2020 is a milestone year for two institutions, which would have been more memorable if not for this pandemic that has quashed those grand celebration plans. We talked about one of those institutions, China Bank which celebrated its centennial. Now we will talk about the other institution which is celebrating its 400th year, the Colegio de San Juan de Letran.
Yup, Letran is celebrating its quadricentennial this year, nine years past the quadricentennial of its Dominican-run educational institution sibling University of Santo Tomas. But what makes Letran’s case a bit more unique is the fact that throughout its 400-year history, it has stayed put within the walls of Intramuros where it was first established, making it one of the very few institutions/educational institutions from the Spanish colonial period that have remained in the Walled City, surviving earthquakes, changes in state leadership, and world war.
The Colegio de San Juan de Letran that we know today came from a merger of two institutions. The first one was the Colegio de Niños Huerfanos de San Juan de Letran, an orphanage and school for orphans founded in 1620 by Don Juan Geronimo Guerrero, a retired Spanish Officer. The orphanage school was located in Guerrero’s home which he converted to house the facility, The second was another orphange school founded by a Dominican brother Diego de Santa Maria at the Convent of Santo Domingo in 1632, the Colegio de Huerfanos de San Pedro y San Pablo.
By 1640, it seemed the Dominicans took over Guerrero’s orphanage school and decided to have it merged with the one established by their fellow Dominican brother Santa Maria. Thus, the two became one with the merged institution adopting the Guerrero-founded school and became Colegio de San Juan de Letran. Now, it could be argued that 1640 may be considered the actual foundation year of Letran, but it’s honestly a shaky foundation and there is no rule as to which foundation is adopted in case of merged institutions so let’s leave it at that.
I would be remiss if I did not answer the question where Letran got its name. Contrary to popular belief, there is no actual saint named San Juan de Letran. Actually, this “saint” is actually a place: the Basilica of St. John of Lateran or in Spanish: Basilica de San Juan de Letran, considered as the “Mother Church” of the Roman Catholics which is where the official seat of the pope (who also concurrently serves as the bishop of Rome) is located. And no, the official seat is not actually St. Peter’s Basilica where the papal ceremonies are usually held. The best analogy here is that St. Peter’s is like Quirino Grandstand where the parades and inaugurations are usually held but St. John of Lateran is the Malacañang where the pope holds office.
Growth, disruption, and recovery
After the merger, Colegio de San de Letran steadily grew as a premier educational institution. In 1690, it received the title of an “ecclesiastical college” and in 1738, it began to grant scholarships to foreign students who were studying there, one of the earliest foreign scholarship programs implemented in the country.
The first structure for the college was built by 1642 but was destroyed by an earthquake in 1645. The second building was built on the present site in 1669. Amazingly, the building managed to mostly survive massive earthquakes for almost 300 years, even the destructive ones like in 1863 and 1887 which damaged nearby buildings like the Manila Cathedral. But as the school grew and its curriculum evolved, the building found itself too small to handle the growing needs of the institution.
Thus the Letran Dominicans proceeded to demolish the old building in favor of a constructing bigger building for the college, with the new building being three storeys high with Baroque and, reportedly, Bauhaus elements. The new building, dedicated to St. John the Baptist was completed in 1937 with President Manuel Quezon, himself a Letran alumnus, gracing the building’s inauguration.
World War II hampered the development of the Letran campus in Intramuros, with the main building suffering heavy damages at the end of the war in 1945. But while other education institutions in the Walled City deciding to start anew outside the walls, Letran chose to stay behind and rebuild the campus. It also managed to gain more space by having acquired the site of the former Colegio de Santa Catalina, after its administrators, the Dominican-affiliated Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, decided to relocate to Sampaloc.
A place in history and beyond
Having survived and thrived throughout its 400-year history, the Colegio de San Juan de Letran has earned its place in the history of Manila and of Philippine education. And while the college has expanded its reach to places like Bataan and Laguna, the fact that it has remained loyal to its Intramuros roots is something worthy of admiration.
This quadricentennial further affirmed Letran’s commitment towards Intramuros. Set to be inaugurated in November (assuming this is not going to be pushed back thanks to the pandemic) would be college’s newest building in the Intramuros campus, the Quadricentennial Building, which will house the new gym for its fabled basketball team the Letran Knights, additional dormitory spaces, and other facilities.
As we see physical, geographical, and other relationships crumble in short time periods, this 400-year old “love story” of Colegio de San Juan de Letran and the Walled City of Intramuros in Manila is one that defies all odds, so to speak. If anything, this is one that brings some sense of hope that perhaps, it is possible to have such lasting partnerships that can make a positive impact.