Last Saturday, right after my 8:00 AM – 12:00 noon Immersion recollection at the Ateneo, Kid, Paolo, Marie Laure, her friend Chloé, and I made our way to Sampaloc, Manila to visit the oldest Western-type university in the whole of Asia, the University of Santo Tomás (UST). Originally, it was supposedly only Marie Laure and I who were going to UST since we had an assigned essay on UST and the on-going Lumina Pandit exhibit in the Fray Miguel de Benavides, OP Library for our Cultural Heritage class with Dr. Fernando Zialcita. Fortunately, our other friends accompanied us. I also, in effect, gave an impromptu tour of UST, a university I, and a lot in my family, am familiar with. As it celebrates its 400th year in 2011, it is an excellent move to require students to visit and pay homage to UST.
Upon entering through the España gate, my friends (excluding Kid who has visited the place before) were immediately attracted by the structures that welcomed them. There was the Arch of the Centuries as well as the Fountain of Wisdom and the Fountain of Knowledge, all of which have been recently named as “Cultural Treasures” of the Philippines. The Arch of the Centuries actually served as the former doorway of the old UST in Intramuros. When UST moved many of its departments in its present site in the 1920s, the old UST in Intramuros still held classes in its buildings until the last War totally ruined the UST Intramuros compound. Good thing the original doorway was kept intact and now, it beholds any visitor of the University whenever he enters through España Boulevard. It is the most visible and tangible link of all “Thomasians” to the 400 years of UST’s existence, making it a very symbolic and revered doorway. A very famous (or infamous) legend about it though is that if you pass through it and has yet to graduate, then chances are, you will never get to graduate at all. UST students only walk through it after their graduation ceremonies. Funny thing though is that even non-UST students believe in the supposed curse, and likewise avoid passing through it.
Moving towards the Main Building for our assignment (that is to observe and describe the Main Building), the group again paused in front of the statue of Fray Miguel de Benavides, OP, which has the Main Building as its majestic backdrop. Marie Laure and Chloé loved the elephants with flowers on them.
Su Excellentisimo Padre Fray Miguel de Benavides, OP was a Dominican friar who became Manila’s third Archbishop. It was he who established UST when he was already nearing death. The beginning of UST was actually when he bequeathed his collection of books or his personal library and his property worth 1,500 Pesos for the foundation of a school. His wishes were carried out by Fray Baltaza Fort, and in 28 April 1611, UST was formed. Its original name was Colegio de Nuestra Señora del Santissimo Rosario. Later, it received Papal dispensation and was elevated to the rank of “Pontifical University”, second to the Jesuits’ Universidad de San Ignacio, which closed right after the expulsion of the Society of Jesus. Formally, UST is known as La Real y Pontificia Universidad de Santo Tomás de Aquino, Universidad Católica de Filipinas. The title “The Catholic University of the Philippines” was given by His Holiness Pope Pius XII in 1947.
Seen from the Plaza de Benavides is, of course, the massive UST Main Building. To this day, whether I tour people, visit someone in the UST Hospital or simply pass by, the Main Building still melts my heart. It is a beautiful (and very functional) piece of architecture that serves as the pride of Sampaloc and also of the Filipino people.
Marie Laure and Chloé confided in me that UST simply looked far more beautiful than Ateneo. I totally agree.
The UST Main Building was designed by the Spanish Dominican friar Fray Roque Ruano, OP. The building was built in 1927, four years after construction took place. It was as early as 1911 that the Dominicans decided to move UST out of the Walled City of Intramuros. They bought the present land of UST from what was used to be the hacienda of the Poor Claire nuns (Yes, the contemplative, cloistered nuns of Sta. Clara had haciendas!).
The UST Main Building is 86 meters wide and 74 meters deep, with a floor area of approximately 20,000 sqm. Its tower is nine storeys high, with a cross mounted on top. Two courtyards are found inside the building, which flank what was the paraninfo or great hall common among Spanish universities. Today, like before, administrative offices are still found in the Main Building. The UST Museum, which has the oldest collections and most expansive, is found in the former paraninfo. Today too, there are classrooms and laboratories used by the College of Science in the upper floors.
When we entered the Main Building,we marveled at the old murals depicting different people and aspects of UST life found at the walls of the front lobby. Made by Antonio Garcia Llamas, a former professor at the UST School of Fine Arts, the murals exuded an air of triumph and glory as well as reverence for the institution and its history. Climbing the grand staircase, which was also flanked by paintings, created a deep sense of solemnity among us. The old chandeliers gave the entire place that old word vibe. Though it seems creepy (my own mama said that the old Main Building during her time was a really scary place since it was a very dark building), the Main Building is truly a sight to behold and be proud of. Who could ever imagine that right in the middle of swampy Sampaloc, right smack in the heart of congested Manila, is a grand and historic piece of architecture?
UST, the oldest university in Asia, is not only the pride of the Dominican order. It is and must be the pride of all Filipinos because it signified that from 1611-1900s, the Philippines was relatively more advanced than its neighboring Asian countries. it was even the heart of all of Philippine education since many of the country’s renowned teachers, professors, scholars, nationalists and leaders were products of UST. The collection of rare books and manuscripts exhibited in Lumina Pandit could attest to this claim.
Adorning the earthquake proof building on top are 15 3.05 meter-high statues sculpted by renowned Italian sculptor and former UST professor Francesco Monti. At the very center, which formed the “Tria Haec” were Faith, Hope and Charity. At the right side of front facade are Aristotle, St. Albert the Great and Plato. At the left side of the front facade are Vincent of Beauvais, St. Augustin and Saint Raymond de Peñafort. At the back side, the statues of Calderon de la Barca, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Aristophanes and Moliere can be seen.
Such is the place Filipinos know as UST, a gem, a cultural treasure that does not simply part of the “University Belt” but stands proudly as that belt’s buckle. It should be the center of all educational institutions in the country, serving as its mother and model. Though it has failed to keep up with the University of the Philippines, and Ateneo de Manila University on some aspects, a lot can still be learned from this venerable Catholic institutions, one of which is its excellent display and effort of preserving and maintaining Philippine culture and heritage in its truest forms.
Truly, the University of Santo Tomás hecho ayer.
All photos from Paolo José Quesada Halagueña