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Convent of Jesus and Mary Chelsea: Giving young women tools to take over the world

Established 154 years ago, the school takes pride in focusing on character-building and giving young women the tools to take over the world

india Updated: Oct 29, 2018 11:57 IST
Aishwarya Khosla
Aishwarya Khosla
Hindustan Times
Convent of Jesus and Mary Chelsea,shimla schools
The all-girls school has produced famous alumnae. Prominanat among them are actor Priety Zinta and former Union minister Preneet Kaur, who is also wife of Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh(Deepak Sansta / HT)

Established 154 years ago, the Convent of Jesus and Mary Chelsea is undoubtedly one of the first institutions to be set up in the quaint deodar, oak and rhododendron crowned Himalayan town of Simla.

Nestled in one of the few remaining forested areas of Shimla, the school with its woodwork, and green-beige-red roofs, transports one back to the quintessential hill station of the 19th century. The school has a pleasant ambiance with bright blooms, creepers, and hanging plants merging with the façade of the school’s oldest building. Students wearing bright red cardigans and blazers ensure that the campus remains perennially vibrant.

This all-girls school has produced famous alumnae. Prominent among them are actor Preity Zinta and former Union minister Preneet Kaur, who is also the wife of Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh.

Home for orphans

In 1842, six missionaries from the congregation of Jesus and Mary braved a tedious voyage from Ireland to serve the needy of the Indian subcontinent. They first established an orphanage at Agra but the climate was too debilitating for them so they decided to shift base to the cool environs of Simla.

The decision was opposed by the army headquarters at Calcutta, but upon finally receiving a recommendation from Lord Canning, the then Governor-General of India, the missionaries moved to the summer capital of British India.

In 1864, Chelsea was founded under the supervision of Mother St Lewis Gonzaga as an orphanage for the children of British soldiers. For the first three years of its existence, the orphanage occupied two bungalows at Elysium Hill, near Auckland House School, in Shimla.

Initially, the Bishop of Agra sent bereft children to Shimla to be looked after by the nuns. The military provided the orphans a small monthly stipend for their upkeep and education. Later, the nuns started accepting boarders. The boarders also lived in the orphanage.

Since the accommodation was found to be inadequate, the orphanage was transferred to the Chelsea estate at Navbahar. The orphanage was called St Francis School. In 1869, the school was expanded and in 1873, the picturesque school chapel was built.

By 1940, the military services regulations had changed and there was no need for an orphanage. The St. Francis School was converted into the junior school and the main building housed the senior school. As enrolment increased, the curriculum was amended to include Indian history and languages. In 1947, as the British officials made plans to leave the country, the school braced itself for another period of transition.

Trial by fire and Partition

On the night of April 29, 1946, a fire broke out and destroyed three-fourth of the Chelsea building. It claimed the life of a 10-year-old girl. However, the school rallied immediately. A fortnight later, classes were resumed at Eagle Mount in Navbahar, in tents lent by the military.

The school was affected by the Partition as well. Around 50% students came from what was going to be Pakistan. The nuns made secret arrangements with the military to escort students and Muslim caretakers to the border. It took a few years for Chelsea to recuperate and thrive again. In 2000, the Chelsea boarding was closed and is catering solely to day scholars since then.

Royals’ choice

For the longest time, the royal families of Thailand, Nepal and the Princely States of Rajasthan, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh sent their daughters to the school for convent education.

Rani Sudha Kumari, the titular queen of Jubbal and the former princess of Keonthal state, who studied at the school from 1953 to 1959, says, “The Irish nuns at our time were strict about discipline, but had a heart of gold. They were particular about students’ uniforms, there shouldn’t be creases on uniform, hair had to be neatly tied, length of socks and nails were regularly checked, and shoes had to be gleaming.” “Nuns ensured that the campus had a familial atmosphere. There was a common dining room where day scholars were invited to have lunch. And it was compulsory to go to the chapel,” she adds.

Days of yore

Indran Mann Brar, an alumna of the 1975 batch, says “Back in the days, classes used to have 20-30 girls. Many girls were from Africa, Thailand and England. Indian parents, who lived abroad, would send their daughters to Chelsea to ensure good convent education.”

“The dining room was called the refectory. We’d be served bread, chapatti, dal, etc but after an exhausting day, we had the food as if it was the most exotic meal,” she says.

The pocket money given to girls was just ₹2.50. “We spent the whole amount buying sandwiches from a small tuck shop in school,” she says.

“Sister Cecil ensured that our dormitories were squeaking clean. She did not tolerate even a speck of dirt. The nuns ensured that we had packing suitcases down to an art. We had to put clothes in our lockers in a straight line, with nothing peeking out,” adds Brar.

Church bells would strike at 12 noon and the school would stop doing whatever they were and stand still. Then immediately, they would sing the Lord’s hymn.

The girls would visit Tara Hall and St Edward’s and Bishop Cotton School for competitions. “I remember watching Naina Lal Kidwai, an alumna of Tara Hall and the former country head of HSBC India, play basketball against our team. She was brilliant and an absolute whiz,” says Brar.

The coachman with a rose

Considering, Chelsea is one of the oldest institutions in the region; it has an enormous cache of folklore and myth attached to it that is perpetuated by locals. The presence of a cemetery right below the school makes it a rife with ghost stories. Perhaps, the most enduring myth is that of a headless coachman.

Rumour has it that during the British era, a coachman, whose name is lost in the cobwebs of history, used to live near the school. He was rumoured to be quite a ladies’ man. Unfortunately, he was decapitated in a brawl and since then, he haunts the Chelsea campus as a headless horseman. He appears whenever a Friday chances to fall on the 13th of a month. On the ‘doomed day’, the romantic coachman leaves a rose on the pillow of the most beautiful girl on campus. If she accepts the proposal within 24 hours, the horseman whisks her away to some mystical place the following night. But if she refuses, she is killed by the jilted spirit. The fear of the coachman was such that for the longest time, students took extra care to cover their faces before sleeping, on the 13th.

Another folklore attached to the school is quite sombre. Locals say that on dark cold nights, a late night straggler has been approached by a little girl who pitifully asks for her doll. It is believed to be the spirit of the girl who was killed in the school fire.

“On stormy days, the sound of a woman’s howls and shrieks fill our dormitory without fail. When we grew older, we reasoned that it was probably some poor woman having a psychotic break and shrieking in fear due to the storm. But when we were young, it filled our hearts with dread as the sounds seemed to be coming from the direction of the cemetery,” Brar says.

Principal Sister Shyma Jose (Deepak Sansta / HT)

The school today

Sister Shyma Jose, principal of the school, says, “There seems to be a steady decline in the value system. We try to teach students to stand for the right things. Till date, we lay emphasis on value education.”

Speaking of how small gestures by students make her proud, she says, “On one Independence Day, the students chose to march in the downpour rather than holding a ceremony indoors.”

First Published: Oct 29, 2018 11:50 IST