Asia’s Oldest: Learning from UST and Her 400 Years of Unending Grace

Tomorrow, a university right smack at the heart of congested and pungent Manila will begin its celebrations to commemorate its Quadricentennial, its 400th year of existence. That university is none other than the Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomás, the Catholic University of the Philippines. It is proudly owned and maintained by the Dominican Friars. Its Latin name (its official name in the index of the Catholic Church) is Pontificia et Regalis Sancti Thomæ Aquinatis Universitas Manilana while its former names during its earlier years during the Spanish regime were Colegio de Nuestra Señora del Santísimo Rosario and Colegio de Santo Tomás de Manila. However, today, Filipinos simply refer to it as UST or by its colloquial, Ustê.

But the Philippines, often labeled as a country of forgetful, unhistorical people, should not treat this as some private occasion of some private university. The only institution with an incunabula or a book printed before 1501, UST is a literal and figurative repository of history, culture and heritage.

Indeed, the 400th anniversary of the OLDEST WESTERN-TYPE UNIVERSITY IN ASIA should be a moment of pride and triumph for the entire country. Presently, there are many Filipinos who are raised in households that are seemingly ignorant of Philippine history and heritage. From these same households come Filipinos who think and believe that this country is nothing: no history, no culture, no virtues, no future.

But UST, and by virtue of its very age, is a tangible example of how the Philippines (well at least to some degree) was and is a country with potential. UST puts it more poetically though: it is through unending grace that she is here now, and it is with the flame of this unending grace that keeps her aglow. What is UST telling us? That indeed there is such grace. The Philippines must just know how to use and live in that grace. Indeed, the history of the oldest university of Asia could attest to this.

Upon his death in July 1605, Fray Miguel de Benavides y Añoza, OP, the 3rd Archbishop of Manila, bequeathed 1,500 Pesos and his personal library with the hope that a school of higher learning for seminarians could be established.

Those same funds and resources were used to establish UST. Fray Bernardo de Santa Catalina helped make Benavides’ wish come true by securing a building beside the Dominican’s church and convent. in 1609, the Dominicans sought permission from Spain’s King Felipe III to open a school, but the King’s decree of approval only arrived 2 years later, in 1611!

UST was founded on 28 April 1611 with the signing of the Act of Foundation by Frays Baltazar Fort, OP, Bernardo Navarro, OP, and Francisco Minayo, OP. Fort, who was Provincial Prior of the Dominican Province of the Most Holy Rosary in the Philippines, was the first Rector Magnificus of UST.

The school was first known as the Colegio de Nuestra Señora del Santísimo Rosario. Eventually, its name was changed to Colegio de Santo Tomás de Aquino as the school was placed under the patronage of the Dominicans’, and the Catholic Church most esteemed Philosopher, the Angelic Doctor of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican genius. In 20 Nov. 1645, His Holiness, Pope Innocent X, elevated the college as a pontifical university through the Papal Bull In Supreminenti.

But the Atenean in me would like to remind everyone that UST was not the first Pontifical University in the Philippines. As far back as 1590, the Jesuits already established the Colegio Máximo de San Ignacio, which would become the Universidad de San Ignacio. Sadly, because of the Jesuits’ expulsion and suppression, the said older institution ceased to exist. Thus, UST is the oldest surviving university in the Philippines, and consequentially, in Asia.

According to the UST website, UST was authorized to confer degrees in Theology and Philosophy in 1619. Thus, the Faculties of Sacred Theology and Philosophy are the oldest in UST, and of course, in the rest of the country. In 1785, the University was enrolled in the roster of universities under the Spanish Crown’s patronage, thus its title “Royal”. It gained such patronage because when the British assaulted Manila, UST raised an army of students, professors and staff to defend the city. (UST Website)

Pope Innocent XI declared UST as a Public University of General Studies that meant it could confer other degrees. In 1733, the Faculty of Canon Law was established. Presently, the Faculties of Sacred Theology, Philosophy and Canon Law comprise the Ecclesiastical Faculties while the rest are considered Secular Faculties and Colleges. In 1734, His Holiness, Pope Clement XII gave permission to UST to confer degrees in all other faculties, and he also gave his approval to the curriculum of the field of jurisprudence.

In 1865, Isabella II, the Queen of Spain who led a very troubled reign, authorized UST to become the ex-oficio “DEPEd” of the entire archipelago. The Dominicans of UST were given the power to supervise all the schools in the Philippines (Ateneo included! haha!) and also conduct licentiate examinations. Its (in)famous difficult examinations had to be passed by aspiring individuals who wanted degrees, and these exams were usually preceded by what was known as a “Noche Triste” or a Night of Sorrows, wherein one is given a seeming thesis statement that one must defend (in Latin, of course!) in front of a panel the following day.

Today’s famous UST Faculty of Medicine and Surgery and Faculty of Pharmacy were founded in 1871. These would become excellent schools of medicine, and would become the Philippines’ most prestigious institute of learning for aspiring doctors.

It was in the latter part of the 1800s that UST would be experiencing the first of two interruptions in her long history, the first one being the during the revolution against Spain. In 1896, the year of the Revolution against Spain, the UST had to close because of the revolutionaries’ deep resentment of the university, which already became a symbol of the Spaniards’ antiquated and corrupt ways of governance. Indeed, even after the Spaniards left, UST became the last strong bastion of Spanish culture and heritage in the Philippines. It was only in 1970 when UST was finally led by a Filipino.

Ironically, it was in that same year that the Faculty of Arts and Letters was founded. From that same faculty came the Philippines most beloved and esteemed writers, poets, historians, sociologists and even nationalists. The likes of the late Ophelia Alcantara Dimalanta, F. Sionil Jose, and many others hail from this excellent school.

17 September 1902 was a glorious day for UST when the Pope, Pope Leo XIII, made UST a Pontifical University.

In 1927, due to a rising population, and also partly because of the Dominicans’ foresight, UST was transferred to its present location in swampy Sulucan, Sampaloc. The area where the university now stands used to be the hacienda of the contemplative Poor Clare nuns. A very logical explanation why UST España campus will forever wrestle with the flooding that is unfortunately immediately associated to UST is because again, it used to be a swampy farm.

Even before the War, UST was also already accepting female students. However, males and females were said to have different entrance gates, and even different staircases in the UST campus.

It will be in this same campus that its gracious majestic main building by the Dominican friar-engineer Roque Ruano OP’s would stand. Topped by a crucifix, accentuated by statues of saints and humanists and adorned inside by murals, the Main Building would become UST’s more lasting symbol of glory and triumph. In the same campus would be found other recently-officially-declared (but long time considered) “National Cultural Treasures”. These are the Arch of the Centuries, the UST Central Seminary, Fathers’ Residence and Santisimo Rosario Parish Art Deco complex, the Fountains of Wisdom and Knowledge and the above-mentioned Main Building.

During the Japanese occupation, the UST would become witness to a very dark moment in her history and in the history of the entire Philippines. Its Intramuros campus was bombed and destroyed (good thing UST moved or else its priceless collection of books, artifacts and whatnot could have also been lost like in the other schools!) while the Dominican Church of Santo Domingo was burned. The UST campus in España became an internment camp for the civilian families of allied forces nationals living in the country. It was liberated in 1945 by an Atenean, Manuel Colayco.

From that very dark moment, UST went on to tread the 20th century not without confusion and tremor but also with many progressive reforms and advances. In 1947, the Pope proclaimed UST as “The Catholic University of the Philippines.” In the 70s, it was the only university visited by a Pope, Pope Paul VI. But it was also in those years of social unrest that the Dominican Fathers of UST faced the test of time and social forces when the moves for Filipinization created tensions between the Spanish Dominicans and the Filipino Dominicans who were already demanding, by that time, more lucrative and decisive roles in the university. Its first Filipino Rector was Fr. Leonardo Legaspi, OP (now Archbishop of Nueva Caceres).

During the reign of Pope John Paul II, UST was fortunate to have him as guest twice!

UST, in her long history, has truly been blessed. It has produced four Philippine presidents, nationalists and heroes, countless members of the local Catholic Church’s hierarchy, priests and nuns, leaders in different professional fields, poets, writers, artists, acclaimed musicians and composers and whatnot. But I think what really sets UST apart is how canonized saints used to study, teach or visit the school. Truly, those are signs of UST being graced.

But that grace wasn’t only dispensed to UST, if you ask me. It was also given to the Philippines, and it is through the very lives of her illustrious alumni as well as her many unnamed excellent graduates that that same grace was made available to the entire nation. How UST helps build the nation and the Filipino Catholic Church is precisely through her sons and daughters, the students of UST who since their Freshman years, are reminded that UST is a Catholic school, and that Catholic virtues are the primary lessons UST tries to render and teach to them. My own mama, a product of UST, is my fine example of how good UST education is.

UST too, unlike other big universities, is amazingly and effectively able to foster a good sense of community among their students, priests, staff, alumni and professors as one could evidently witness in the yearly traditional “Paskuhan”, their support for their Salinggawi Dance Troupe, and as we shall see in the next few days, in her Quadricentennial Celebrations.

During Ateneo’s sesquicentennial, the events were extremely exclusive, and one could feel the lousy, if not pretentious, “sense of community” that pervades in my school. The Jesuits’ role and importance, for example, were never really highlighted during the Sesqui. Neither was Ateneo’s role in the Catholic Church celebrated or pointed out.

What makes UST especially important and meaningful is how it always admits and acknowledges that the unending grace that sustains it comes not from some secular idea but from the reality of God. Hmmm. Ehem, other Catholic schools out there (Ateneo for one), please learn from UST.

To say that UST is fortunate is true, no doubt. Here’s to their next 400 years!

But to say that the Philippines is some wretched country without any hope is quite rash and disquieting. Because as long as we have institutions of learning, of formation, of grace, such as the UST, we still have hope in the future generations of our beloved country. Let us hope UST, the Dominican Fathers, the students and professors of that noble and ancient school, continue to see all things in light of God’s unending grace.

A happy 400th anniversary to my relatives, friends and acquaintances who are proud Thomasians!

Reference: UST Website. (


About hechoayer

Things made yesterday still influence us until today. Things made today will influence us tomorrow. Things of the essence such as faith, culture, food, music and values should never disappear nor eroded by the times. Instead, these must be recorded, lived and shared. Something made yesterday - hecho ayer - can be tomorrow's saving grace. Never ignore the past.
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9 Responses to Asia’s Oldest: Learning from UST and Her 400 Years of Unending Grace

  1. Geanu says:

    I haven’t visited UST yet! I really should when I get back.

  2. nonsense021 says:

    As a Thomasian, it is nice to see an Atenean take interest in the history of our centuries-old university. Regarding the title of Pontifical, it may interest you to read Ambeth Ocampo’s column titled ‘Royal and Pontifical’. Here’s the link:
    Cheers! 🙂

    • hechoayer says:

      Thank you for your appreciative comment. However, I really don’t understand why quite a number of students from your school simply assume we look down or are hostile to your school. I do not know if you were privy to that completely strange article from the Varsitarian how a UST student felt being negatively alluded to when he saw an Atenean wear a particular kind of Ateneo shirt.

      I always bring peers and tourists to UST for the campus’ rich cultural heritage and at the same time, the school’s own colorful history.

  3. joyce isnavera recillo says:

    GO UST!!! :)))

  4. joyce isnavera recillo says:

    i really love UST!!

  5. Dan says:

    You talk like a tomasian!hahaha. I thought you were but thank you. It was good reading your article! Your mama is surely proud of you!

    UST is always JUST there.She doesn’t mind social stereotyping. A lot has been said about UST-both postive and negative, but one thing remains to be TRUE. It is always and forever be TRUE to her mission- raising her children to be champions in life.

  6. Job Manahan says:

    permission to post some of this for an article ma’am? please email me 🙂

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