through school-life being touched by and thankful to these dedicated men, who answered to a higher calling.

By Phaik Huat



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