School History

St. Teresa’s School was named by Reverend Father Jackson in honour of a renowned Carmelite sister. He arrived in Borneo in 1881 upon the invitation of Rajah Charles Brooke to establish Catholic mission schools in Kuching and Kanowit. The name chosen for the convent and school was in fulfilment of a promise made many years ago before Rev. Father Jackson. While still a student, he found great difficulties in mastering Philosophy and Theology. In his distress, he appealed to the great Saint Teresa of Avila to intercede for him and promised he would do something in her honour if his wish was granted.

St. Teresa was born in Avila, Spainin 1515 and died in 1582. She came from a noble family with high moral values. However she gave up all her material posessions and became a Carmelite nun in 1536. She was bestowed a learned doctor of the church because of her great wisdom, intelligence, humility, diligence and integrity. Since its foundation in 1885, the school has become entrusted under her patronage and protection; therefore it is expected that the students of St. Teresa’s school emulate and uphold her outstanding qualities and virtues.

St. Teresa’s School in Kuching, Sarawak had its beginning in a small shop at 149, Yorkshire Street, Rochdale, in England. The shop  was kept by Alice Ingham and her widowed stepmother. Alice and her small group of friends helped in whatever way they could. They conducted religious classes for children, nursed the sick and assisted with parish work. After a few years of these, Alice was asked by Bishop Herbert Vaughan to undertake the management of domestic affairs in charge of household toil at a newly founded missionary college in Mill Hill in 1878. In 1883, the Congregation of St. Joseph Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart was officially formed. Mill Hill was where Mother Francis (Alice Ingham) lived then. Mill Hill was also the Congregation’s centre of gravity. It was also the link between Sarawak and Rochdale.

Sarawak in the late 19th century was an oriental principality founded by Sir James Brooke in 1841. At his death in 1868, he left a sizeable state to his nephew, Charles Brooke. Rajah Charles Brooke had been in his uncle’s service throughout his adult life. 

When a letter came to him from Bishop Vaughan requesting permission to set up a Catholic Mission in Sarawak, he wrote back “…..The Sarawak Government will have no objection to there being a Catholic Mission. I would recommend your missionaries on their arrival, to a district of Dayaks who have been almost untouched by teaching of any sort.….” The Bishop acted on the Rajah’s advice. One year later, the first missionaries were sent to Borneo from Mill Hill. They were Father Jackson, The Perfect Apostolic, Fathers Dunn, Kitty and Goossens. 

A letter from the Rajah to Father Jackson authorised the establishment of schools in Rajang and Kanowit. Both schools were founded. Boys and young men were the earliest Catholic converts, and soon the question of their future was worrying the Fathers. For a flourishing community, these bachelors would need Catholic wives. No girls attended St. Joseph’s school. The obvious answer was a convent. 

Father Jackson travelled to England in 1884, determined to find an order of nuns who would come to Borneo. As a last resort he appealed to the Sisters of Mill Hill. His efforts proved fruitful. Out of twenty-six sisters, everyone volunteered to go to Borneo. After serious consideration and prayers, Mother Francis decided that she could spare five of her ‘daughters’ for this great and demanding task. Sister Helen, Teresa, Aloysius, Mary of the Cross and Josephine were handpicked as the finest for the gruelling task ahead.

Sister Helen Downs was appointed leader of the group. She has joined the original Congregation in Rochdale at the age of 16. Sister Teresa Cheetham, who was Mother Francis’ niece was a brilliant story teller, who kept her listeners spellbound with tales of foreign lands which she had heard from the Missionaries at Mill Hill. Sister Mary of the Cross had also joined the Congregation at Rochdale and Sister Aloysius Dwyer was Sister Helen’s deputy while they were in Kuching. Thus, the five Sisters, accompanied by Father Jackson, set sail for Sarawak on 15 May 1885. Six weeks later, their arrival in Kuching was recorded by the Sarawak Gazette.

In 1885, the inhabitants in Kuching were basically the Malays, Ibans, a small but very powerful European community and some Chinese. The Anglican Mission had been active among the Ibans and nearby Land Dayaks since early 1850. A few Europeans in Kuching were Catholic but none had school-age girls. Father Jackson’s earliest converts were urban Chinese. The first convent schoolgirls would obviously be Chinese, too.

On 17th September 1885, the sisters had a visitor. A dainty little Chinese lady arrived. She was a good Catholic and the wife of a rich Chinese merchant. She asked about the Sisters’ plans and promised to encourage mothers to send their children. She only had two daughters herself and they were both married, but she added with a smile: “The granddaughters will be here before long!” Soon, five little girls ranging from 5 to 7 years, paid visits to the convent. Gradually, Sister Teresa started teaching them simple needlework and basic education. Thus, St. Teresa’s school started out with five learning minds.

Extracted from:

“They Came To The Land Of The Headhunters” by Heidi Munan