Genealogy Search Brings us to Mandalay, Myanmar and Hitting the Research Wall

Prior to our trip to Mandalay, Myanmar a woman on Tripadvisor had told us that St. Mary’s school where my great grandmother had worked as a matron was now NO. (8) Basic Education High School. A volunteer working for FIBIS also provided us with the same information (from the same source unfortunately). I also found on a post that most of the cemeteries had been moved out of the city to Kyar Ni Kan Cemetery ages ago but that some gravestones had been collected prior to the move and were still behind St. Thomas Aquinas Pre-Major Seminary in Mandalay. So, these places were the focus of our search when we arrived in the city.

Planning our trip I made a fatal mistake. Since we had important work to do I decided to choose a hotel which belonged to a reputable international chain. Based on their reputation I was sure that the employees would be highly trained and would be able to assist us in where things may be located and such. Unfortunately though, by the time we arrived in the city the hotel was no longer affiliated with this company and though many of their employees remained the same, they were having serious training issues. One employee was absolutely amazing and helped us as much as he could but he was doing the work of 10 people at the hotel. 

Going to Mandalay, Myanmar? Search for hotels here! 

The hotel was a bit out of town. In Yangon our hotel had also been a bit out of the city center and it was no problem at all. We easily and cheaply got taxi rides to and from the hotel at any time. In Mandalay though there were no taxis near our hotel ever. Instead we needed to hire a private care each time we went out into the city. The hotel was 20 min from the city center in moderate traffic and at $10/hour the cost of transportation quickly added up. We soon ran out of our remaining available transportation funds so each trip to investigate needed to be short.

The day before we headed out the first time to find the school I did some more digging around about No. (8) Basic Education High School. From what I could find online I had a feeling that this was not the correct school. It looked like this school had used to be St. Joseph’s and not St. Mary’s. The manager at the hotel called the school and the person who answered the phone said that they were not sure and to come on by. 

So, we took the car to the school and there were signs everywhere saying that it used to be St. Joseph’s. I don’t know how the person who answered the phone had not been aware of this. If someone is looking for St. Joseph’s though the people who work at this school were very friendly and welcoming and they have a booklet of history and old photos of the school available for people who visit. 

One woman at the school told us that there had never been a St. Mary’s School in Mandalay. Another woman said that there was a St. Mary’s school and it had been just down the street. So, with our driver we went down the street and found St. Mary’s church but no school. An old blind woman at the church told us also that there had never been a St. Mary’s school but then asked if it had been Catholic or Anglican. I told her it was Anglican. Suddenly she said “Oh yes!” there HAD been a St. Mary’s school next to St. Andrew’s school and her own father had attended it. She said it was now No. (1) Basic Education High School. 

So we found No. (1) Basic Education High School. There were 3 ladies at the front gate who were very nice but then suddenly a man came up and wouldn’t let us talk to anyone anymore and wouldn’t answer any questions. We just wanted to know if this school had been St. Mary’s. He told us to go away and to get a pass from the school’s office a few blocks away. So we went there and they told us that the person we needed to see was in a meeting and would be unavailable all day. They suggested that we talk to the school chairman who was back at the school. We went back to the school and they told us that he wasn’t there. We asked if we could perhaps call him and the same man at the gate told us that he didn’t have a phone number and ushered us out of the gate area. We finally got out of him that we should try asking at the school’s main office a few blocks away. 

We went to the main office and they told us that we should come back later in the afternoon to speak to the chairman. No one at the main office could tell us if the school used to be St. Mary’s or not and they also would not call the chairman. Our driver suggested that rather than coming back in the afternoon we should come back on Monday at 9am. Classes would be starting then and so someone would have to talk to us. 

Instead we went to find St. Thomas Church to find where some old grave stone of the British have been kept. When the military took all the old graves out of the city a priest saved a few stones there. We had been given the wrong address and had been told that it was not a seminary but a church. It IS in fact a seminary and eventually we did find it. Only around 30 stones remain there and most are in pieces. After 3 hours we were exhausted and had found nothing. 

St Thomas Seminary-2 St Thomas Seminary (2)-2 St Thomas Seminary (3)-2

The stones that remain at St. Thomas Seminary

On Monday we set out on our search again. Unfortunately they fantastic driver we had had before the weekend wasn’t available to help us on Monday. This second driver was not as um…”dedicated to the search” as the previous man had been and asked few questions.

We were sent to an old Methodist school/church, which sent us to a church next to the YMCA. They sent us back to St. Mary’s church which in turn sent us back to No. (1) Basic Education High School. They in turn ended up sending us back to No. (8) Basic Education High School where we had started our search originally on Saturday. A nun there sent us to a Baptist Church where she believed the school had been and her sister had apparently even attended the school there! The people at the Baptist Church told us there was never a school there and didn’t offer any additional leads. 

Mandalay Palace (6)-2

We know that St Mary's school was on the South side of Mandalay Palace

We headed over to the Mandalay Cultural Museum and Library but found that it was closed on Mondays. Probably for the best. Costing nearly $5 per person, Lonely Planet describes the museum as “This dowdy, poorly lit three-room collection displays archaeological finds, Buddhas and a bullock cart. It’s ludicrously overpriced”. I doubt a trip there would have helped in our search. We decided to skip going to Kyar Ni Kan cemetery on this trip. I think it is our best bet for finding my great grandfather’s grave there but we couldn’t even get a straight answer as to whether there are still British graves there. We had run out of enough time and money to spend our day searching the stones as the following day we had to leave Myanmar. 

I strongly believe that St. Mary’s School may still be in the city. In our round about search we were sent to numerous colonial era schools, churches and buildings but what each one once was has been lost to the general public. Some have little plaques with dates and names. Others, the current occupants hold the history and information like the nuns at the school that once was St. Josephs. Mapping it all out and recording it all would be a great and worthwhile project! Perhaps someone has already undertaken this task but we were unable to find the information.

We’re hoping to make it back to Mandalay in the next year if possible to search again. Online I think I’ve hit a brick wall. I have not been able to find out any new information through the genealogy sites in ages. I’ve recently been sent a message that the location of the old St Mary’s School is now St. Mary Language School between 77 & 78 roads on 26 Street in Mandalay but I have not been able to find any information about that school yet. So, at this point our search is on hold until new information arises or we can make the trip back to Myanmar.

Things I am still wondering:

  • Who was Gladys Edith May’s mother? 
  • Who was Gladys and where did she go after marriage?
  • Where is St Mary’s school?
  • Where is the grave of Joseph Plato Cooper?
  • Is there any additional documentation that shows Joseph is the son of George James Cooper?
  • Are there family photos from the time?
  • Where did the sisters do their nursing training?
  • Audrey said she was in Calcutta at one point nursing. How did she end up there?
  • Is there any documentation of my great aunt Heather at the time? Where was she born?
  • The family visit that took place in the 1950’s, what were they doing there?
  • What were they all doing in their lives there?
  • And anything else that may come up in the search!

​Click here to read how the search for our family history in Myanmar all began!

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Myanmar (Burma) travel guide, 12th Edition Jul 2014 by Lonely Planet