St. Xavier's Institution, at Farquhar Street, George Town, is the oldest Roman Catholic school in Malaysia. While it was named as such by the Catholic La Salle Brothers in 1852, the school was actually established in 1786 by a French Catholic priest, Father Arnaud-Antoine Garnault. Thus, St. Xavier's Institution is possibly the oldest school on Penang Island, predating even its fiercest rival, the Penang Free School.
In addition, St. Xavier's Institution is one of the several Catholic schools founded by the La Salle Brothers across Southeast Asia.
To this day, the school is one of the most highly regarded missionary schools on Penang Island, and has produced some of the most influential politicians, businessmen and professionals in both Malaysia and Singapore.
Like many other missionary schools on Penang Island, St. Xavier's Institution follows the standardised Malaysian education system. The school also operates two primary schools, one in the Pulau Tikus suburb and another in the Air Itam suburb.
After Captain Francis Light had founded George Town in 1786, he invited Father Arnaud-Antoine Garnault, a French Catholic priest, to settle on the Prince of Wales Island, as Penang Island was then called. Father Garnault and his Eurasian congregation had been escaping religious persecution in southern Thailand. Light accepted Father Garnault's permission to relocate the Catholic mission to the Prince of Wales Island and subsequently dispatched his ship, the Speedwell, to pick up the Catholics.
Upon arriving in George Town, Father Garnault set up a Malay-language school in an attap shed along a stretch of mangrove swamp where Church Street is now located. The school, which was run by Catholic priests, would later evolve into St. Xavier's Institution. Its establishment predates the formation of Penang Free School by three decades; Penang Free School was founded in 1816.
In 1824, Father Dr. Jean-Baptiste Boucho of the Paris Foreign Missions, with an allowance of 100 Piastres monthly from the then Governor of the Straits Settlement, Robert Fullerton, moved the school to a brick house he had built and turned it into an English-language school for boys. The school was also renamed the Catholic Free School.
Father Boucho later invited three La Salle Brothers to run the school. In 1852, the Brothers arrived and renamed the school St. Francis Xavier's Free School. From then on, the Catholic school, the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, was under the management of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools.
The La Salle Brothers would go on to establish several more Catholic schools throughout Southeast Asia, such as St. Michael's Institution in Ipoh, St. John's Institution in Kuala Lumpur and St. Joseph's Institution in Singapore.
In 1857, the school was relocated to its present grounds at Farquhar Street and renamed St. Xavier's Institution. The school field opposite St. Xavier's was brought from neighbouring Convent Light Street, and an impressive two-storey school building was built, funded by donations from Chinese businessmen. Increasing enrollment led to the addition of a third storey in 1901 and a new wing in 1908. Its façade was said to evoke that of 'a grandiose Baroque European palace'. However, the ornate styling of the main building was simplified in the 1920s.
During the heyday of British colonial rule, students of the prestigious St. Xavier's Institution were often in the running for the Queen's Scholarships and the Cambridge examinations.
During World War 2, the Imperial Japanese Navy took over the school and turned it into a naval base. In 1944, the British Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force began bombing targets in George Town, including St. Xavier's Institution. This unfortunately wiped out the grand colonial architecture of the school.
After the war, schooling was resumed with students being educated in attap huts erected on the school field next to Convent Light Street. This sad state of affairs continued for seven years until the completion of the current St. Xavier's Institution building in 1954, at a cost $ 2 million (Malaya and British Borneo dollar).
In 2009, St. Xavier's last La Sallian Brother principal retired, marking the end of an era; St. Xavier's Institution was the last school on Penang Island, as well as one of the last in Malaysia, to be led by the missionaries.
To this day, St. Xavier's Institution has maintained a strong reputation as one of the top missionary schools on Penang Island, stemming from its illustrious alumni which includes numerous influential politicians, businessmen and professionals in both Malaysia and Singapore.
Labor Omnia Vincit (Latin)
Labour Conquers All
St. Xavier's Institution offers secondary education up to STPM (Malaysian Higher School Certificate) level, equivalent to Form 6. Whilst Forms 1 through 5 are strictly for boys, girls are enrolled only into the Form 6 classes.
St. Xavier's Institution is affiliated to the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, which has established over 500 Catholic La Salle schools and colleges all over the world.
In Southeast Asia, St. Xavier's Institution was the first La Sallian school to be established. Since 1852, the La Salle Brothers have established numerous schools and colleges in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar. To this day, St. Xavier's Institution has maintained historical links with the other La Sallian educational institutions in the region, such as St. Michael's Institution in Ipoh, St. John's Institution in Kuala Lumpur and St. Joseph's Institution in Singapore.
Among the more famous personalities who were once educated in St. Xavier's Institution are as follows.
- Heah Joo Seang, a rubber magnate and Malayan politician
- Hon Sui Sen, Singaporean Minister of Finance (1970-1983)
- Karpal Singh, lawyer and former Democratic Action Party (DAP) National Chairperson
- Ramkarpal Singh, son of Karpal Singh and currently the Member of Parliament for Bukit Gelugor
- Cecil Rajendra, Malaysian poet and lawyer
- Wong Pow Nee, the first Chief Minister of Penang
- James W. Boyle, the composer of the State Anthem of Penang, Untuk Negeri Kita
- Wong Chun Wai, a journalist for The Star, one of the top English dailies in Malaysia
- Chung Thye Phin, son of Chung Keng Kwee and the richest man on Penang Island in the 1930s
- Leslie C. Hoffman, Editor-in-Chief of the Straits Times, Singapore's top English daily
The school band of St. Xavier's Institution is the only band on Penang Island that still plays the Scottish bagpipe.
- Langdon, M. A Guide to George Town's Historic Commercial and Civic Precints. Penang : George Town World Heritage Incorporated.
- Cheah J. S., 2013. Penang 500 Early Postcards. Editions Didier Millet.