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.
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
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.
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
The National Shrine of the
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.
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!
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.”
400-500 lay teachers, and 200-300 brothers “graduated” from
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.
“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.