Today’s feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Lady reminds me of one tangible thing that has something to do with “assumption” and that’s none other than the Assumption, particularly, Assumption San Lorenzo. Almost all of my female cousins at my father’s side of the family went to that exclusive, all-girls school and, likewise, almost all of my closest girl friends hail from that institution. It’s time we look back into history and remember the glory days of what used to be known as Assumption Convent.
Saint (formerly Mere) Marie Eugénie de Jésus (born Marie Eugénie Milleret de Brou) founded the Religious of the Assumption on 30 April 1839, starting a religious congregation for women whichwould be eventually known for their various apostolates. When the first group of Assumption nuns arrived in Manila at the behest of the Reina Regente (Queen Regent) Cristina of Spain in 1892, the RA nuns would be famous in Manila from then on for their educational institutions Throughout Europe, especially France, they were known as the second mothers of the children of noble, aristocratic families. In fact, they also put up orphanages for victims of the anti-elite movements in France that massacred families of the nobility and aristocracy.
If there would be one school known to be a product of the work of Assumption nuns in the Philippines, it would be none other than the Assumption Convent, a Catholic school exclusive for girls that has ceased to exist for thirty years now. Its successors are Assumption Antipolo and Assumption San Lorenzo.
The Assumption Convent school was established in 1904, years after the pioneer nuns returned to Spain due to the revolution against the Mother Land. Pope Pius X sent a group of English-speaking nuns to the Philippines to continue the work of educating the girls of the capital. However, the once small school of the Assumption nuns would eventually be more known for one thing — the education of the daughters of the country’s elite.
The school’s original location was at the corner of Calle Herran and Calle Dakota, now known as Pedro Gil and Adriatico, respectively. A vast and stately school with manicured gardens, the Assumption Convent of lore possessed, according to Gizela Gonzales’ Growing Up Convent in “The Manila We Knew”, “leisurely confidence, born perhaps of the conviction that they were spacious enough to contain everything necessary for the education of young ladies…” The former campus had high-ceilinged and arcaded school buildings in the neo-Gothic style, lush plants, numerous trees and infamous higads that caused itchiness among the Island’s richest girls. Possessing a very French, feminine aura, the convent school sported arched windows and corridors, partly hidden floral medallions, specifically the Fleur de Lis common to Saint Paul (Assumption and St. Paul are the two French girls’ schools of the country), and even a lake with boats! The girls lived not in an environment of grandeur but rather, of gracefulness.
There was, of course, a sense of orderliness, decorum and cleanliness that pervaded. With its very name suggesting that nuns were the big bosses around, Assumption Convent school was a place filled not only with the sounds of lectures, it was also a place of delicate, soft sounds: the demure laughter of little girls, Sisters singing hymns, the melody produced by the wind rustling with tall branches and the lake’s ripples. Alas, if Assumption girls of Herran were known for something, it would be their tempered dispositions — eloquent but prudent, skilled but humble, fun-loving but balanced.
The old Assumption also featured one of the best school chapels in Manila. Neo-Gothic in design, the chapel featured arched, stained-glass windows and a comparatively small Gothic main altar. Students of the Herran campus still reached the point in the history of the Catholic Church when students were taught and REQUIRED to genuflect upon entering any place where the Blessed Sacrament was kept. In those days, students also signed for 15-minutes of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament exposed in Chapel; they would be excused from the class that would be eaten up by that time for adoration. In the afternoons, the students would fill the chapel, all with white veils on their heads, for adoration and end the day with the singing of the Tantum Ergo. Of course, this was also the venue of the singing of the Latin hymn to the Assumption, the Assumpta est Maria, sung in three voices.
There were also the very distinct things done within the walls of the school that through the decades would have the virtual label of “Assumption”. There were the Assumption tarts, triangular tarts topped with guava jelly, and the Assumption siomai, beloved by students because of how it tasted like Ma Mon Luk. There was also the Assumption cottage pie, ground meat topped with mashed potatoes served at the refectory — the convent term for cafeteria. Students played a French-named ball game of bataille and wore the distinct Assumption plaid skirts, the fabric, as I was told, originally brought in from France. The sailor-collared uniforms were pinned with a gold-colored seal of the Assumption. The lace-filled immaculately white uniforms called gala dress were reserved for important occasions such as Mass and Graduation Rites. Visiting guests had to contend themselves of speaking with the students in a parlor. These things made the girls of Assumption Herran unique and original, pioneers in Assumption culture and identity.
Taught to curtsy before nuns and call the Mother Superior as “Notre Mere”, the school resembled very much the renowned girls’ schools of France and the rest of Europe. It became the favorite among Manila’s rich but also, intelligent families.
However, if there was one lasting hallmark of an “Old Girl” (term they use for alumnae), it would be the conspicuous Assumption Script/Penmanship. The first time I saw my cousins’ handwriting, I remember commenting “How pointy!” Yes, those long letters with sharp elongated points. It was a precise cursive, with flourished capital letters and jagged tails. It was a source of pride, according to Gizela Gonzales’ essay from “The Manila We Knew”, and a way of immediately identifying an Assumptionista of Herran.
Formerly found in the genteel enclave of Ermita, it was located beside the old Ateneo de Manila of Padre Faura, where the brothers of the Assumption girls would most likely be studying. It was from this time when the so-called “Ateneo-Assumption” families would be born, with entire clans going to only either schools. With big, shady trees, the Assumption Convent in Herran was a place of top-caliber education, offering subjects such as Spanish, French, Language, Reading, Arithmetic, and Religion as well as Manners and Penmanship. From its doors, girls left after being taught the sublime values of fidelity to duty, charity, sacrifice and responsibility. It was a school for the alta de sociedad and there was no other value more emphasized than the French phrase “noblesse oblige” that basically says “To whom much is given, much will be required.”
Now, with the nuns sporting shorter purple habits, and the girls (I was told) no longer required to write with the Assumption script, things are left for history to judge. Is it still the same Assumption, the convent school that produced countless women of substance and character when it was still in Herran? Many have said, like in any change, that the latter batch spoil the untarnished name of an institution. In fact, it is a sad truth and if there’s anything constant in this world, it is change. Who would ever imagine that “famous” Assumption products would now be on the front covers of sexy, adult magazines? Or would end up hosting variety lunch shows or starring in awfully shallow movies? But then again – there are also questions of alumnae being tangled in err, shady business deals or political moves. History, or for us believers, will be the judge. Tignan na lang natin.
Change for the sake of change is fruitless and shallow. For many Catholic schools for girls, what used to be damned is now the norm and what used to be accepted is now frowned. It’s funny how Vatican II wanted clerics and religious to be more “visible” or “one with the community”. Well, what happened? A steep decline in vocations, an erosion of Catholic virtues and even a disintegration of the quality of education!
As nuns removed their habits, now they seem to have disappeared! You no longer can distinguish a nun from a lay woman. When nuns used to teach subjects like Home Economics, French, Spanish or even Math or Science, now, they’re all just teaching Catechism or have administrative roles. Indeed, with minimal interactions or encounters with students, how will women religious attract newer (and quality) vocations?
Have we seen the last of de buena familia girls becoming religious sisters? How do schools like Assumption attract girls who practically have everything to abandon their possessions and leave their families to become nuns?
In the old days, girls, before going to their Wedding Rites, would stop by the convents of their schools – Assumption, Sta. Scholastica, Holy Ghost, St. Paul’s, Sta. Teresa’s, etc – and would seek their teacher-nuns’ blessings. Sometimes even, the nuns would be invited to the weddings! Now, do we see that kind of friendship between the students and nuns? Today, after “Vatican II”, after allowing “the winds of change” to enter the Church, do we still see that strong, formidable friendship between religious educators and their students?
Speaking of the physical space, the congested and sinful city has taken over the spot of the old, quiet and civilized space of old Ermita. Replacing the mansions and schools are places of ill repute, travel agencies and a despicable Robinsons mall.
The Assumption of Herran is now gone, replaced by two, more populated schools – one in Makati and the other in Antipolo. But the challenge and spirit of gracious Herran remains because until the time comes when the very name “Assumption” is forgotten, the values, triumphs and graces long associated with the Assumption institution due to her students from Herran will always serve as guide posts.
Until the last “Old Girl” of Herran walks the face of the planet, the memory of a real place of affection will remain to haunt, remind or inspire others who share the same Assumption heritage. Though there still remains the tangible traces such as the white gala dresses with flamboyant laces, the sailor-collared uniforms and the plaid skirts, and of course, the tarts, there remains, always, the challenge of measuring to the values, which the Old Assumption used to proudly share and live through its illustrious students who have become gracious ladies of conviction and stature.
If ever (good heavens) I would ever have a daughter, this would be the school I would send her to, trusting not only in tradition but also the long-lasting friendships I have fostered with Assumption alumnae.
The Assumption that set the tone and proved the true ideals of St. Marie Eugene Milleret hecho ayer.