The Founding of St. Thomas’ School, Kuantan.
During Fr. Guittat's tenure in Kuantan, the number of Catholics were rather few. To keep himself busy while serving the people here, he started the St. Thomas School in January 1950 with one teacher. His mission was to help those children who did not go to school because of poverty or lack of places in existing schools. The assistant priests, Fr. Yap and Fr. Reutens were involved in teaching in the school besides pastoral work. So the church and the school were very much together. After a few years the school was separated from the church when additional classes were built. It could be said that the Catholic community of Kuantan was established, with the school.
The institution was an English School open to children of all races: Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian. When the two brothers took charge in January 1954, there were 231 students in six years of a primary school. Out of this number, 165 were Chinese, 45 Indians, 18 Malays and 3 Eurasians. As there were not enough classrooms, they had to use the chapel which was divided into two sections and with a curtain to “mask” the Sanctuary. Later on, we had to build huts covered with coconut leaves,
Malay Style, on a bit of free space opposite the school, to accommodate new classes as the school became bigger. When school reopened in 1956, there were 8 classes (including two in Secondary) with an over-all enrolment of 302 students. For the year 1957, there were more than 400 of them in 11 classes: 8 Primary, 3 Secondary.
The Brothers had to content themselves with very rudimentary lodgings which somewhat improved when the presbytery was completed. We could see there was hope of constructing the Brothers' quarters and a few classrooms. With this in view, plans were studied, but it was hard to get work started, because among other things, Fr. Guittat's illness at the end of 1956 had forced him to stay long in France; thence he only returned in Spring 1958. It was only in the first few months of 1959 that the construction work was placed in the hands of a contractor. We tried to find a piece of land for a Secondary school but according to strict regulations, it had to be separated from the Primary school. At the same period, the Community stayed in a rented house vacated by Sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, a few minutes walking distance from the school. The FMM Sisters had moved to a newly constructed building of their own.
Unfortunately at the end of 1959, difficulties arose from situations that had existed since the very beginning and the Marist Brothers had to relinquish their teaching posts and left Kuantan.
The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary Community in Kuantan:
The FMM Sisters came on the invitation of the Paris Foreign Missionaries through Fr. Guittat, the parish priest of St. Thomas Church, Kuantan and with the blessings of Bishop Olcomendy.
Their missionary objectives were:
< >to provide education for the girls in Kuantan, from kindergarten to secondary level, (ii) to provide boarding facilities for children whose parents worked in tin mines and estates far away, and
(iii) to share the Good News by their presence.
The first group of 5 were Sr. Denise Paquette (N.Dame du Cap) from Canada, Sr. Julian (Joan Bird) from Australia, Sr. Celinia (M. Rempelbauer) form Austria, Sr.Joseph Tchang (Agnes Lieow) from China, and Sr. Raphaelis (Jacqueline Andre) from France.
On arrival they stayed in a wooden house owned by Mrs. Helen Lee Ah Phoon whose property was next to the land of towkay Chan Loon. In this spacious unfenced compound at Jalan Gambut there were 9 other similar wooden buildings occupied by construction workers or for storage of construction materials. The sisters lived there among the workers from 1955 to 1959.
The first house rented by F.M.M.
Sisters on arrival in 1955
First kindergarten built by F.M.M.
in 1956; later dismantled and relocated
to Alor Akar to be thefirst F.M.M. convent
Founding of the Kindergarten:
A few days after their arrival, the sisters started a kindergarten with an enrolment of 23 five-year-olds, using the open space under the parochial house next to the old church. Soon the word spread and enrolment increased to such an extent that by 1956, it was impossible to continue without more room.
They were offered by Mrs. Lee Ah Poon the use of a store-room next to their abode which was converted into a classroom for morning and afternoon kindergarten classes. Soon the children were ready for Standard One and the problem of space arose once again. Permission was given to build temporary classrooms on Mrs. Lee’s land. Kindergarten classes were then conducted in the morning and in the afternoon sessions were held for Stds. 1 & 2.
In the same year the F.M.M. sisters bought about 8 acres of land in Jalan Alor Akar with the intention of setting up a school and a boarding house in response to the needs then. The area was an old rubber plantation, a rocky hillock – undeveloped, without road, water or electricity. Despite great difficulties they forged ahead. The two wooden classrooms in Jalan Gambut were dismantled and reconstructed in Alor Akar to become the Convent for the F.M.M. sisters. (It is now used as classrooms for children with special needs).
A kind benefactor, Mr Kong Siew Hock, provided the bulldozers to level the land for a 3-storey primary school. After months of fund-raising, the school was built and completed in late 1959. Two kindergarten classes and Std 1 to Std. 4 children moved into this new building which was officially opened by the Sultan of Pahang. In 1960 Std. 5 was introduced. However, the school was located far out of town and transport was a problem. Fortunately buses from Mr. Kong’s Bee Huat Company provided the transport for the pupils.
Official Opening of School by Sultan of Pahang (witnessed by Bishop Vendargon, Fr. Guittat &
a government. officer)
Assunta School under construction
The pioneer years:
Sr. Stella Matutina arrived from New York city, USA in December 1958 to be the first principal of Assunta Primary School. She was assisted by Sr. Assunta Therese Kannapan-Thanam, a Malaysian who took over as Principal in 1963. She was succeded by Sr. Margaret Koh (Jane Christine). Some of the pioneer F.M.M. teachers were Sr. Joan Bird, Sr. Stella Asirvatham, Sr. Ellyn (Theresa Tan) and Sr. Gabrielle Loo.
By 1961 there were 6 classes, 8 teachers and 500 pupils. During those early years The F.M.M. sisters experienced great difficulties but were full of joy. They received no salary for their work. After school hours all the F.M.M. staff from the headmistress to the canteen helper stayed back to sweep and clean the school premises. With very little Government assistance they depended on public support. Every year the organized fun- fairs, shows and fund-raising projects, often going out to beg donations from shop-keepers. Sr. Assunta Mi would be among the volunteers to cook food for sale during these fun-fairs.
From very early in the history of the school poor pupils were given assistance for their meals.Later the Parent-Teacher Association gave great support, working with the school administration.
Accomodation for boarders: In 1966 a convent with boarding facilities was built. The Sisters occupied the ground floor while the student boarders, both rich and poor, filled all the rooms upstairs. This building is the present Assunta Kindergarten. Then in 1967 due to popular demand a hostel was built next to the convent to provide accommodation for working girls and trainee teachers from other parts of the country. It is now the Assunta Retreat Centre.
Other F.M.M. contributions to the Kuantan community:
It is note-worthy that the Sisters were kept busy with many other activities besides running the school. These were as follows:-
1956: private tuition to girls who failed Std. 6 to enable them to reach at least Form 3 level; private music lessons; individual and group catechism in preparation for the Sacraments; home visits in Kuantan and 5 outstations.
1964: dress-making and cookery classes; tuition in Semambu; embroidery and cottage industry for 12 girls in the parish; recruiting Catholic girls for the Legion of Mary.
1966: running a kindergarten at the 10th. mile, Jalan Gambang for the poor children from the rubber estates and tin mines (with subsidy from the Catholic Charities Board of Kuala Lumpur). This site now houses St. Theresa’s chapel.
1968: assisting the parish priest in pastoral work.
1969: recruiting Catholic girls for the Young Christian Students (YCS).
(Note: Amidst all these activities, they also had to raise funds for all the daily expenses, to do all the house work and spend hours of quiet time in prayer.)
1971: The F.M.M.s bought over a house from the Brothers of St. Gabriel who were teaching in St. Thomas School, Kuantan. They then moved into it, which is the present convent, so as to be near the church and to facilitate pastoral work.
The convent and boarding house as well as the hostel in Alor Akar were closed and the buildings became the present kindergarten and retreat centre respectively.
The Sisters were engaged more in pastoral work but continued running the Kindergarten and Retreat Centre and sitting on the School Board. By then the school was administered by lay people.
Their main ministries in the Parish at that time were:
One full time Parish auxiliary (1972) and two part time in pastoral work; started the Ladies' Group with 15 members(1972); catechism classes in the Parish then had 130 children and teenagers; home visitations with Parish Priest, Deacon Thomas and laity, regularly visiting 36 families (170 persons) in 5 outstations(1972) ; worked with Society of St. Vincent de Paul (served 25 very poor families, 80% non-Catholic);
One sister Sacristan and full time Catechist to the Chinese-speaking. (1973); Gospel-sharing group kicked off in 1974 with 11 regular participants; socio-economic issues started surfacing, and 1 sister got involved in a "Human Concerns Group"( 1979).