In 1872, European and American residents in the bustling treaty port of Yokohama faced a crisis. While vast profits could be made in the silk export trade and the new Meiji government provided stability and security for their small Western enclave, the merchants, diplomats, and missionaries who made up much of the foreign quarter had no schools to educate their children. Thirteen years after Yokohama had been opened to international trade in 1859, the reckless adventurers and scalawags who had first arrived in the “Wild West of the Far East” had been replaced by families with children growing up quickly. While boys might be sent “home” to boarding schools, parents were reluctant to part with their daughters.
A delegation of Western parents approached the Roman Catholic bishop of Yokohama, Bishop Petitjean, with their dilemma, and he in turn asked for advice from the most experienced educational pioneer in the region. Mère Mathilde Raclot, a French nun, had established girls’ schools throughout the countries now known as Malaysia and Singapore, earning a reputation for high standards and the ability to operate bilingually in an English- speaking environment. Although Petitjean merely asked her to recommend a young nun who could repeat her success in Japan, Mère Mathilde was ready for a new challenge. At the age of 59, full of youthful vigor and determination, she embarked on the second half of her career. With four other French and Irish nuns, she sailed to Yokohama, arriving on May 23, 1872.
Mère Mathilde led the first Catholic sisters ever to set foot in Japan, at a time when the legalization of Christianity was still one year in the future. She founded the first Catholic school in Japan, now known as Saint Maur International School (after the Rue Saint-Maur in Paris, where the sisters’ order has been headquartered since the 17th century). It remains the oldest international school in Asia and third-oldest in the world. From its beginning, the school embraced all nationalities, languages, and religions, interpreting “catholic” in its original meaning of “universal.” The first class of students included girls from many countries. After extraterritoriality ended in 1899, Japanese girls joined them. The goal of the sisters was to set a Christian example, but never to pressure students into conversion. In her extraordinary career in Japan, up to her death in 1911, Mère Mathilde founded orphanages and other institutions, including the prominent Futaba Gakuen schools, which include the Empress and the Crown Princess amongst their past students.
Saint Maur has always adapted to changing circumstances; its only constant has been innovation.
The school pioneered International Montessori education in Japan in 1973 and was the first to introduce new curricula such as the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) and the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE,) as well as the Lions Quest values program and Trinity International Music exams. No change was more crucial (and, in retrospect, more inevitable) than co-education, beginning in 1982 at the request of parents who wanted the same high standard of education for their sons. Now Saint Maur provides a warm and nurturing environment for boys and girls from age 2.5 through Grade 12 with over 30 nationalities, with a student-teacher ratio of 8:1. The decision to value quality over quantity and never to enroll more than 500 students has resulted in a close-knit atmosphere with devoted pastoral care by all teachers. High school students are challenged by the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma and Advanced Placement (AP) subjects, taught in small seminar classes, contributing to the high admission rate to competitive colleges worldwide. The school promotes truly lifelong learning, with a new toddler section for mothers and their babies, as well as an Adult Enrichment program, open to all ages at no cost.
Another recent innovation is a return to the school’s Gallic roots: a new French Section began in 2007, offering primary education following the French national curriculum. This section may expand to the secondary years, based on the needs of the local French population. Saint Maur students stay in touch with their community and the world, through local social service opportunities (such as the Sanagitachi Project and Seeing Is Believing), an intensive summer marine biology course at Yokohama City University, close links to Ishikawa prefecture and Atami city, and the summer European concert tours of the highly-acclaimed concert and jazz bands.
For 140 years Saint Maur has held classes continuously: in the rubble following the destruction of the school by a typhoon in 1884 and by the Kantō Earthquake of 1923, in an evacuation site in the Japan Alps during World War II, fleeing military requisition and wartime bombing, and immediately after the surrender amid the ruins of yet another demolished building. Now the school occupies five modern air- conditioned buildings, including a purpose-built Montessori kindergarten building and an award-winning Fine Arts Center, in the heart of Yokohama’s beautiful and historical area of Yamate, with a sports field nearby. The most recent addition is the modern Science Center, with rooftop solar panels which provide a sustainable energy source.
The school is more than the sum of its buildings, however. For over nine-tenths of Yokohama’s history, Saint Maur has provided an international outlook and an outstanding education to its residents, some of whom have attended for generations. Mère Mathilde might be amazed to see how Saint Maur has grown, but she would recognize its spirit of service to the city and to the world.
Prospective parents are welcome to contact the school to arrange for a tour of the campus. The oldest school in Japan is also the most energetic and dynamic, as it enters its 141st year!