Sisters of the Infant Jesus

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Not to be confused with Little Sisters of Jesus.

The Sisters of the Infant Jesus, previously known as the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus or the Dames of Saint Maur, is a Roman Catholic religious institute, dedicated to education and the training of underprivileged schoolchildren. They were founded in Paris in 1675, as part of the work of the Blessed Nicolas Barré, a Minim friar and Catholic priest (1621-1686), who had gathered some young women for the free instruction of the poor in Rouen in 1662.[1] The members of the Institute use the postnominal initials of S.I.J. or I.J.S. (previously C.H.I.J.).

Today, the IJ sisters and their lay volunteers have a presence worldwide through social projects and schools. They are also known as "Dames of St. Maur" and, more commonly, "Infant Jesus (IJ) Sisters".

The foundation of Barré's schools and of the Sisters suggested to St. John Baptist de La Salle the idea of accomplishing a similar work for boys, resulting in his founding of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools.[2]



Main article: Nicholas Barré

In 1659 Barré, who was a respected scholar within his Order, was sent to the monastery of the Order in Rouen. He became widely known as a preacher and his sermons attracted a large audience.[3] In 1662 Barré saw the need for the education of the poor in France.

France in the late 17th century was suffering from the effects of the Franco-Spanish War (1635–1659) and a terrible plague. As a result of his efforts to promote a planned parish mission in the nearby village of Sotteville-lès-Rouen, Barré came to see the suffering of the local population. To enable parents to attend the mission, Barré asked two young women to come and help with the children. One was a local resident, Françoise Duval, 18 years old, the other was Marguerite Lestocq, then aged 20, who, like him, was from Amiens and with whom he had family connections.

He saw the need to make basic education more accessible to all. There were hardly any schools for girls and very few for boys. Most primary school teachers were poorly educated and religious education was almost non-existent; there was profound ignorance of the Catholic faith.[4] In 1662, half the children in Rouen died of famine. Many were homeless and wandered the streets as beggars and, for some, prostitution became one of the few means of livelihood available.[5]

They began to give daily classes to young girls in a room which they were allowed to use, spending that year in this work. Soon three other young women joined them, and two separate schools were opened. Barré would visit the classes frequently, guiding the young women in how to teach and deal with both the children and their parents, drawing upon his own rigorous education under the Jesuits and his experience as a professor. He taught them the value of “instruction and education” and from the beginning he trained the young teachers to respect the uniqueness of each child and to develop each one’s potential. The teachers were to speak in a humble, gentle and simple manner so that even the youngest could understand, and they were to teach only what they themselves had adequately grasped.[6]

As the enrollment increased, more schools were established, and four years later, the ladies in charge of these schools began to live in a community under a Superior. This was the beginning of a religious congregation whose main work was the education of the poor.

The year 1666 saw the founding of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus. After several years of teaching in the schools, the five young women were invited by Barré to consider becoming part of a committed community. After some reflection, they felt that they were indeed called to this way of life and agreed. These women were not bound by religious vows or confined to a cloister. They were free to serve the local community and provide free education for poor children. They committed themselves to this in a legal document drawn up in 1669, becoming called the Charitable Teachers of the Infant Jesus (French: Maîtresses Charitable de l'Infant Jésus) or the Sisters of Providence. As part of their living in trust in God, it was established that the material needs of the schools were to handled by women outside the new community.[7]

The ladies committed themselves by a legal document drawn up in 1669 and took the name “Maitresses Charitable de l’Infant Jesus” (Charitable Teachers of the Infant Jesus). In 1677 a Convent was established in Rue Saint Maur, Paris (ii) and the Sisters were subsequently known as the Dames of St. Maur. In 1678, Barré founded a novitiate for the sisters on the Seine.[8]

Expansion and division[edit]

Due to his declining health, in 1675 Barré was sent to the Minim monastery in Paris. Though limited in his activities, he promoted new foundations of his "charitable schools of Providence", starting with two, Saint Jean en Grèves and Saint Nicolas des Champs, training teachers, both men and women for them. He urged his teachers not to wait until pupils arrived at the school; they were to seek out especially those who might be at risk. He also set up trade schools so that girls could earn a living. Again, the education offered was to be entirely free and any profit derived from the pupils’ work was to go to them.[9]

In 1677 Barré began to send teachers to other locations in France, starting with his native Picardy, reaching as far as New France in North America. These women were not part of a religious institute, and so were free to serve their local communities as needed, without the barriers that status would have imposed at that time. Around that time, he acquired a house located on the Rue Saint Maur in the 6th arrondissement of Paris (now called the Rue de l'Abbé Grégoire), which was to become the motherhouse of the Institute.

The Daughters of Providence were members of a Catholic religious congregation for women founded in 1643, by a pious widow, Marie Polaillon (née de Lumague) under a Rule of Life drawn up by Vincent de Paul. The Daughters would profess annual vows of obedience, chastity, service and stability. In 1681 several houses of the congregation merged with the Sisters of the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus. A number of ‘Little Charitable Schools’ were established throughout France. In 1683 Mother Françoise Duval, one of the foundresses, was sent to open a school in Lisieux. At the time of Barré's death in 1686, there were over 100 schools being operated by the Sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus throughout France.[9]

Throughout his life, Barré had refused to allow the schools to accept benefices as a means of support, determined to place his trust in God alone, and was followed in this commitment by the teachers of the Institute. Upon his death, however, the lay trustees in Paris and Rouen, who were in charge of the finances of the schools and the teachers who staffed them, strongly disagreed over whether or not to continue this practice.

This was eventually referred to the royal court, and, in 1691, King Louis XIV divided the Institute into three independent groups, with motherhouses in Rouen, Paris and Lisieux.[9]

  • The Sisters in the original communities became known as the Sisters of Providence of Rouen and in 1921 became a congregation of diocesan right, under the authority of the local bishops where they served,[10] with a missionary outreach in Madagascar and Central Africa.
  • The group based in Lisieux also became a diocesan congregation.[11]
  • The Sisters of St Maur in Paris became an institute of pontifical right with communities in five continents.

Current era[edit]

The French Revolution closed all the schools of the institute and it was not until 1805 a new community of teachers was formed by seven surviving members.[12] Less than twenty-five years after the opening of the motherhouse in Paris, eighty schools for free education and forty boarding schools had been established in France. With the granting of official approval from Rome, the Sisters extended their work to America, England, Spain, Malaysia, Japan and Thailand. The new growth of the Institute was such that, by the mid-19th century, schools were opened in Spain and Asia. 'Sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus (Dames of Saint Maur) were among the pioneer missionaries in British Malaya, Japan and Thailand. In 1887, after over 200 years of service without the taking of religious vows, this congregation of Sisters became a religious institute of pontifical right, able to operate independently worldwide.[9]

Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus in Singapore

Southeast Asia[edit]

In 1849 a Catholic missionary in the Straits Settlements, the Rev. Jean Marie Beurel, a native of Saint-Brieuc in France, suggested to the colonial governor, William John Butterworth, that it might be worthwhile to found a charitable organisation for girls next to the Church in Victoria Street. In August 1852, Beurel bought the house at the corner of Victoria Street and Bras Basah Road. Beurel then appealed to the Superior General of the congregation in France for Sisters to run a school.[13]


Four Sisters were sent to the East. After a long and perilous voyage, three of them landed at Penang in April 1852; one had died at sea. The three Sisters established a convent which contained an orphanage and school in Penang that same year. The school, Convent Light Street (Malay: SMK Convent Lebuh Light), is Penang's oldest girls' school and has occupied its current site along Light Street near historic George Town for over 150 years.[14][15] While on the peninsula, the Sisters continued establishing schools with help from the local community such as Kuala Lumpur's oldest girls' school Convent Bukit Nanas. During World War II, the Japanese invaded Malaya and either took over or closed down many such mission schools, notably the iconic Convent Primary School in the hills of Tanah Rata.[16] The Tanah Rata convent is one of the few in the region which still contains an operating school and a church. Today, CHIJ schools can be found in most states and many major cities and they continue to educate local girls of all races and religion.

Mother Mathilde Raclot[edit]

Justine Raclot was born in 1814 to a middle class family in France. When she was 18 she entered the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus and took the name of St Mathilde. In September 1852, the Congregation sent four sisters to Penang, with Mother St Mathilde in charge, to guide and support the group of sisters who had arrived earlier. In February 1854, three Sisters led by Rev. Mother St. Mathilde Raclot arrived in Singapore and set up the convent in Singapore at Victoria Street. Soon they also started a Convent Orphanage and a Home for Abandoned Babies as they found day-old babies were being left at their doorstep.[17]

To raise funds for their work, St Mathilde taught needlework to her fellow nuns and their students, and they sold their products to the wives of the local Chinese merchants. The school became well-known and within ten years, the enrollment had increased to 300. Secondary education began in 1905. Under Mother Hombeline, the expansion programme continued.[13]

Of the 79 years that St Mathilde was a nun, 59 were spent in Asia. In 1872, 20 years after arriving in Penang, she led the first group of French nuns to Japan where they worked with disadvantaged women and children. St. Mathilde Raclot died, aged 97, in 1911 whilst still in Japan. In 2014 Mother Mathilde Raclot was inducted into the Singapore Women's Hall of Fame.[17]

The convent occupied a full street block bordered by Bras Basah Road, Stamford Road, Victoria St and North Bridge Road. The iconic church was deconsecrated during the 1980s. Part of the Sisters' quarters has been demolished and converted into the offices of SMRT Corporation. Most of the original buildings were redeveloped as part of the Heritage Board's preservation scheme. The complex has since been redeveloped into a high-end retail complex called CHIJmes while the church is now a popular attraction for tourists and those interested in history. The former school moved out after World War II and has since split into two schools located in the same site in Toa Payoh,CHIJ Secondary [Toa Payoh]and CHIJ Primary and one located in Ang Mo Kio, St Nicholas Girls' School. There are currently 11 different CHIJ Schools [18] in Singapore.


The shortage of English teachers forced the Sisters to turn to the British Isles in hopes of recruiting and training potential missionary teachers. In 1909, Mother St Beatrice Foley, who had returned from Singapore, established Drishane Convent in Ireland. It had a "knitting school" for younger girls and was also used to train teachers for the Asian mission. Less than half a decade after opening, the convent was churning out teachers and Sisters and sending them to Asia and South America.

South America[edit]

The Sisters first set foot in South America during the 1960s. Some of the Spanish-speaking Sisters arrived in Peru in 1967 and have since expanded to several other countries in the continent.[19]


Simple in Virtue, Steadfast in Duty




Incomplete list


Note that mission schools were nationalised by the government during the 1980s and are no longer directly under their respective religious institutions. The IJ schools are no longer run by nuns but still retain the historic crest and motto, albeit translated in Malay. A rare few many still have a nun working in a chaplaincy or pastoral capacity.

Republic of Ireland[edit]



  • CHIJ (Katong) Primary[26]
  • CHIJ (Kellock)[27]
  • CHIJ Our Lady of Good Counsel[28]
  • CHIJ Our Lady of the Nativity – formerly CHIJ Ponggol[29]
  • CHIJ Our Lady Queen of Peace – formerly CHIJ Bukit Timah[30]
  • CHIJ Primary (Toa Payoh)

In the 20th century, the Sisters expanded their service, and currently serve in: Bolivia, Burma, Cameroon, China, Czech Republic, France, Guatemala, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Peru, Philippines, Romania, Senegal, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, United Kingdom, and the United States.

In 1970 a federation was established between the congregations of Paris and Rouen to facilitate a greater sense of cooperation and common identity. In 2007 a revival of the original form of life was established, one open to both women and men, called the Fraternity of the Infant Jesus, whereby they can live and serve in the spirit of Barré.[9]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]