The Religious


Malaysia-Singapore Region of the Society of Jesus

Who are the Jesuits?

In Kuching the Jesuits manage St Joseph’s Private Secondary School. Since the early days of the Society of Jesus, they have been very involved in education. Read more about them below.

The Story of the Society of Jesus (The Jesuits)

Usually change is very scary. Even if you know a big transformation is for the best, it can still be scary. The stories of the saints show us that we should not be worried about change.

St. Ignatius of Loyola (in Basque: Ignazio Loiolakoa, Spanish: Ignacio de Loyola; 1491 – 31 July 1556)

Just read this life story of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He lived in Spain during the sixteenth century. It was a time of kingdoms and battles, armies and soldiers. It was also a time of turmoil in Europe: big changes in the political, social, economic and religious scenes. The new worlds of the Americas and Asia had just been discovered, and the Church was breaking up due to the Reformation.

Out of this change, a saint for the people, a relevant spirituality and a new religious order emerged. We too live in times of constant change. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from this story, and not be afraid to face these changes.

Ignatius in the solider’s armour

Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits was a Basque, a strong ethnic group in northeastern Spain. He was born and baptised Iñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola in 1491, the youngest of 13 children, at the castle of Loyola which is in Azpeitia in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa.

It is unclear when Iñigo started using Ignatius instead of his baptismal name. He did not intend to change his name but later on when he was studying in France, he adopted the Latin form of his name, Ignatius which he believed was more acceptable among foreigners.

At a young age, Iñigo spent some time as a page at the court of Juan Velazquez de Cuellar, the treasurer of the kingdom of Castile in Spain. As a young man he was inflamed by the ideals of courtly love and knighthood and dreamt of doing great deeds. However, his academic education was sparse.

Winning personal glory was his passion. He was a fancy dresser, an expert dancer, a womanizer, sensitive to insult, and a rough swordsman who loved swordplay.

Once in a dispute between the Loyolas and another family, Iñigo, his brother and some relatives ambushed at night some clerics who were members of the other family. Iñigo had to flee the town. When finally brought to justice he claimed clerical immunity by using the defense that he had received ecclesiastical tonsure as a boy, and was therefore exempt from civil prosecution.

The defense was suspicious because he had for years gone about in the dress of a fighting man and carrying a sword which certainly was not the garb normally worn by a cleric. Eventually the case against him was dropped. St. Ignatius of Loyola may be the only canonized saint who had a notarized police record!

Ignatius hit by a cannon ball

Eventually Iñigo found himself in 1521 as an officer defending the fortress of the town of Pamplona against the French. He was under Antonio Manrique de Lara, the Duke of Najera and viceroy of Navarre, another Spanish kingdom. The Spaniards were terribly outnumbered.

The French had taken all the land around the Spaniards except for one little spot in the corner of the fortress. Iñigo and his small band held on. Everyone else wanted to surrender because there was really no chance that they could win. Iñigo convinced the band to fight on for the honour of Spain, if not for victory.

The battle only ended when a cannon ball struck Iñigo, wounding one leg and breaking the other. Because they admired his courage to withstand until the end, the French soldiers carried him back on a stretcher to recuperate at his home castle of Loyola.

Iñigo was strong on the painful journey back to his home, even as he was carried over rough roads, his shattered leg bumping harshly with every step.

The broken leg was not properly set. The bone protruded in a way that would show through the tight hose that a courtier wore. Iñigo thought that it was too ugly. So it seems that his leg was not the only thing that had been shattered in the battle of Pamplona. His image of himself as a handsome and dashing courtier was shattered too.

He insisted on having the leg re-broken and re-set, all without anesthesia, which must had been very painful. In the end one leg was still shorter than the other; Iñigo limped for the rest of his life.

Ignatius recuperating

To pass the boring time while he recuperated, he asked for the kind of books that he enjoyed reading: romance books of chivalry. But the only reading materials available in the castle at that time were an illustrated Life of Christ and a book of the lives of saints.

Desperate for something to do he began to read them. The more he read, the more he considered the exploits of the saints worth imitating. Reading these books changed his life. He dreamt of the exploits he would do in service to his earthly king and in honour of the royal lady he was in love with. But he would also dream about the exploits he could do to imitate St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic in fidelity to God.

Gradually, as he reflected on these experiences, he began to notice what was going on within him. These two kinds of exploits engaged him completely. After the dreams of romantic chivalry exploits were over, he felt empty and dissatisfied, whereas after the dreams of spiritual exploits ended, he still felt deep peace and quiet happiness. From this experience he knew that some thoughts left him sad while others made him happy.

This is the beginning of his understanding of the rules of Ignatian discernment and of decision making. This kind of discernment recognises that not only the intellect, but also the emotions and feelings can help us come to a knowledge of the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

After a full recovery, he left the castle in March 1522 a changed man. He renounced his worldly ways and became a pilgrim and mystic.

Ignatius in his pilgrim garb

Iñigo decided that he wanted to go to Jerusalem to live where our Lord had spent his life on earth. To do that he had to go to Rome first to get permission from the pope. In order to get to Rome, he had to take the ship from Barcelona.

During his trip he met a Moor or Muslim from the Middle East. They were both riding on mules and started to debate the truths of their different faiths.

The man told Iñigo that he did not believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity. Iñigo was enraged, and as the man rode off, Iñigo intended in his mind to kill this man to defend the honour of our Lady; being the courtly nobleman he was still.

Then Iñigo came upon a fork in the road. He did not know which way the Moor took. So he thought that he would let his mule make the decision whether he should continue to kill the Moor or not.

If the mule went down the same path as the man he would kill him, if not he would go on peacefully. The mule went down the other path, and Iñigo went on with his journey.

We would never have known what could have happened if Iñigo had murdered the Moor. The Society of Jesus might never been founded! Jesuits have jokingly said that the existence of their Order hung upon the decision that Ignatius put in his ass. Near Barcelona was the Benedictine shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat. Iñigo made a general confession there, and knelt all night in vigil before the Black Madonna’s altar. This is in following the rites of chivalry. He left his sword and dagger at the altar, went out and gave away all his fine clothes to a poor man, and dressed himself in rough clothes with sandals and a staff.
Ignatius at Manresa

He continued towards Barcelona from here but stopped at a small town called Manresa because he did not want to meet any of his old friends in Barcelona who might be in conflict with his new values. He intended to linger only a few days, but he remained for ten months.

He lodged at a hospital for the poor. In exchange for his bed, he did chores around the hospital; and he begged for his food in the town.

On top of that, he spent much of his time in a cave, usually fasting and in deep prayer. He was blessed with powerful insights. Moreover, he experienced doubts, anxieties, scruples and severe depression; to the point that he even contemplated suicide.

Still lacking in true wisdom concerning holiness, in order to practice rigorous asceticism, he undertook many extreme penances, and even allowed his beard and fingernails to go untrimmed which was an extreme opposite to his former courtly life. He had not yet learned moderation and true spirituality. This is probably why the Society of Jesus which he later founded does not have any prescribed set of penances, as other religious orders have.

It was while here that the basic ideas for what are now known as the Spiritual Exercises, one of the most influential books on the spiritual life ever written, began to take shape. It started when he recorded his experiences in a notebook and found his jottings helpful in guiding others. He continued to revise and expand his notes over time later on.

Today, nearly 500 years later, Jesuits, other priests and religious, and lay people use the Spiritual Exercises for themselves and to guide others toward spiritual development, to a deeper relationship with God.

It was also on the banks of the River Cardoner outside Manresa that he had a vision which is regarded as the most significant in his life. He said that he learned more on that one occasion that he did in the rest of his life. He never revealed exactly what the vision was, but it seems to be a deep encounter with God where all creation was seen in a new light, and acquired a new meaning and relevance that enabled him to find God in all things. Finding God in all things is one of the central characteristics of Ignatian spirituality.

He finally arrived at Barcelona, took a boat to Italy, and ended up in Rome where as required by the law at that time, he met the pope and requested permission to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Once he arrived at the Holy Land he wanted to live with devotion in the place where Christ had lived, but was told by the Franciscan superior who had authority over Christians there that the situation was too dangerous. It was because the Turks who were the rulers of the Holy Land forbade Christians to remain in the land.

The superior commanded Iñigo to leave. He refused with utmost stubbornness. Only with the threat of excommunication, did he finally obey and depart back to Europe.

In order to be effective in preaching and to “help souls,” Iñigo knew that he needed to become a priest. This was the only means by which he would be able to “help souls.” To achieve this goal he had to get an education.

He was already over thirty years of age, which was considered old in those days, and he was getting a late start in his studies for the priesthood. He had to work hard on his studies. He returned to Barcelona and attended a public Latin grammar school. Thus, this uneducated soldier turned to study.

In those days, the Mass was said only in Latin, and Latin was the language all educated people used to communicate with each other. Iñigo did not know a bit of Latin. He had to sit with humility in a classroom with a bunch of 8 to 14-year olds who were also learning Latin for the first time.

Two years later, he moved on to university studies at Alcala. It is possible that during his university days that he changed his name from the Spanish Iñigo to the Latin Ignatius.

When he was not studying he shared with others his experience of the spiritual ways of God and guided them in the Spiritual Exercises. He spent nearly as much time engaging people in these conversations as he did studying and attending lectures.

But the infamous Spanish Inquisition was very influential at that time and would not permit anyone without training in theology to speak about spiritual matters. Such conversations got him into trouble with them and he was put in prison three times for interrogation.

Ignatius felt strongly that he had to continue speaking about these things, but the religious authorities were not letting him to do so. So he left Alcala and went to Salamanca.

The forces of the Inquisition continued to harass him there until finally, in 1528, he left Spain entirely and moved to France and the University of Paris, culminating with a Master of Arts degree in 1534.

It was in Paris that the seed of a new religious Order began to take shape.



The Society of Jesus at its founding in 1540 was very different from other religious orders. All the religious orders until then were either monastic or mendicant. Those in the monastic orders, like the Benedictines, had to remain within their monastery, secluded from the rest of the world; while the mendicants, like the Franciscans and Dominicans, lived among the common people even though in buildings of their own. Both kinds have to pray the Divine Office in common several times a day and have religious habits.

The order that Ignatius had in mind did not have buildings of its own. They were bound more in their common mission to serve God rather than community life. Furthermore, they did not pray the Divine Office in common, because Ignatius felt that this would hinder the time spent in the apostolates they were engaged in if they were to gather to pray together several times a day. Moreover, the Jesuits do not have a distinctive habit of their own. They would adopt the local clerical dress of the area they are in.

The phrase that Ignatius often used with regard to mission was “to help souls.” Here he meant not only the eternal spiritual soul of the person, but also the whole person: the physical, intellectual, emotional, psychological and social aspects of an individual. That’s why Jesuits are involved in many areas of need. It is because they want to “help souls” so that everyone can attain the full person that God intended him or her to be.

First Vows at Montmartre, Paris, 1534

While studying in Paris, the older Ignatius (38 years) lodged at the College St. Barbe within the University of Paris with his younger roommates (both 23 years): St. Peter Faber, a young man from Savoy in the south of France, and St. Francis Xavier, a nobleman from Navarre, the eastern end of the Basque country.

Faber, being the smart one, helped Ignatius with his studies and in exchange, Ignatius helped Faber with the spiritual life. Faber was very impressed with Ignatius’s spiritual life. He progressed much in the Spiritual Exercises and later became an expert retreat giver.

Xavier, on the other hand, was the harder nut to crack. He was proud and wished to attain high ecclesiastical status in the church. He did not take too kindly to Ignatius, even though Ignatius often came to the financial assistance of Xavier, who, as a student, liked to live as an extravagant nobleman and lived much beyond his means. He was slowly and eventually won over by Ignatius, and the two would become life long friends.

Gradually a small circle of “Friends in the Lord,” as they called themselves, formed around Ignatius. The others were Diego Lainez, Alonso Salmerón, and Nicolás Bobadilla, all three were Spaniards; and Simão Rodrigues, a Portuguese. They formed the first group of seven members. Three others joined soon after, namely, Claude Le Jay, a Genevan Savoyard; Jean Codure and Paschase Broët, both of whom were French. What bonded them closely together was the fact that one after another they were led through the Spiritual Exercises.

On the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 1534, Ignatius and his first seven companions went to the hill of Montmartre at north of Paris and pronounced private vows in a small chapel dedicated to Our Lady.

Faber, who was the only one ordained at that time among them, presided at the Mass. They took the vows of poverty and chastity to work together as a company. It was an important moment because this band of brothers would soon become the first Jesuits.

They also pronounced a third vow, that was, after two years when their studies were finished, they would go to the Holy Land to live in imitation of Christ and to convert infidels. When the Holy Land trip would prove to be not possible, they would go to Rome instead and put themselves at the disposition of the pope to go wherever he, as universal pastor, judged the greatest needs were.

Ignatius and his companions were ordained priests on 24 June 1537 in Venice while they waited a whole year for a ship to take them to the Holy Land. However, out of a sense of unworthiness, Ignatius only said his first Mass on 25 December 1538 at the crib of the nativity in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

While waiting and spending that time in Venice, they began some ministry to help souls by tending the sick and helping the poor. In bringing the love of Christ to the poor and sick, while themselves living the simplest of lifestyles, these men found profound joy.

In order to attract an audience to listen to their preaching, they would jump about and throw their hats into the air. These men from Spain, Portugal and France would also in a hilarious mixture of languages preach to the Italians.

Due to the war between Venice and the Turks, no ship sailed for the Holy Land. This is the humour in the plan of God. What they had foresaw would happen actually did happen and it turned out for the good.

The group then decided that Ignatius, Lainez and Faber should go to Rome to place the little band at the disposal of the pope as they had agreed upon earlier. A common rule for the group was devised so that it could be presented to the pope.

Ignatius declared that as they had grouped themselves in the name of Jesus and under Jesus as their head, the new order should bear the name, “The Company of Jesus.” In Latin, it is Societatis Jesu, which translated into English is “The Society of Jesus.”

The name Jesuit started off as a derogatory term for the members of the Society of Jesus. It was never used by Ignatius. Later however, members and friends of the Society adopted the name in its positive meaning.

Vision of La Storta, November 1537

Ignatius had the most significant experience for the founding of the Society in the little chapel of La Storta, just outside of Rome. As soon as Ignatius entered the small and dilapidated chapel, he felt a sudden change come over him.

In this mystical experience, he saw clearly “that the Father placed him with Christ, his Son.” It was as Ignatius had always asked insistently of Mary in the Spiritual Exercises, that was to be placed with her Son, Jesus.

He saw God the Father, and Jesus who was carrying his cross. Both of them were looking most kindly on him, and he heard the Father saying to Jesus: “I wish you to take this man as your servant.”

Jesus then said to the kneeling Ignatius, “I wish you to serve us.” This was what Ignatius had always wanted in his life.

Then he heard the Father added, “I will be favourable to you (plural) in Rome.” Ignatius then felt confirmed personally that the Lord would be with him, and felt the group confirmed when they placed themselves at the service of the Vicar of Christ in Rome.

The official recognition of the Society came from Pope Paul III on 27 September 1540. Paul III was pleased with this small band of fervent men who were willing to serve God anywhere under the Vicar’s authority.

Ignatius was unanimously elected the first superior general in the following year. Even Xavier, who had already left for the Far East, put his vote for Ignatius beforehand in an envelope.

Ignatius declined after the first vote. He felt unworthy for the position because of the vanity and licentiousness of his earlier life, and because he felt that others were more theologically knowledgeable. After much discernment, he accepted the position and served until his death sixteen years later.

On 22 April 1541, the companions took their final vows before Ignatius as their first superior general at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. They vowed perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience.

And they also added a fourth vow which was to the pope in terms of mission. Ignatius said that this vow, “all that His Holiness will command us for the good of souls or the propagation of the faith, we are bound to carry out…whether he send us among the Turks, to the New Worlds, to the Lutherans or any other manner of believers or unbelievers…This vow may scatter us to distant parts of the world.” This indeed it did.

From its early beginnings, from what we can see from the original band of men, the Society of Jesus has been international in its make-up with members from all over Europe.

At the time of Ignatius’ death in 1556, there were about 1,000 Jesuits spread all over the world, organised into eleven units; nine were in Europe, one was in Brazil and the other was in the Far East.

Ignatius remained tied to an office desk in Rome writing letters to his men. All in all, he was one of the most prolific correspondents in Europe during the sixteenth century. He wrote about 7,000 letters which encouraged, made requests, chided; letters telling of everyday events and of outstanding feats.

He wrote to people of high positions and ordinary people in both church and state alike, and to women as well as men. But most of these letters were to his Jesuit companions, thus forming a vast communication network of friendship, love, and care. They had spread throughout the world as missionaries, ministering in countries such as the East Indies, Morocco, the Congo, Ethiopia and South America.

His closest friend was Xavier, with whom he wrote many letters. Xavier would cut out the signature of Ignatius from his letters and wore it around his neck wherever he went on mission. That was how Xavier cherished his friendship with Ignatius.

In the end, Ignatius the playboy, the soldier, the pilgrim, the mystic had to learn to watch others carry out the adventurous deeds which he longed to do while for sixteen years he supervised and organised the building up of the Society of Jesus and its movements across the world.

While in Rome, other than his desk job, Ignatius also founded institutions for rescuing prostitutes, started orphanages and organised catechetical instructions.

Besides that, at the time of Ignatius’ death, there were 35 schools founded by the Jesuits. Twenty-five years later the number of schools rose to 144, and another 35 years after that, it approached 400. Education became an integral feature of the Society’s mission because of the need to educate the young even though initially Ignatius did not intend it.

St. Francis Xavier (1506 – 1552)

Right after the Society’s foundation, the King of Portugal, John III, made a request to the pope for priests to minister to the needs of the growing number of his subjects in the Portuguese overseas colonies. The pope asked Ignatius and his companions for help.

Ignatius appointed Nicolás Bobadilla and Simão Rodrigues. At the last moment, however, Bobadilla became seriously ill. Ignatius reluctantly called upon his good friend, Xavier, to go in Bobadilla’s place. Xavier had been serving as the secretary of the Society up to this time. With his usual generosity and availability, Xavier went on a day’s notice. Ignatius knew he would never see his beloved companion again. Thus, Xavier accidentally began his life as the first Jesuit missionary.

First, Xavier went to Lisbon to board the ship to the Far East. Here he spent a year, living at a hospice and helping to care for the sick there, visiting the poor, and visiting those in prison.

Xavier left Lisbon on 7 April 1541 which fell on his 35th birthday. He was given a brief from the pope appointing him apostolic nuncio to the Far East.

The journey was long from Lisbon to Goa. The seas were rough and the conditions difficult. Xavier was seasick for the first two months. The ship stopped for six months by Mozambique, a Portuguese colony, because of the monsoon winds.

They finally arrived in Goa, the Portuguese stronghold in India on 6 May 1542. From his base at the hospice in Goa, Xavier commenced his missionary work.

During the course of a normal day, Xavier would nurse the sick, comfort the dying and administer the sacraments. He would then visit the prisons where he often counselled the inmates to repent for their sins of the past and change their way of life. He would then meet the children and teach them to pray. Similar classes were also held for adults.

Xavier was well known as the priest who called upon the people of the town to pray and learn the catechism by walking around the streets and ringing the bell.

Xavier preached in Portuguese and his words had to be translated into Konkani, the native language of Goa. He attempted to overcome this language barrier by setting into tune most of the common prayers and teaching. He was known as a cheerful and good humoured man.

From Goa, Xavier moved on to Malacca in 1545; 1546 to the Moluccas and Ambon; then back to Malacca; 1548 to Goa; 1549 Malacca; and then on to Japan; 1551-1552 Goa and Malacca.

Xavier is considered one of the Church’s greatest missionaries; so much so that many consider him the greatest missionary since St. Paul. In the span of ten years in ministry, he travelled across the world to bless and baptise tens of thousands of people from India, South East Asia, right up to Japan.

Xavier’s mission was not for him alone; it was a corporate mission of the Society of Jesus. He may appear solitary at the first glance. However, he was clearly acting with others, and in many cases preparing the way for fellow Jesuits to follow up. This is evident in his many letters. He was constantly thinking, planning, actively recruiting and assigning Jesuits to the various missions. He was appointed the Jesuit superior in the Far East.

Xavier died on 3 December 1552 on the small island of Shangchuan, just off the coast of mainland China, within sight of the country that he wished to visit and evangelise.

News of Xavier’s death only reached Ignatius over two years later. Letters from Ignatius to Xavier were still being written during that time. In fact, Ignatius wrote to Xavier in June 1553 requesting him to return to Europe with the intention of appointing Xavier as his successor. However, his good friend had already returned to the Lord.

Ignatius himself died on 31 July 1556. Both Ignatius and Xavier were canonized together by Gregory XV on 12 March 1622. The two good friends were made saints by the Church on the same day.

Teresa of Avila, also a Spaniard and reformer of the Carmelites; Isidore the Farmer, a simple and devout Spaniard; and Philip Neri, an Italian founder of the Oratorian Fathers were also canonized on that day. Gregory XV canonized five altogether on the same day. It is jokingly said that he canonized four Spaniards and a saint.

Finally, after a long time, Pope Francis (the first-ever Jesuit pope, elected on 13 March 2013) made Faber, the third roommate (beatified since 5 September 1872), a saint on 17 December 2013 by way of equivalent canonization, a process that dispenses with the standard judicial procedures and ceremonies in the case of someone long venerated. Now Faber can also be venerated as a saint with his two closest friends and roommates.

left to right: St. Francis Xavier, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Peter Faber

The first Jesuit to arrive in the Malay Peninsular was St. Francis Xavier. He visited Malacca, the stronghold of the Portuguese in the Far East in 1545. Prior to the arrival of Xavier, the first Catholic priests to arrive in Malacca were military chaplains to the Portuguese who came in 1511 when Malacca was conquered by them.

On top of the present St. Paul’s Hill, a chapel was built in 1521 by a prominent ship captain, Duarte Coelho, as thanksgiving for survival at sea after a storm. The chapel was named Nossa Senhora da Graca (Our Lady of Grace) in honour of the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This eventually led the hill of Portuguese Malacca to be named Nossa Senhora de Oiteiro (Our Lady of the Hill).

Xavier liked to preach and sometimes sleep in this little chapel on the hill rather than stay at the larger church which was at the base of the hill which later became the cathedral Nossa Senhora da Annonciada (Our Lady of the Annunciation) after Malacca became a diocese in 1557.

Possibly it was because of his desire for detachment from the city proper and distance from the Portuguese captains below the hill with whom he did not have a cordial relationship that he seek the more quiet contemplative environment on top of the hill.

This chapel was deeded to the Society of Jesus in 1548 by the Bishop of Goa, João Afonso de Albuquerque; with the title deeds received by Xavier. The chapel was then further enlarged in 1556 with the addition of a second floor, and a belfry tower was added in 1590. Eventually the chapel was renamed the Igreja de Madre de Deus (Church of the Mother of God).

The chapel was highly venerated by the Portuguese, as it was here that Xavier preached and said Mass on Sundays. He used to pass long nights in prayer here. Often his friends and admirers used to peep through the crevices of the doors to find out what the saint was doing. At times, he was found wrapped in ecstasy with his whole body raised above the ground.

It was also here in this chapel that while Xavier was preaching he saw a vision of the victory of the Portuguese over the Achinese of North Sumatera at a sea battle, and announced it to the congregation. The news only arrived a few days later which meant that Xavier saw a vision of the victory at the exact moment it happened.

Statue of St Francis Xavier on St Paul’s Hill in Malacca

Almost immediately after his arrival on his first visit, Xavier felt the need to start a school. By then the Portuguese had been in Malacca for more than thirty years. It was natural that something should be done for the education of their children.

In 1548, two Jesuits, Fr. Francisco Peres and Bro. Roque de Oliveiro, were sent to Malacca by Xavier from Goa to start a community and to handle the school’s early beginnings.

St. Paul’s College in Malacca by the Jesuits was perhaps the first school in the present understanding of school ever to exist in the Malay Peninsular. It can be regarded as the forerunner of the many Christian mission schools later to be started in Malaysia and Singapore.

This school was named after the Jesuit college in Goa, also called St. Paul’s College. This college in Goa began as the Portuguese seminary in India before it was handed over to the Jesuits to run and for use as the main Jesuit base in India.

According to Keith Tan in Mission Pioneers of Malaysia (p 32), the year 1548 is very important because that was when secular Jesuit education first began, with two pioneering schools: the first in Messina, Sicily, Italy and the second in Malacca. The Malacca model was later repeated at a much larger scale in Portuguese Macao and Goa, where even older Jesuit novitiates were expanded to include education for lay students besides Jesuits.

This development of a religious order training its own members to education for lay people in the form of public schools widened the use of the Latin word Collegium. Before for centuries the word had meant a group of clerics living together using a common rule. From this development, the word had expanded to mean an educational institute.

Enrolment in the school in Malacca grew from about two hundred at its founding to about four hundred by the time of Xavier’s last visit to Malacca in 1552.

The church on the hill was used as the prayer hall of the school.

The school continued to expand even after Xavier’s death. It was recorded that there were seven Jesuits in residence at Malacca with one of them as the Master of Students who was in charge of the school. The number of lay teachers in assistance would have been many, but their number went unrecorded by the chroniclers of the day.

One of the earliest Dutch reports written at the beginning of the Dutch rule of Malacca in 1641 mentioned a total of nearly eight hundred books in Latin and Portuguese in the Jesuit library at the school. However, the school was closed upon the conquest of Malacca by the Dutch, and the books in the library dispersed into private collections or Dutch holdings throughout their vast colony in Indonesia.

Incidentally, the Malay word sekolah comes from the Portuguese word for school which is escola. This usage would have originated from the first recorded escola in the Malay Peninsular under the Portuguese, that is St. Paul’s College, Malacca.

Xavier found time to translate simple prayers and instructions into the Malay language. He found that there was a confusion of languages in the islands of Southeast Asia but discovered that all could understand some Malay.

Xavier used Malacca as his base for other missionary trips to the Moluccas and Japan because it was the Portuguese headquarters in the Far East at that time.

He moved from one area to another with an enthusiastic apostolic zeal. His growing information about new places indicated to him that he had to go to what he understood were centres of influence for the whole region of East Asia, namely Malacca, Japan and China. For him, these areas were interconnected. Thus, they could not be evangelized separately, but as a whole.

All in all, Xavier visited Malacca five times.

Tomb of St Francis Xavier on top of St Paul’s Hill in Malacca

Xavier died on 3 December 1552 at Shangchuan Island off the coast of mainland China in an effort to evangelise China at the relatively early age of 46 and eight months. He had been on the missions for just a few months over ten years, had travelled about forty thousand miles in his missionary voyages and unrecorded mileage (often barefoot) over the lands of India, the Moluccas, and Japan.

The incorrupt body of Xavier was brought back to Malacca and buried for nine months (March to December 1553) in the church on St. Paul’s Hill before it was brought to Goa where it remains to this day.

After Malacca fell to the Dutch who were Protestants in 1641, the Jesuits, together with other religious and priests, were expelled from Malacca. The church was then used for their reformed religion. They added a tower in front of the church. It was abandoned by them after the building of the present Christ Church in 1741 (now an Anglican Church) which is at the foot of the hill.

The old church became part of the fortress in Malacca. At the beginning of the British occupation of Malacca it was used as a powder magazine and the tower was a lighthouse, and ever since then has been a ruin.

Now, it is a place of veneration for Catholics and a popular tourist attraction, because there rested, for eight and a half months, the remains of a most extraordinary man of God – St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary.


Tan, Keith, Mission Pioneers of Malaya: Origins, Architecture and Legacy of our Pioneering Schools. Taylor’s Press, 2015

The Jesuits returned to Malaya in the 1940s with the arrival of two French Jesuits by way of China, namely, Frs. Andrew Joilet and Monsterleet.

Up to the time of the Communist takeover, the Jesuits had a very large number of missionaries in many parts of China. They came from many provinces of the Society, mainly from Europe. After their exile from China, many of them did not return to their home countries but stayed on in Asia, especially in places where there were Chinese communities, like Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Most of these communities resulted from the large exodus of Chinese due to the Communist takeover, especially from the southern coastal regions of China to all over Southeast Asia.

As the Jesuit missionaries came out of China and looked around for new assignments, their assignations were in the hands of Fr. Paul W. O’Brien who carried the title of Vice Visitor. He was an American, originally from the California Province of the Jesuits and had spent many years as a missionary in China. The Visitor, who was overall responsible for all the Jesuit missions in China, was Fr. Franz Burkhardt, an Austrian, who at this time was still resident in Shanghai.

The Fathers of the Société des Missions étrangères de Paris, MEP (in English, Paris Foreign Mission Society) were in charge of evangelization and pastoral work throughout the Malay Peninsular and in Singapore. There were already several Catholic schools in Singapore and in the Peninsular run by the de La Salle Brothers, the Marist Brothers, the Gabrielite Brothers, as well as for girls, the Holy Infant Jesus Sisters and Canossian Sisters. The only other religious priests at this time were the Redemptorists who preached missions in Malaya.

Irish Jesuits had also been going down to Malaya and Singapore, mainly to give retreats to the religious communities who needed English-speaking directors.

Fr. Joilet started working at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Singapore, before moving north to serve in Kota Bahru, while Fr. Monsterleet did catechetical work among the school children in Singapore for a few months.

They were soon followed by Canadian and American Jesuits. Fr. James Kearney from the Oregon Province was the editor of the Malayan Catholic News from 1951 to 1959, and Canadian Frs. Berube and Eugene Audet were respectively assigned to work at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in Singapore and as chaplain to the Convent School in Penang.

Fr. Patrick Joy, an Irish Jesuit, was appointed superior of the Jesuits in Malaya in 1951. When he first arrived in Singapore in November 1951, Fr. Joy lived in the Bishop’s residence in the compound of the Good Shepherd Cathedral for two years.

At the beginning of 1951, the Jesuit Superior General, Fr. Jean-Baptiste Janssens had approved Fr. O’Brien’s idea of opening a hostel for university students in Singapore. Fr. O’Brien considered that the Jesuits should first work with students in Chinese and English schools, and take on the spiritual direction of Catholic teachers, but in a prudent way lest the Jesuits give the impressions of taking things over from the missionaries who were already there in education.

With the support of Monsignor Michael Olcomendy, MEP, the Bishop of Malacca-Singapore, he initiated the construction of a hostel for trainee teachers in Singapore. In February 1952, they came to an agreement that the Jesuits should manage a hostel for student-teachers in Singapore.

At that time, the government was running a teachers’ training college with about 1,500 students. Some 500 of these were said to come from up country in Malaya. It was said they were renting accommodation in the most undesirable conditions which exposed them to every moral evil and also to Communist propaganda. This was also the time of the Emergency in Malaya, and there were many Communist activists in Singapore who brought much pressure upon the students to join them.

It was proposed to Father General in 1953 that the Hong Kong Mission be put in charge of the projected student hostel and all Jesuit-directed works in Malaya. Eventually in 1955, the Hong Kong Mission assumed full responsibility for the apostolic work in Singapore and Malaya.

Kingsmead Hall, Singapore; now the Centre for Ignatian Spirituality and Counselling

The proposed name “Xavier Hall” for the new hostel was deemed too religious. As the land on which the hostel was built was known as “Kingsmead Estate” and bounded by Kingsmead Road, King’s Road and Victoria Park Road, at that time in the outer suburbs of Bukit Timah to the north of the city centre, “Kingsmead Hall” seemed an obviously neutral name. Even though it sounded too English, too colonial and there were suggestions that the name should be changed, it never got changed and the name remains to this day.

The new hostel building was formally blessed by Monsignor Olcomendy on 16 August 1954, attended by a gathering of some 60 priests and brothers. The first students entered on 4 September 1954 and the hostel was officially opened by the Governor, His Excellency Sir John Nichol on 22 November 1954. The new hostel had rooms for 80 selected male students. These were both Catholics and non-Catholics from the Teachers’ Training College. The building also provided living space for the Jesuits and a lecture hall.

The first Jesuit community in Singapore, under its official title of St. Francis Xavier Residence, consisted of Frs. Patrick Joy, Kevin O’ Dwyer, James Kearney and Brian Kelly, who also served as hostel wardens.

Initially, a large room on the ground floor in the Jesuit residence section of the hostel was used for public Masses. Plans were then made for a proper church building in 1957. A satisfactory site was the land fronting Kingsmead Hall on King’s Road. At the time, the surrounding area was not very built up. On one side of the proposed site was a large Malay village and towards the front was Farrer Road, a main trunk road carrying many bus routes.

The old St Ignatius Church, Singapore

The Church of St. Ignatius, adjacent to Kingsmead Hall, was opened in 1961, and Fr. O’ Dwyer became the first parish priest.

Eventually, Kingsmead Hall closed as a student hostel because of the lack of students and the university’s move away from Bukit Timah. One wing became the Jesuit Novitiate, while the other end of the building remained the Jesuit residence. The large central portion was refurbished and became the Centre for Ignatian Spirituality and Counselling.

The old 1961 church of St Ignatius was demolished in 2003 and rebuilt within two years in a contemporary design.

The current St Ignatius Church, Singapore
An old photo of St Francis Xavier Church, Petaling Jaya with the student hostel

Up to this time, Bishop Olcomendy had been Bishop of the whole Malayan Peninsula and Singapore. On 25 February 1955, two new dioceses were established from the original territory. Fr. Dominic Vendargon became Bishop of Kuala Lumpur, covering the states of Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang and Trengganu, while Fr. Francis Chan became Bishop of Penang, with responsibility for the states of Penang, Perak, Kedah, Perlis, and Kelantan. Bishop Olcomendy was now Archbishop of Malacca-Singapore and his diocese now just covered Singapore and the two southern Malayan states of Malacca and Johore.

Almost as soon as the new Bishop of Kuala Lumpur was installed, he began to ask for a Jesuit residence in his diocese. This would include a chapel for the public, with the prospect of a full church being built in the future. The Jesuits accepted the offer and started planning for the construction of a church and youth centre. The Bishop offered the Jesuits a two-acre site, about three miles from the center of Kuala Lumpur which is now Petaling Jaya.

There was no doubt that this was going to be an important section of Kuala Lumpur in a few years’ time, for close by the University of Malaya was setting up a medical school and a hospital. A university engineering school was also to be built there, and other buildings of an educational nature. The university intended to become a fully residential university for some 5,000 students. In 1961, the Registrar of the university appealed to the Jesuits to allow the new youth centre to be used as a university hostel instead.

Therefore, a large parish church, a student hostel (instead of a youth centre), a spacious residence for the Jesuits and a parish hall was planned.

St. Francis Xavier’s Church was duly opened and solemnly blessed by Bishop Vendargon on 2 February 1961. The first parish priest was Fr. Geoff Murphy, and Fr. Brian Kelly assumed the role of warden of the hostel.

Just 10 days later, Archbishop Olcomendy presided at the blessing and formal opening of St. Ignatius Church in Singapore on 12 February 1961.

By March 1961, the two churches and hostels in Singapore and Malaya were fully up and running.

In 1985 Malaysia and Singapore together became a Dependent Region of the Province of Hong Kong. Later, in 1991, it became the Dependent Region of the Province of Indonesia.

St Francis Xavier Church, Petaling Jaya

There are Jesuits in Melaka-Johor Diocese. Fr. Peter Kim first went to the diocese to direct the formation of catechists and those involved with religious education. He was also involved in giving retreats, recollections and pastoral formation.

The two Jesuit terrace houses in Taman Rinting, Masai were opened and blessed on 20 September 1999 by Bishop James Chan, the then Bishop of Melaka-Johor.

The first Jesuit community there which is called Arrupe House is comprised of Fr. Peter Kim, Fr. Jojo Fung, Fr. Thomas Chong and Br. Simon Raj. Other Jesuits came and went. They mostly work in the different ministries of the diocese like helping out at parishes, catechesis, retreat, migrant, etc.

In 2003 Pope John Paul II appointed Paul Tan Chee Ing, SJ, a Malaysian Jesuit, the Bishop of Melaka-Johor. He is the second bishop of that diocese. His episcopal ordination took place on 15 May 2003.

A retreat house, Maranatha Retreat House, on the northern outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in a heavily wooded and secluded area called Janda Baik, which is just over the border of Pahang was built and officially opened on 11 April 2004. This is run by the Jesuits. It is intended to be a place for silent prayer and retreats in Ignatian spirituality. This place is 27 km from Gombak, Kuala Lumpur. It is a sprawling 75,908 square foot sanctuary, nestled 2000 feet above sea-level in the cool tropical hill environment of a pine forest reserve. An annual calendar of retreats can be found on its website.

The Jesuits also manage St. Joseph’s Private Secondary School in Kuching. In June 2012, Fr. Larry Tan, SJ arrived in Kuching to begin his pastoral ministry as one of the assistant parish priests at the Cathedral of St. Joseph, Kuching.

With him was Deacon Francis Lim, SJ who went to St. Joseph’s Private School to begin his term as Principal of the Secondary School. After his ordination in August 2012, Fr. Francis Lim, SJ continued as Principal.

Fr. Alvin Ng, SJ joined the school in August 2013 as a teacher and later as acting principal in 2018 when Fr. Francis was away on tertianship. Fr. Alvin himself was away on tertianship in 2019 and returned to the school in 2020 to help out.

To date there were two scholastics who did their regency in the school, namely, Stanley Goh, SJ in 2014 – 2016 and Nalerin Erone, SJ in 2018 – 2019.

The Jesuits have bought an intermediate house and set up a community in Laman Sun Valley, off Jalan Bampfylde which is about five minutes’ drive from the Cathedral and from the school.

This community is dependent on the Jesuit community of Arrupe House, Taman Rinting, Johor. It was formally established with a decree from Father General Adolfo Nicolas, SJ on 22 April 2015, which is the feast of Mary, Queen and Mother of the Society. The official name of this community is Bellarmine House. St. Robert Bellarmine, SJ (1542 – 1621) was an Italian, theologian, Doctor of the Church and cardinal.