Methodist-Related Schools in the Philippines: Preparing Leaders and Educating the Poor
by Richard and Caring Schwenk
Providing public education for those who could not afford to pay for it was a sudden change from the practice in the Philippines before American colonization in 1898. At the end of the Spanish-American War, a Methodist chaplain began to preach to Filipinos as well as to American military personnel. Bible study groups soon led to the formation of Methodist churches that followed the Wesleyan tradition of preaching, teaching, and ministering to the masses.
Training Filipino Bible women, lay preachers, pastors, and deaconesses was the next step to reaching the nation with a gospel of salvation by faith based on the open Bible. Various schools evolved and eventually led to the formation of Methodist schools that served children of marginalized populations who otherwise had few educational opportunities. These programs were a radical departure from the elitist educational system of the Spanish colonizers who ruled the Philippines from 1521 to 1898.
During the 350 years of Spanish rule, the higher social classes were taught to read and write in Spanish. More than 100 languages and dialects divided the country by ethnic groups among the Philippines’ 7000 islands. While Spanish was the official language in the Philippines, the priests had to learn the regional languages to communicate with the common people.
The American influence on education began after the Spanish-American War and continued until the outbreak of World War II in December 1941. One of the lasting legacies was the American educational system introduced by the first shipload of 540 American teachers who landed in the Philippines in 1901 on the S.S. Thomas. They were fondly known as the “Thomasites.” By 1902, the number of American teachers swelled to 1074. They set up free primary schools, literacy teaching, and teacher-training schools, with English as the medium of instruction.
Many newly trained Filipino teachers became Protestants under the influence of the Methodist evangelistic services, Bible study groups, Sunday schools, Epworth League, and dormitories set up by missionaries. They adopted such ideals as the dignity of labor and the sharing of knowledge, and faith.
Eventually, free government elementary schools were established in every part of the Philippine archipelago, with English becoming the medium of instruction. Government high schools were set up in provincial capitals and in big cities. In later years, the University of the Philippines and other government colleges and universities offered quality education in many fields, with low tuition fees for those who passed the stiff entrance exams.
Beginning in the first decade of the 20th century, the Methodists and other Protestant denominations established dormitories and schools for training church workers in Manila, Lingayen, Vigan, and 14 other regional centers. Harris Memorial School for Girls was founded in 1903 and noted for its high-quality education for Methodist deaconesses. By 1907, Union Theological Seminary was founded jointly by Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries. Almost every well-established Methodist church in the Philippines was expected to have a Harris-educated deaconess in addition to a pastor educated at Union Theological Seminary. The deaconesses played a big role in Christian education, music, home visitation, and a multitude of duties in local churches.
After World War II, there was a crying need for more schools. A huge backlog of students was eager to continue an education interrupted by four years of war. Protestant educators, many trained under the enthusiastic young American Thomasites, began in earnest to found secondary schools in provincial centers. Parents were happy to have schools in their hometowns where they could afford education for all their children. Protestant church leaders were caught in the frenzy of educating the youth in their churches and the community. They wanted to open schools that would provide Christian nurture, biblical and character education, and college preparatory courses.
Thus the founding of various Methodist high schools in the Philippines continued. In most rural communities free education was not available beyond grade six. The bigger schools often included kindergarten through college. Having many years’ head start, the Catholic schools tended to be better equipped, but they required much higher tuition fees. Protestant schools, although a minority in the Philippines, provide many good leaders to one of the fastest-growing Methodist churches in the world. The tuition fees are relatively low, and for indigenous people, the schools are free.
The first Methodist high school was Thoburn Memorial Academy, founded by Juan Aragones in December 1945 in Sanchez Mira, Cagayan, on the northern coast of Luzon. Aragones was a retired public-school superintendent, a product of the American schools. The high school was named after Bishop James Thoburn, missionary bishop for Southern Asia, who started the first Methodist work in the Philippines in 1899.
Bethel Girls’ High School was started in 1945 in the educational building of Knox Memorial Methodist Church in Manila. It now provides education for the urban poor. Soon after that, Eveland Memorial Academy, Northern Philippines Academy, and Aldersgate College were founded in Methodist strongholds in the Cagayan Valley in northern Luzon.
In Manila, Philippine Christian University (PCU) was founded in 1946 on the campus of Union Theological Seminary and Ellinwood Bible School (Presbyterian). PCU was a joint project of the Methodists and other Protestant denominations in what became the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP). The former Evangelical United Brethren Church in the Philippines merged with the UCCP.
In 1946, Wesleyan University-Philippines was strategically founded in Cabanatuan City, the largest trade town in the Central Plains of Luzon. To the east, on the Pacific Ocean side of Luzon, Methodist missionaries Richard and Eva Wehrman were the spark plugs and fuel supply for Aurora Wesleyan College. On the west coast, Asbury College was founded on Anda, the largest island in Lingayen Gulf, with a majority Methodist population supporting many Methodist churches.
In the large booming frontier of Mindanao in the far south of the Philippines, other schools were started after 1960, such as Greene Academy and, most recently, Southern Philippine Methodist College in Cotabato Province.
Creating New Leaders
The UMC educational institutions are the launching pad for many community development projects in education, health, and agriculture. Free preschools, primary schools, and literacy classes were started around Mt. Pinatubo for indigenous Aeta people. It is a joy to see more than 500 Aeta children attend two weeks of Vacation Bible School, taught by Aeta youth who had received scholarships to Methodist schools. Some of the Aeta elders received mentoring and nurturing in the Christian faith from missionaries such as Marion Walker. They are the hope of their people as they learn to work together in a holistic program of community health, education, church, and agricultural development.
In the early years of these schools, missionaries served as some of the first teachers as well as fundraisers. Since World War II, Advance Specials provided funds for buildings, books, and equipment, while salaries were paid from tuition fees. During hard economic times, tuition collections were so low that the Filipino teachers would sometimes receive only partial pay. But they considered their service a gift of love. While keeping tuition as low as possible, the schools struggle to provide quality education, attract good teachers, and offer scholarships. There is a great need continually to improve these schools so that they will be even more effective in the years ahead.
* Richard and Caring Schwenk were co-teachers at Thoburn Memorial Academy. Paz Caridad (Caring) was a graduate of that school and Philippine Christian University. The Schwenks were assigned to teach at Philippine Christian University, where Richard served as Dean of Computer Science, and Union Theological Seminary in Cavite. Richard served as a missionary for almost 40 years, Caring, for 36 years.
Date posted: Mar 11, 2004