The first band of four St Joseph’s Missionaries (or the Mill Hill Fathers) came to Sarawak in 1881. They were the Very Reverend Father Thomas Jackson (Apostolic Prefect), Reverend Fathers Edmund Dunn, Aloysius Goossens and Daniel Kilty.
When these Catholic priests arrived in Sarawak there were very few formal educational facilities available, apart from a few Chinese-medium schools and St Thomas’ Anglican School (founded in 1848) in Kuching.
The following year, in April 1882, they started a school to provide basic education, knowing that education is an important factor in the building of a nation. This first Catholic missionary school in Sarawak was appropriately named St Joseph’s School after the patron of the Mill Hill Fathers – later to be known as SK and SMK St Joseph, Kuching. The school was to cater for children irrespective of race, religion or social-economic status. Visit the website of the Mill Hill Fathers.
The school started with a group of 20 boys using a simple wooden shack with an atap roof and timber walls on a land granted to the Catholic Mission by the second Rajah of Sarawak, Sir Charles Brooke. In 1883, a simple wooden church, separate from the school building, was erected nearby. It was the humble beginnings of the current St Joseph’s Cathedral.
Fr Goossens was the first principal but only for two years. The second principal was Fr Anthony Haidegger who was principal for over 48 years (1883-1931). It was he more than any other individual who was responsible for the early development of the school and he gave it a character and spirit with which it became identified. The school became a school for boarders and day scholars of any nationality.
The school was enlarged in 1886 with the addition of a large two-storey wooden building that came to be known as Noah’s Ark. This building was demolished in 1938.
The first brick building which was three storeys high, was opened in 1894 by Rajah Charles Brooke. Now it is known as the Mill Hill Block. The Sarawak Gazette issue of January 1895 described the new St Joseph’s building as “the largest private work carried out in 1894 and indeed the largest building in Kuching.” This building has stood the test of time, still standing strong and is a durable symbol of the proud history of the school. In 1927, two wings, each three storeys high, were added to the main building.
During the Japanese occupation of Sarawak, the priests of British and Dutch nationality were detained at the Batu Lintang concentration camp. The school building was taken over by the Japanese who paid rental to the Catholic Mission for use by the navy and army. St Joseph’s School started again in 1945 after liberation from the Japanese.
In 1946, Sarawak became a British colony. The British administration wished to see an expansion in the field of education. With the expansion envisaged and due to the heavy demand of their missionary work, the Mill Hill missionary priests felt that they could not carry out both ministries efficiently and effectively.
They decided to hand over the running of the school to the services of the world renowned Christian Brothers (or Brothers of St John Baptist de la Salle or the La Salle Brothers) in 1950. Br Patrick O’Donovan, a veteran educationist with the proud record of 40 years of devoted service in Malaya, took over the directorship of the school. Most of those who were privileged to experience this changeover must have felt it was another case of “The old order changeth, giving place to the new.” But it was not quite that; for, as Br Patrick very aptly remarked in his reply, “the Mill Hill Fathers have borne the burden of the heat and the day; they have sown the good seed, and we, the Brothers, have come merely to reap the harvest.” Visit the website of the Christian Brothers.
The Brothers set up a Prefects’ Board and a House System for studies and sports. The school motto, “Ora et labora” was introduced. The school song was borrowed from St Joseph’s Institution from Singapore, having been composed by Br Marcian, an Irishman teaching there. He adapted the school rally from an old Irish song called “O’Donnell Abu.”
Since the introduction of the common entrance examination for promotion to Form One and the government policy of providing places in Form One for only 30% of Primary Six leavers, there was a need for a private school to absorb those who could not enter Form One. Many were quite good students.
Therefore, in 1962, the private St Joseph’s School was opened in the afternoon in the classes used by the Primary School in the morning. It was clear from the beginning that this could not continue for long and it must get its own premises apart and distinct from St Joseph’s School.
This school was relocated to Jalan Stampin Timur in 1966 under the name of St Patrick’s Private School in honour of Br Patrick, the first La Salle principal. This school was to continue to function until December 1992. By then, because of automatic promotion from primary to secondary school and most students being promoted from Form 3 to Form 4 in government and government-aided schools, the intake of students into St Patrick’s had fallen greatly. During its twenty six years of existence, St Patrick’s School served its purpose very well and helped many deserving boys and girls to get a secondary education which they might not have obtained otherwise.
In 1963, a separate building for the Primary School was opened.
In the early 1960s, St Joseph’s School became part of the Malaysian government-aided school system. With this system, the management of the school was slowly taken over by the Malaysian Ministry of Education. In 1973, with the introduction of the Sarawak Service Scheme, teachers in government-aided schools were absorbed into government service on the same term as teachers in government schools, and therefore became subject to transfer to other aided schools or government schools. By this scheme, the Catholic school authorities lost control over the recruitment and appointment of teaching staff which came under the control of the Education Department.
Another change in the education scene in the 1970s was the change in the medium of instruction. When Sarawak formed Malaysia with partners from the Malay Peninsular, it was agreed that English would remain the medium of instruction in all schools for the first ten years at least and this policy would then be subject to review. The change to Bahasa Malaysia was introduced into Primary One classes throughout Sarawak at the beginning of 1977, reaching Form Five only in 1987. That is why St Joseph’s School in Bahasa Malaysia came to be known as Sekolah Rendah Bantuan (SRB) and Sekolah Menengah Bantuan (SMB) St Joseph. Later when both schools became fully government-run, they are known as Sekolah Kebangsaan (SK) and Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan (SMK) St Joseph.
In 1988, Br Columba Gleeson retired as Principal, bringing to an end the 35 year administration of the La Salle Brothers, as well as the era of the Fathers and Brothers in the administration of the school.
Like the Mill Hill Fathers before them, the La Salle Brothers were forced by changing circumstances and necessity to relinquish the administration and management of the school. Among these were the increasing age of the Brothers in Kuching, the lack of vocations to the La Salle congregation and changes in the education and immigration policy.
From then on, the school has always had a lay person as principal.
A substantial number of past and present leaders of Sarawak and Malaysia are “products” of St Joseph’s School. More than 100 years on, this same school is still producing outstanding SPM and STPM graduates.
In this modern day and age, parents are voicing the need for a more “rounded” education that encompasses both academic and character development of their children. With this in mind, the Church once again sees the need to take a lead in this area by establishing a Catholic private school that not only provides academic excellence but also inculcates moral values into its education process.
Archbishop John Ha of Kuching initiated a working committee and tasked Mr Gerald Lee, a former principal of SMK St Joseph to start looking into the prospect of a private Catholic school. Mr Lee has the experience of both the running of a government style school as well as that of a private secular school. A study was carried out and it was decided that a national type school would be more appropriate for Kuching.
In 2010, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kuching was granted the licences by the Ministry of Education to establish St Joseph’s Private Primary School and St Joseph’s Private Secondary School, the first private Catholic school in Sarawak in the current sense.
Archbishop Ha has in mind two different religious congregations to handle the running of the private school; one for the primary school and the other for the secondary school.
The primary school was given to the Franciscan Sisters of Sarawak for their many years of experience in running primary schools in the state.
Initially, Archbishop Ha wanted the Claretian Fathers from India to run the secondary school. However, it was later changed to the Jesuits when Archbishop Ha met Fr Colin Tan, SJ, the Regional Superior of the Jesuits in Malaysia-Singapore in 2011 who offered their services in education.
In January 2012, both St Joseph’s Private Primary School and St Joseph’s Private Secondary School started their classes at their temporary premises at the former St Bernardette School, Jalan Budaya, which was used by the Parish Tuition Centre. The secondary school started with three Form One classes with a total of 105 students. The primary school started with one Primary One class and one Primary Two class with a total of 44 students.
Mr Gerald Lee was the director of the school; Sr Odilia Ngui, SSFS was the headmistress of the primary school and Mr Dominic Pan, another former principal of SMK St Joseph, was the interim principal of the secondary school until June 2012 when Fr Francis Lim, SJ arrived to take over the post of principal.
Also in 2012, the construction of the new school building commenced, and was scheduled to be completed in April 2013. However, the school was only able to move into its new premises on 17 September 2013. The new building is four storeys high and is well-equipped. It is located along Jalan Nagor. The new building is right behind the school field of SMK St Joseph.
In 2017, the St Joseph’s International School Kuching started with its campus at the former SK St Teresa located next to St Peter’s Church in Padungan. Some of the buildings have been renovated and plans to build two new four-storey buildings are in place. The Marist Brothers run the International School.
To read more on the history of St Joseph’s School, go to the website of the Old Josephian’s Association