Friday, March 3, 2023

Behind the Walls of St. Scholastica's College by Herminia Meñez Coben

The following is an article by Dr. Herminia Meñez Coben "Behind the Walls of St. Scholastica's College." This is part of the book BEHIND THE WALLS: LIFE OF CONVENT GIRLS ( Anvil 2005), a collection of personal essays by graduates of Philippine Convent Schools.  The collection includes writings by Gemma Cruz Araneta, Neni Sta. Romana Cruz, Imelda Nicolas, and others. For more information about the book, visit .

Dr. Herminia Menez Coben, a retired Professor of American Multicultural Studies at Cal State, Sonoma, is author of EXPLORATIONS IN PHILIPPINE FOLKLORE and VERBAL ARTS IN PHILIPPINE INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES: POETICS, SOCIETY, AND HISTORY.



Herminia Meñez Coben

copyright 2023 by Herminia Menez Coben 

“God writes straight with crooked lines”. . . “Ora et labora”. . .

“That in All Things God May be Glorified”. . .

“Ad Majorem Et Gloriam” . . . “You Can Change the World,” etc.

AT AGE THIRTEEN, I was sent to live as an “interna” for the next four years under the disciplined guidance of the Benedictine Sisters inside the walls of St. Scholastica’s College (SSC) on Pennsylvania Avenue, now Leon Guinto. Months before my mother and I sailed for Manila, her seamstress had sewn a dozen navy and white uniforms, ink-stamped with my assigned number, “38" (for laundry purposes), the same number that appeared on everything else I wore except for the “civilian” dresses on week-ends outside the walls.

Manila in 1949 was just recovering from the devastations of the Second World War. SSC’s main building still bore the pockmarks from the siege of the Japanese-occupied city by American liberation forces. The fighting was brutal at De La Salle College, our neighbor on Taft Avenue, which the Japanese had used for their quarters, and where hand-to-hand combat had left the hallways bullet-scarred and splattered with the blood of the enemy.

Our own campus appealed to my wild imaginings about the ghosts of war, and in the company of my equally adventurous young friends, we haunted the ruins of St. Cecilia’s Hall, the premier college music auditorium, built in 1932 in the art-deco style of the period, shelled and bombed to the ground in 1945. The rubble became our stage for play and games. Nothing grew there except weeds and a wild aratilis tree bearing tiny translucent berries which when popped between the teeth melted in the mouth and emitted a sweet scent.

Our dormitories occupied the two upper floors of the main building. On week-ends, through a boxed opening on each floor, we listened to the music majors rehearse their graduation concertos with the Manila Symphony Orchestra on the ground floor which served as the temporary auditorium. Musically inclined or not, we were thus exposed to the best composers of classical music. It was in that same hall where those of us who took piano lessons at the College of Music gave annual group recitals on the grand Steinway.

Life behind the walls was highly regimented, a near carbon copy, we thought, of the nuns’ lives inside the cloister. Our beds, set hospital style in a cavernous room, were curtained on one side for privacy at night, but were always open for inspection by a nun who did the rounds, aisle by aisle, with a flashlight. If not in our respective beds, we could be discovered in the narrow balcony overlooking the acacia-shaded lawn sharing a midnight snack or up in the forbidden roof garden, smoking smuggled American cigarettes while enjoying the lights of the city. I had brought my walking doll which an uncle had sent from California, and one evening, I propped her up on a pillow as though I was in bed, but I knew that Sister L. had discovered my trick when she inquired the next day, “How’s the dolly, Herminia?”

Each morning at five-thirty, at the sound of Sister L’s bell, we rushed to the huge common bathroom, clacking our wooden clogs on the bare cement floor on the way to individual shower stalls which enterprising boarders had reserved the night before by draping their towels over the door. After our quick morning routines, slowly we filed into the chapel in another building where still half asleep we heard the handsome but shy Father M. say Mass and listened to a choir of nuns sing the Gregorian chant.


All our meals were served in an austere refectory, which we were sure mirrored that of the nuns. About a hundred and fifty girls sat on long benches facing each other across a long wooden dining table “decorated” only by bottles of soy sauce and vinegar. We observed silence at breakfast, just like the nuns, we thought. But lunches and dinners were lively, although not rowdy, except on a few occasions like the time we protested against our monotonous and predictable menu. It was alright to have merienda of multicolored kropek dipped in vinegar and soy sauce almost every afternoon, but a meal of steamed rice and tasteless curried chicken in a bed of saffron rice simply was not acceptable, especially if served twice a week. So, banging our knives and forks on our plates at one dinner time, we screamed “No more rice versus rice!”

Our little acts of rebellion against our well-ordered universe usually took the form of harmless pranks played not on the nuns but on ourselves. I remember how my high school friends and I gathered in one pile the many pairs of shoes belonging to the college students in the dorm below ours one evening while they were in study hall. Were they mad at us when on the following morning they had to go through a mound of regulation black moccasins to find their own!

Although we were not completely guileless, I believe that malice was far from our thoughts. After dinner and before study period at the library (no exceptions here; everyone had to be there whether or not one had finished her homework), we met under the pergola that connected the classroom buildings to the cafeteria. There also was a covered double swing, a favorite spot where we exchanged stories while Sister B.’s sweet-toned Gregorian chant mellowed the early evening air. True, we told tales like our own manufactured versions of popular dark legends about priests visiting the convent and the corpses of infants buried inside the cloister walls. But we never appended these stories to the nuns we knew. My three friends and I , who took the names of the characters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, christened the resident chickens and pigs, which Sister V. tended, after the sisters, but it was without malice or prejudice.

We often wondered why anyone would enter the convent. “Ora et labora,” a motto we often heard and repeated, was a way of life that perhaps appealed, no matter how flittingly, to most of us, but our two sections of high school ‘51 produced only two novices. Also, the most religious were not necessarily the most likely candidates; in fact, a few of the boarders who answered the “call” years afterwards were among those who partied the most while at SSC.

Although we were not eager to “pray and work” forever, it seemed that we so willingly submitted ourselves to order and discipline that I still wonder how we kept our teen-age “sturm and drang” under our perfectly pressed uniforms. I don’t remember anyone so fired up by raging adolescent hormones that she actually scaled the high walls topped by broken glass. It was known that a few high school girls forged the signatures of their guardians so that they could leave the premises for a shopping trip or an afternoon at the movies, but as a rule we waited for an adult relative or the maid with a note to pick us up.

Even college students needed a guardian’s letter for a week-end furlough, although for a day’s outing, they only had to sign in and out in a ledger in front of a receptionist. I’ll never forget one important occasion, a dinner dance at the Manila Hotel following the graduation recital of a friend, which I missed because my aunt forgot to pick me up for the week-end. With my hair in curlers, and my new gown boxed and ready beside me, I sat on the steps of the entry hall crying my eyes out when Sister L. happened to pass by, inquired about my tears, and upon hearing my story, said: “But, Herminia, it’s not the end of the world.” I did not believe her then. How was I to know that the truly heart-rending tragedies in my life were yet to come?


The constraints in which we lived inside the walls did not stifle our creativity or our sense of humor. Rather than rebel, we made light of some of what we believed even then were ridiculous rules. I do not recall, for instance, that any of the high school students refused to let Sister A., who at times walked around with a yardstick, measure her skirt to make certain that it conformed to the required length. Although we might have thought it ludicrous, we did not mock Sister C. when she advised us periodically to leave a distance of at least one foot from one’s partner while dancing the “slow drag,” because, as one girl put it, we might lose our “Maria Clara-ness.” Looking back, however, I wish I had protested the expulsion of a college classmate who wore at her grand debut an evening gown with the offending spaghetti straps. Perhaps the nuns wanted to proclaim that not even the most privileged elite could break the school’s cherished dress code.

Purity was a virtue that we were to guard day and night, not that temptations lurked in every corner, for encounters with the opposite sex were severely limited. True enough, De La Salle College was a binocular’s view away from the roof garden, but, unlike Catholic colleges in the United States, those in the Philippines did not arrange “mixers.” We were on our own in terms of arranging parties where we could meet boys, including our neighbors. Those who joined national organizations for social action met their equally active counterparts from colleges for boys in school-sponsored activities. Otherwise, the only “mixer” on campus was our high school graduation ball at the temporary auditorium.

The pursuit of spiritual perfection, with emphasis on sexual purity, was inculcated daily, along with daily Masses, regular confessions, and an annual three-day retreat. Each morning in religion class, when our teacher called our names, we responded not with “present” or “here” but with numbers, e.g., 7-7, which meant a perfect attendance at Mass and a daily reading of the Scriptures during the preceding week. It was difficult to lie, of course, since fellow boarders might remember if one decided to ditch Mass for a longer sleep.

The pursuit of excellence not only in our spiritual but also in our secular lives underscored a Scholastican education. Our curricula throughout high school and college were rigid as well as rigorous, allowing for little deviation for “special studies” or an “independent major.” In high school, especially, memory was well rewarded; knowing how to parse or diagram a sentence earned good marks; conjugation was essential in learning a foreign tongue. We studied according to schedule, and if one was slow in doing her homework, she had problems, for study hall closed at 9 p.m., and dorm lights were out by 9:30 p.m. We thus learned to organize our time well. There was sufficient time to study, enough time to play.

Our physical education classes were challenging. Although short and skinny, I played softball, volleyball and basketball, and even participated in gymnastics until I fell from the exercise beam the day before our field day. War ball, which we were told the German nuns had introduced, was the most physical of our contact games but later was banned for fear that, since the big ball would land hard on our chest, it would damage our young breasts.

In college we all had to go through the same “general education” requirements in the first two years, as well as take courses in home economics, for, after all, our highest calling, if we did not join the nunnery, was to be a wife and mother. We learned to plan healthy meals for a family, and even to dress a live chicken (actually no one wanted to slit its throat), despite the fact that most of us would have cooks and maids, whether we got married or, heaven forbid, embraced the life of single blessedness.

In our junior year we finally chose our major. Owing to the rigors of the first two years, our freshman class of thirty or thirty five had, by that time, dwindled down to ten, two for each discipline. Inspired by the professor, who taught the required survey of literature in sophomore year (in addition to teaching Math and Physics), I majored in English literature. We were free to read anything except a few books which were banned because either the nuns or the Board of Censors considered them too erotic (e.g., D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover) or too subversive (e.g., Rizal’s Noli and Fili). Writing classes further opened up a whole new world for me, and I wrote poetry for the first time for the literary magazine which the class before ours had titled “Words, Words, Words.”

We carried a heavy but balanced academic load. Community involvement, known then as “social action,” took us away from the classroom and beyond the walls. Most of us were active throughout high school and college in annual drives for the poor, which required us to collect donations of rice, sugar and canned goods from small businesses around Manila. Once, on a hot afternoon in Quiapo, despairing that we had not met our quota for the day, my classmates and I approached a funeral parlor hoping for a cash donation from the owner. Seeing us in our school uniform, he came out, led us in, and inquired politely, “Sino ba sa mga patay ang binibisita ninyo?” [“Who among the dear departed have you come to visit?].

“Social action” also took us to Welfareville each Sunday morning after Mass to teach catechism to the young orphans housed there. Some twenty boarders rode the rickety school bus to what then seemed like a foreign country. We loved the children who eagerly awaited us in their quonset huts, grateful for the hard candy, which they had requested, because it took longer to melt in the mouth.

We felt that we could change the world. Despite widespread political corruption, we believed in fair and honest elections. When our history professor ran for public office as an independent candidate, his chances of winning were slim because he received no funding from a political party. Nevertheless, we walked the streets of Malate and campaigned block by block, talking to people about the issues, and being rewarded by their promises to vote for our “guy” because we were so cute in our uniform.

On the whole, a well-rounded Scholastican education served us well whether we pursued graduate and professional degrees or stayed at home as housewives and mothers. During school reunions in the United States, we would talk about how our life of order and discipline had shaped and continue to shape our individual lives. Life as new immigrants proved to be a struggle during which our experience as Scholasticans (even “super Kulasas”) provided the needed fortitude, guidance and inspiration. The proverbs and mottoes that we had inscribed in our ruled notebooks, the covers of which proclaimed “Knowledge is Power,” echo through the years in our new land. I still recall, especially in times of crisis, Sister C. writing on the board in a disciplined and determined hand her favorite proverb that greeted every college freshman enrolled in Religion 101: “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

Read also:

Neni Sta Romana Cruz's Growing up St. Scholastican 

Gemma Cruz-Araneta's Benevolent Assimilation 

 Imelda M. Nicolas's Confessions of an Interna

 Watch also: THE CEBUANA IN THE WORLD: Cecilia Manguerra Brainard Writing out of Cebu

Tags: #Philippineeducation #Filipinoschools #Catholicschools

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