Brussels is very happy with its universities, and its universities are very happy with Brussels. That was once again abundantly clear at the annual St V celebrations, as the mayors of Etterbeek and Brussels warmly welcomed the VUB and ULB communities. The universities’ presence gives the capital a certain allure, it’s obvious. Philippe Close was at pains to stress that “Brussels is the student city of Belgium”. The students themselves showed their love for the city in the afternoon, with their boisterous party at the Zavel and the procession from there to the Beurs. Even the heavy rain couldn’t dampen their spirits.
It was a day for declarations of love, starting with a breakfast of freshly baked croissants, hot coffee and organic fruit juice at Elsene town hall. That’s where this year’s St V commemorations began, with mayor Christos Doulkeridis receiving the rectors of VUB and ULB, and the students and veterans of both universities, dressed, as tradition dictates, in lab coats and caps covered in badges. VUB rector Jan Danckaert looked forward to the day ahead and thanked Doulkeridis effusively for the reception.
Of course, current world events weren’t ignored. A representative of former ULB students called attention to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. “Do we really have reason to celebrate today? I believe we do: our shared values of tolerance, openness, freedom and free expression are the only way to cope with this world in crisis. Young people will help us, so let us celebrate freedom more than ever.”
Four buses took participants to the Brussels Cemetery, where there were speeches and floral tributes at the grave of Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen, the founder of both universities. Those present also paid tribute to former ULB student Frans Kufferath, who died during the Second World War, and the Belgian Nobel Peace Prize winner Henri La Fontaine.
Alain Cornet, Grand Master of the Great Orient of Belgium, addressed participants as they sheltered under umbrellas and hoods. “We’re here to do two things,” he said. “We have a duty to commemorate our predecessors and to send a strong signal that the work of the past 200 years is not over. Everywhere, we see negative signs: the horror in Ukraine and Gaza, growing populism, the climate crisis… As always, it’s the least well-off who suffer first. The battle for freedom and social justice is more important than ever. But I’m an optimist. I believe in youth, in new blood, as a driver of change. So let us put our weight behind their future. Let’s work together and grow even closer to address the problems we face. Together, we can do anything!”
After the ceremony, the convoy travelled to the Enclosure of the Executed, behind the VRT building. Under sporadic sun, they honoured the fallen, with trumpets, the calling of names, the placing of flowers and moving songs. Among those remembered was Edith Cavell, the British woman who (text continues below photo)
established a nursing school in Brussels, which was turned into the Red Cross hospital during the First World War. She also worked for the British secret service and helped more than 200 soldiers escape across the border to the Netherlands. It cost her her life: on 12 October 1915, she was executed at the National Shooting Range in Schaarbeek. Along with Edith Cavell, we also remembered all the other female resistance fighters who were the victims of barbarity during the war.
The final stop of the ceremonial part of St V was the Gothic Hall of Brussels City Hall. There, mayor Philippe Close warmly welcomed participants, as did Anaïs Maes, city councillor and VUB alumna. As councillor responsible for urban planning, public space and Dutch-language education and affairs, she was moved by the students’ presence and celebrated the ever closer bonds between VUB and Brussels. Everything begins with education, she said, wishing them rationality but above all individuality.
After the rectors’ speeches, both of which called for more wellbeing and less extremism, guests raised the Glass of Friendship in the Militia Hall. After a drink, a sandwich or a slice of pizza, participants moved to the Grote Zavel, where the party had already begun among the thousands of students and alumni.
The party on the Zavel
Thousands of Brussels students and many alumni gathered on the Grote Zavel in Brussels for a huge party. As is traditional, the students chose a theme for their celebrations. This year’s subject was mental health, with the slogan “‘Hang in there’, that’s fine – funding us is better”. They feel the issue is under-reported, while the implications for students are real.“Higher education is becoming increasingly difficult for lots of our fellow students,” says Pili Verbinnen, chair of the umbrella association Brussels StudentenGenootschap (BSG). “We often have to take on a job to be able to afford rising tuition fees. These financial and other concerns have an impact on our mental health and our results.
Here is a photo impression of the party.