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Exile alumni of an exile school

Cuban expatriates celebrate St. Thomas University's 70th anniversary

Msgr. Franklyn Casale, president of St. Thomas University, speaks in front of the original seal for the school from its birth in Havana.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Msgr. Franklyn Casale, president of St. Thomas University, speaks in front of the original seal for the school from its birth in Havana.

Sergio Mancito and his wife, Alicia, attended the 70th anniversary Mass for St. Thomas University.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Sergio Mancito and his wife, Alicia, attended the 70th anniversary Mass for St. Thomas University.

Hilario Rojas, shown with his wife, Yolanda, said he got the opportunities in America that he was denied in his native Cuba.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Hilario Rojas, shown with his wife, Yolanda, said he got the opportunities in America that he was denied in his native Cuba.

Agueda Ogazon said she

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Agueda Ogazon said she "cried for 24 hours" after leaving Cuba. But she eventually became a professor at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens.

MIAMI GARDENS | On one level, St. Thomas University held a standard anniversary celebration: 70 years of Catholic education. On another, the event was an emotional torrent for some of its alumni: Cuban exiles whose school, like themselves, had been thrown out of their homeland.

"I had flashbacks to friends, professors, and hopes for Cuba," Hilario Rojas said during the anniversary observance Dec. 10.

"But I thank God I had that experience," continued Rojas, who came to America in 1961. "I lost my country and career and way of life. But God gave me the strength to face challenges and to get the most out of opportunities."

Others among the 70 at the event spoke in similar terms of paradox: grief at the careers and school that the Castro regime cut short, gladness for the lives they had rebuilt in America.

"I cried for 24 hours," said Agueda Ogazon, who flew from Havana to Madrid, then to New York, before finally coming to South Florida. "I felt like a destitute orphan. But on a personal level, it was a great experience."

Msgr. Franklyn Casale, president of the university, concurred.

"For every door that closes, God opens another," he said during an interview. "Yes, it was bad that St. Thomas was closed in Cuba. But then we got this wonderful Catholic university in Miami."

The school traces its roots to Augustinian priests from Philadelphia. Founded in Havana in 1946, the Universidad de Santo Tomas de Villanueva was ordered to close its doors in 1961 by Fidel Castro.

Many of the school's members faculty and administrators as well as students came to Miami, where the late Bishop Coleman F. Carroll encouraged them to launch a new school. Reborn as Biscayne College, it was renamed St. Thomas University in 1984. It became an archdiocesan school in 1988.

Since then, the university has achieved recognition in such fields as law, criminal justice, environmental research, sports administration, community service and the fight against human trafficking. Its 5,000 students hail from 47 states and 76 countries.

A school of immigrants

"I think of it more as a school of immigrants," said Archbishop Thomas Wenski, the main celebrant at the Mass. "It has students from many lands. And for many of them, they're the first in their family to go to college."

During the anniversary Mass, held at the campus chapel, alumni Oscar Echevarria and Ana Victoria Rivas-Vazquez proclaimed the readings. Singing was the choir from Our Lady of the Lakes Parish, Miami Lakes. Choir director John Prats said he was asked to help because he earned an MBA at St. Thomas.

"It was a natural fit," Prats said.

Choir from Our Lady of the Lakes Parish, Miami Lakes, sings at the 70th anniversary Mass for St. Thomas University.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Choir from Our Lady of the Lakes Parish, Miami Lakes, sings at the 70th anniversary Mass for St. Thomas University.

In his homily, Archbishop Wenski held up St. Thomas and other Catholic schools as defenders against modern efforts to divorce faith and reason.

"As Catholics, we believe that truth is one," he said. "There can be no real contradiction between belief and science, between faith and reason."

Catholic schools like St. Thomas can also counter selfishness, the archbishop said. "In a time when people are tempted to think that 'it’s all about me,' an education in the Catholic tradition reminds us that the path to self-realization and true happiness is not found through self-seeking but through self-giving. The purpose of an education is not for us to get more but to help us be more."

Following Mass, a Cuban atmosphere pervaded dinner at the university's conference hall. Decorating the circular tables were cigar boxes, white dominos, tropical leaves and flowers, and hand fans imprinted with the Cuban flag.

Dinner, too, was nostalgic: roast pork, boiledyuca, mini-empanadas, tostones filled with ropa vieja, ceviche in shooter glasses. Dessert was dulce de leche in more shooters.

Tables of nostalgia

On display at the dinner were pictures of the school's early days, buildings and students. The diners looked over framed photos on the tables, or clustered around the three monitors showing slideshows.

Alumnus Rene Jorge Leonard announced an appeal to restore a central symbol of the old university in Havana: a statue of St. Thomas of Villanova, which was decapitated shortly after the school was closed.

Nostalgic table decoration recalls St. Thomas University's original home in Havana.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Nostalgic table decoration recalls St. Thomas University's original home in Havana.

Historic pictures were displayed at the 70th anniversary reception for St. Thomas University.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Historic pictures were displayed at the 70th anniversary reception for St. Thomas University.

The project also aims to build a replica of the statue to place on the existing campus in Miami Gardens. Both tasks would cost an estimated total of $30,000.

Sergio Mancito reminisced about the Havana campus, where he studied mechanical engineering.

"It was a nice atmosphere, and we were all young," said Mancito, who came to the anniversary celebration with his wife, Alicia. In 1960, when Castro confiscated an American rubber company where he worked, he decided he'd better leave.

But he praised the new campus of St. Thomas University and its people. "I love the campus, and I've kept in touch with friends over the years; some are even my neighbors on Key Biscayne."

Those include Hilario Rojas, who came to the event with wife Yolanda. "And today, I met a couple of friends that I haven't seen in 50 years," he said.

Like others at the event, Rojas spoke in terms of both good and bad. He graduated in 1957 from St. Thomas with a degree in chemical engineering and never intended to leave.

"We were going to be the leading edge in the industrialization of Cuba," he said of himself and other young professionals. "Castro squashed that in 1959."

Instead, he came to America and worked for IBM: first installing computers, then selling computers, then working in the 12-member team that invented the personal computer. All opportunities unavailable to most in Cuba.

"Castro used his intelligence to work against God and freedom," Rojas said. "And he lived to see the country deteriorate. I'm glad."

Agueda Ogazon, who gave the welcome talk for alumni at St. Thomas, likewise took the opportunities America offered. She earned a master's degree in management at Hofstra University, then taught at St. Thomas for 11 years ending in 2015.

"I've found life rewarding," she said. "But I feel bad for those who couldn't leave Cuba. They lost their youth, and their lives were cut off, with no economic future."

Yet when Fidel Castro died, she said a prayer for him, Ogazon said. "As a Catholic, I believe that everyone deserves a prayer at death. Then it's up to God to judge them."

Some alumni gather to watch slide shows of historic photos at the 70th anniversary reception for St. Thomas University.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Some alumni gather to watch slide shows of historic photos at the 70th anniversary reception for St. Thomas University.


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