The Order of the Piarist Fathers, founded by Spanish priest St. Joseph Calasanz in the 16th century, is dedicated primarily to teaching and piety, hence its motto “Piety and Letters”. In the era of the Cuban republic it had five schools for boys, three of which were located in Havana, one in Pinar del Rio and one in Camaguey. There were also five schools for girls located in El Cerro (Havana) Guanajay, Artemisa, Cardenas and Moron.
The oldest of the schools in Havana was located in Guanabacoa (and was the First teacher’s school in Cuba, founded on November l9, 1857). The others were at San Rafael and Manrique, and in the neighborhood on La Vibora on Flores street, between Correa and Incarnation. It should be noted that the Guanabacoa and Camaguey were the main centers, from which the others were organized. I myself studied until the third grade in La Vibora, and then graduated from the Perito Mercantil. I had the great good fortune to enter the institution in its inaugural year, finding a newly built school, modern, cozy, fully equipped for the practice of teaching, with great rooms and good teachers, both religious and secular, who taught different subjects. Most of the curriculum was on the general subjects established by the Ministry of Education (grammar, Spanish, math, algebra, English, history, geography, moral and civic education, etc.) all the way to high school. Then specialties were added, including the trades and business. In my case, I studied business, including courses in accounting, shorthand and typing in English and Spanish. The study of religion was conducted for only two hours a week- first as a catechism and then as religion and theology. Strictly religious activities were limited to mandatory attendance at Mass on Sundays, and participation in acts connected with the Catholic calendar, Easter, Christmas, the birthday of the founder of the Order, the day of the Virgin of Cobre, and so on. Every Friday in the central courtyard of the school, a civil ceremony was performed before the flag, which had a solemn character. In addition, all national holidays were commemorated: January 28, February 24, October 10, November 27, December 7 and others, either within the school or outside the school at official events, such as the birthday parade for Jose Marti in Central Park, and the pilgrimage to La Punta Nov. 27, in memory of the students shot that day by the colonial regime). Cultural activities and sports were also part of our teaching schedule. Every two years we celebrated a “Field Day” in which all students participated in different exercises and demonstrations, sometimes at the stadium of the university and other times at La Tropical. The success of this event depended upon intensive preparation that lasted for months.
The school had a bus service to pick students up and take them home, and a cafeteria, a dining room (for part time students), a medical and dental office and a bookstore, where you could buy both textbooks and all necessary supplies. My school was called “the Pious School of La Vibora” and we called ourselves “the Piarists of La Vibora”. The school was characterized by a high degree of insistence on both the studies and discipline. Highly qualified teachers taught me material that has served me throughout my life. I especially remember with respect, gratitude and affection my teachers Ruibo Carlos Enrique Arango and Jorge Puente, as well as the unforgettable Father Angel Oliveras, who was a friend more than a teacher, and the professor of grammar and math, and later algebra, who made these arid and difficult subjects pleasant and agreeable, with his innovative teaching methods. We participated in a healthy competition of what we had learned in every class. Also Father Juan Capdevila and the highly professional Jose E. Carames, a true scholar of accounting, who was able to give us the benefit of so much of his experience so that the graduates were able to to work successfully once they left the school. The “Piarists,” whether we studied in one school or another, were part of a fraternity that was characterized by our uniform- denim pants, white shirt with thin vertical blue stripes woven into the fabric and a black tie, and our formal while winter or blue summer suits. We were proud of being “Piarists” and struggled to maintain the high prestige of our school, participating in both social and humanitarian activities (Christmas Eve for the Poor Child and Epiphany), where we collected money, food and toys for needy families living in the area of the institution. Amongst the Piarists of La Vibora, no student was required to be “altar boy” or study for the priesthood, or even to belong to the Catholic Youth organization. This was always an entirely personal decision of each individual, and did not give any benefit in terms of grades or fulfilling any activity in the center, nor did the lack of any religious inclination create any limitation whatsoever. I have always considered my passage through the Piarists as one of the most rewarding times of my life, and my years there have always remained in my heart and in my mind.
If there is one thing that bothers me, it is that neither my children nor my grandchildren have had a similar opportunity, since all the private schools, both religious and secular, were swept away after the victory of the insurrection of 1959, after which the State monopolized all education. Those Piarists who remain in Cuba form a kind of fraternity, and we get together every three months to keep track of the Piarists who still run schools in the rest of the world. We learn who still lives and who has died, and we remember our teachers, most of whom have passed away. It’s a small fraternity, with no possibility of growth, at least at present, decreasing in number year by year, maintained by the tenacity of the old Piarists who do not passively accept our tragic fate. Hopefully, and sooner than we can imagine, the order of the “Piarists”, and all the other religious orders, will once again have schools in Cuba, to prepare our sons and daughters to be good citizens. It would be wonderful for our country! And the re-establishment of private schools would correct, however late, one of the many blunders that have been committed.
Editor’s note- Father Calazans was the founder ofthe order or the Piarists and also the founder of the first free public school in all of Europe- in the year 1600! This was a revolutionary initiative, becasue it broke the chains of class privilege that previously permitted only the wealthy to go to school, thereby marginalizing the poor and condemning them to poverty. In the history iof education, Father Calasanz is known as ‘the teacher of teh poor’, offerring education to all, without discrimination. Neither did his schools discriminate against non religious people or non Catholics- both Jews and Protestants were accepted on an equal footing, something very unique for that era. Father Calasanz deserves to be honored!