By: Quennie Ann J. Palafox

    The oldest existing university in Asia and the largest Catholic University in the world in terms of population is found in the Philippines. The University of Santo Tomas in España, Manila in the District of Sampaloc, turned 400 years old. Some compare UST as an institution older than the Harvard University, America’s oldest university.

      UST is a private and sectarian educational institution run by the Order of Preachers. The Dominicans were the fourth group of religious orders after the Augustinians, Franciscans and Jesuits that arrived in the Philippines, doing so in 1587. One of them was Fr. Miguel de Benavides who was appointed as the third Archbishop of Manila in 1603. Fr. Benavides most important legacy was his founding of UST, an institution of higher learning, initially intended to be a “seminary-college” to prepare young men for the priesthood.  In his last will, Fr. Benavides donated his personal library and 1, 500 pesos which was a huge amount of money at that time, to finance the establishment of the college. 

     On the fateful day of April 28, 1611, the Colegio de Nuestra Señora del Santisimo Rosario was established in Intramuros with Fr. Domingo Gonzalez, O.P. appointed as rector. It was unfortunate that Benavides died on July 26, 1605 without even seeing the fruit of his work. In 1619, Pope Paul V granted the offering of degrees in Philosophy and Theology to all Dominican colleges in the world.  Colegio de Nuestra Señora del Rosario was renamed Colegio de Santo Tomas, in memory of the foremost Dominican Theologian and its patron-saint, St. Thomas Aquinas, in 1625.

      Pope Innocent X elevated the college to a university in 1645, making it the oldest existing University in Asia. In 1680 King Charles II placed the University under the royal patronage of the Spanish monarchy. The Faculty of Canon Law was formed as the Escuela de Derecho Canonigo in 1733, making it the oldest School of Canon law in the Philippines. King Charles III conferred the title “royal” university in 1785 because of UST’s loyalty to the crown when it volunteered its students for the military defense of Manila against the British who occupied Manila from 1762 to 1764.

       In 1865, Queen Isabella II issued a royal order authorizing the University to direct and supervise all the schools in the Philippines with the Rector of the University as director of the Bureau of Education. No diploma was issued by other schools without the approval of the Rector of the University. The Revolution of 1868 led by Gen. Juan Prim resulted to the deposition of Queen Isabella II. A liberal government was established and an Italian prince, Amadeo of Savoy, was proclaimed as King of Spain in 1870. One of the acts of the newly-installed government was to secularize the University. However, this did not materialize because of the fall of the Liberal government and restoration of the Spanish monarchy.

       Another significant move was implemented by the university in 1871 when it expanded its academic program to offer the degrees of Medicine and Pharmacy.  The university opened its doors to women with the creation of the Escuela de Matronas (School of Midwives) in 1879. In 1898, UST was closed when the Philippine Revolution broke out. Classes were resumed a year later.

       On September 17, 1902, Pope Leo XIII made the University of Santo Tomas a “Pontifical University”, and by 1947, Pope Pius XII bestowed upon it the title of “The Catholic University of the Philippines”. The University of Santo Tomas is the second university in the world after the Gregorian University in Vatican to be granted the formal title of Pontifical University.

      A male dominated university, UST began accepting more female students in 1924 because of the desire of many families to have their daughters educated in a Catholic institution. In 1927, the UST Main building designed by Fr. Roque Ruaño, O.P., was inaugurated. That same year, the UST administration transferred the university campus from Intramuros to its present site in Sampaloc district because of the dramatic increase in its enrolment. In the following year, the Varsitarian, the official student newspaper of the university was founded. The Intramuros campus continued to operate until its destruction during the Second World War.

The Japanese Forces during the Second World War turned UST campus into an internment camp for 2,500 allied civilians. This sad episode of its history finally ended when the internees were liberated by U.S. forces in 1945.

       In 1947, Pope Pius XII bestowed the appellate name “Catholic University of the Philippines” to UST.  Two Popes have visited the University. The first time was in November 1970, when Pope Paul VI visited the University. The blessed Pope John Paul II came to the University in 1981. He came for the second time in 1995 and celebrated the World Youth Day with a mass at the UST parade grounds. The charismatic Mother Teresa of Calcutta also paid UST a visit in 1977.

        Through the years has produced many Filipino patriots who have shaped the nation’s destiny among them the heroes Jose Rizal, Emilio Jacinto, Marcelo H. del Pilar, Apolinario Mabini; and Philippine Presidents such as Manuel Luis Quezon, Sergio Osmeña, Jose P. Laurel and Diosdado Macapagal. A large number of delegates of the Malolos Congress who drafted the Malolos Constitution in 1899 and delegates of the 1934 Convention who drafted the 1935 Constitution were alumni of the University.