My Journey to Alcalá

Gary Schons in Spain


From the time I first stepped on the USD campus in 1968 for a summer debate camp and returned as a freshman at the College for Men the following year, I, like many others, have been enchanted by the architectural beauty of our university’s buildings, particularly the few that were standing back in those days, Founders, Camino, Serra, DeSalles (now Maher) and More (now Warren Hall — the law school). (And, how fortunate it is that we have preserved the Spanish Renaissance architectural style in all our new buildings which have risen over the years!)

I soon learned that the place name, Alcalá Park, derived from San Diego de Alcalá, namesake of our city and its mission, and that Alcalá was the site of Spain’s first university. Our architecture was modeled on that of the University of Alcalá at the direction of USD’s founders, Bishop Buddy and Mother Hill. From those early days, I put a visit to Alcalá, Spain on my bucket list. My ambition was finally realized this past fall when my wife, Judy, treated me to a three-week vacation in Spain and Portugal to celebrate my 65th birthday.

During our stay in Madrid, we took a local train on the hour-long trip, 20 or so miles northeast to Alcalá. The business district near the train station was decidedly drab and uninspiring. But once we had navigated a few blocks to the old city centre, its medieval charm of cobbled streets, historic buildings, each a nesting place for storks, and the magnificent 15th century cathedral of the Santos Ninos was revealed. We were there on All Saints Day, and the cathedral was crowded with worshipers who spilled into the walking streets after Mass and filled the cafes for lunch.

We learned that the area had been occupied since the Bronze Age and that a settlement there had been established by the Romans in the 1st century B.C. It is the site where Spain’s early Christian child martyrs, Saints Justo and Pastor (the Santos Ninos), were beheaded by the Romans for their faith. The Moors reestablished the site in the 8th Century after the barbarian invasions and gave it its name, Alcalá, which is derived from “citadel” in Arabic. It was later named Alcalá de Henares (the nearby river), to distinguish it from other towns named Alcalá.

What I did not know until we arrived at the gorgeous square named for him is that Alcalá was the birthplace of Cervantes; we visited the house he was born in. The city was then celebrating in fine style the 500th anniversary of his death in 1616. A few decades before Cervantes’ birth in 1547, Christopher Columbus had his first meeting with Ferdinand and Isabella at Alcalá before he sailed for the New World.

The University of Alcalá traces to 1293. It is one of the oldest universities in the world, and was a center of study of Renaissance and Hebrew literature. One of its alums was Ignatius of Loyola. The school was moved to Madrid by royal decree in 1836, but returned in 1977 and now occupies a number of buildings throughout the old city centre. Today, it is a World Heritage site.

We could find only two buildings which are reflected in USD’s architecture, an old chapel building and the main university building nearby, which features the “plateresque” style — in the manner of the silversmith — and looks much like Serra and Warren Halls. Unfortunately, the building was being renovated, but in European style, the façade was draped with a life-like rendering of the building’s true façade. Adjacent to the university building is a lovely rose garden with a statute of San Diego de Alcalá, who was a 15th Century Franciscan brother who died at Alcalá in 1463. Diego was renowned for his healing powers both in life and in death. He is buried at the Franciscan church in Alcalá.

So, our visit to Alcalá proved to be more than an architectural tour, as we were treated to a mix of history, religion, literature and learning.

And, yes, as with every other university I visit, I went to the bookstore (actually a visitor center) and purchased a University of Alcalá ball cap as my souvenir. — Gary W. Schons ’73, ’76 (JD)

Please visit a gallery of photos from Gary’s trip. 


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