Reverend Mother St. Mathilde Raclot was born on February 9, 1814, in a small village in north-eastern France called Surianville, where her grandfather had been the mayor. She was the eldest of two children of Francois and Charlotte Raclot. By responding to the call of Christ, she became one of the most influential missionaries in Asia and the founder of the first Convent schools in Malaya and Singapore.
She was one who thought that “noise did no good and that good made no noise”. Her humility reflected that of her order, the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus, who were then known as Dames of St. Maur, in France.
Marie-Justine came from a deeply religious family. After several years in the village school, her father sent her at the age of 12 to the boarding school of the Dames of St. Maur at Langres in north-eastern France. They were a community of women who dedicated their lives to the Christian education and spiritual formation of children. This was a turning point for young Justine.
More than 80 years later, she marvelled at God’s plan in making her father choose this very school that “set me on the true path and was the beginning of my happiness”.
From the outset, she had a deep conviction and silent revelations from God that she was called to religious life and to a particular mission. She would gaze at the map of Japan in her geography book with keen interest. In the depths of her soul, she heard a voice saying repeatedly to her, “There will come a time when you will go there to win souls for God!” In 1853, she wrote about her arrival in Japan: “I see at last that beloved land, the subject of my childhood dreams.”
Until the age of 18, she kept in her heart the precious secret of the divine call to consecrate herself to God in religious life and to spend her life as a missionary in the Far East. Her timidity kept her from revealing her plans to even her father, a compassionate man from whom she learned much and who was aware of her dreams.
Prayer was her greatest weapon at that time as it was throughout her life. Her father was supportive of her decision despite the pain of separation but her mother, who did not approve of her calling to religious life, refused to even say goodbye. On October 15, 1832, she left home and returned to the community at Langres.
Two years later, Justine received the habit in Paris and embraced the name Sister Mathilde. She was sent to different parts of France to teach, first to Bagnols sur Ceze, then to Beziers and later to Sete. She was a born teacher. Her authority over the children was firm while being sensitive to their needs and they were touched by her patience, gentleness and even temper. “We all loved her with respectful affection,” wrote one of her students. Another former pupil testified that Sister Mathilde “never seemed to lose the sense of the presence of God” and “she breathed forth virtue”.
When she was 37 years old, she heard that the priests working as missionaries in several Asian countries were appealing to her institute for help in the education of young girls. Despite her eagerness to be chosen, it was not to be and she accepted this decision in obedience. On December 16, 1851, five other Sisters were selected to set sail on a hazardous voyage fraught with tragedy.
After three weeks at sea, Mother St. Pauline, who was in charge of the group, fell ill and died. Then, during a bad storm, a pulley fell on Sister Panot’s head and she was badly hurt. When the missionaries arrived in Singapore, Sister Bath withdrew from the group, leaving just three young Sisters to make the next leg of the journey to Penang, their destination in Malaya.
These sad events made it imperative to choose another group of young Sisters. On September 15, 1852, Sister Mathilde received a letter from the Superior-General to go to Paris. It said: “Leave everything and come.” Mathilde obeyed with alacrity and, within a few days, she and four other Sisters set sail for Penang.
On October 28, 1852, Sister Mathilde was made the Superior of Penang and was tasked with guiding the mission and setting up a convent for girls. She also supported the Sisters in their religious life and they knew that she would never ask of them what she herself was not ready to do. Besides that, she also had to grapple with the constraints and challenges of working alongside the Fathers.
On December 2, 1852, three new Sisters left France and, six weeks later, they arrived in Penang. This reinforcement encouraged hopes of a foundation in Singapore (between 1826 and 1867, the trading ports of Singapore, Penang and Malacca were ruled together by the British as the Straits Settlements). It was the bishop of Singapore who had signed a contract authorising the sending of the first Sisters to Malaya. Then, he asked for Sisters to go to Singapore.
Mother Mathilde left Penang and joined them in Singapore in February 1854. Within just 10 days, she opened a school for fee-paying students, orphans and the poor. She and the Sisters developed a reputation for charity and the protection of the defenceless. They started an orphanage, a home for abandoned babies, a room for destitute sick people and laid the foundation for a girls’ school. To raise funds, she taught needlework to the Sisters and their students and sold the handiwork. She had strong faith in God together with a sense of purpose and mission.
Soon, they were requested to go to Malacca. A house, which operated as a foundation, was built and eight children joined as their first pupils on September 15, 1859. Before long, 30 poor children were admitted. The Sisters worked purely for the glory of God and the mission grew.
In 1872, Monsignor Petitjean appealed for Sisters to help the people of Japan in their faith. Mother Mathilde accompanied the first group of Sisters to Japan but returned to Singapore as she was still needed for the newly-founded mission there.
There were also trials in Japan as one Sister fell ill and another died. Only two Sisters were left to help the poor Japanese children. Mother Mathilde went to France to get help and returned with 12 Sisters to boost the mission in Japan and Malaya. Soon after, disaster struck the Yokohama mission — one Sister and then the Superior died.
Mother Mathilde wrote to the Superior-General and set off promptly to serve at Yokohama, resolving to be obedient to her superior’s decision. She was overjoyed to receive permission to stay on in Japan indefinitely.
She was then 62 years old but age did not diminish her ardour and fervour to share her faith and develop the mission in Japan. She learnt Japanese and taught catechism. The houses in Tokyo and Yokohama, run by the Sisters, were full with around 700 children. She also created a space for the poor, sick, and victims of typhoons and earthquakes. She drove herself beyond her strength, gave without measure and never showed the slightest sign of fatigue. By divine providence, rice and money were always plentiful for the ever-growing number of poverty-stricken people.
In 1892, the bishop of Tokyo wanted to spread Catholicism there by setting up schools for daughters of wealthy families. But Mother Mathilde held on to what her institute had been founded for, which was to serve the poor.
For over 50 years, she was the Superior of the Missions. Her days were filled with activity: the complicated details of business and government, and the need for exercising shrewd judgements in making decisions which could affect the welfare of many.
She died at the age of 96 on January 20, 1911, and was buried in Yokohama. She is deeply honoured by the Infant Jesus (IJ) schools she established in Malaya, Singapore and Japan. Today, there are 11 Convent schools in Singapore and 56 in Malaysia which stand as a testament to Mother St. Mathilde’s work. In 2014, she was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame for her contributions to Singapore.
- ^ Sr. St. Francis de Sales, Life of Reverend Mother St. Mathilde. Foundress of the Missions of St. Maur in Malaya and Japan, ed. Sr. Georgina Clarson (n.p., Infant Jesus Sisters, n.d.), 3. http://chij-sisters.org/writeups/MM-Life(Ch1-18).pdf. Accessed September 6, 2021.
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Sr. St. Francis de Sales. Edited by Sr. Georgina Clarson. Life of Reverend Mother St. Mathilde. Foundress of the Missions of St. Maur in Malaya and Japan. N.p.: Infant Jesus Sisters, n.d.
Harrington, Ann M. “The First Women Religious in Japan: Mother Saint Mathilde Raclot and the French Connection”. The Catholic Historical Review Vol. 87, No. 4, October 2001, 603-623. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.
Jenkins, Paul, SJ. Where There Is Darkness, The Story of Mother St. Mathilde Raclot and Her Companions, Sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus, Pioneer Missionary Sister in Malaya and Japan. N.p.: Infant Jesus Sisters, 1968.
Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame: St Mathilde Raclot, https://www.swhf.sg/profiles/st-mathilde-raclot/. Accessed September 6, 2021.