The Catedral is one of the largest churches in Latin America. As the seat of the Archdiocese of Panamá, it has had two predecessors. The original seat had been established in 1510 at Santa Maria la Antigua del Darién on the Caribbean Coast. In 1519, it was moved to Panamá Viejo on the Pacific Coast. Following the destruction of Panamá Viejo during Captain Henry Morgan's raid in 1671, the Archdiocese was again transferred. When Panamá City (now called Casco Viejo) was founded in 1673, the Archdiocese finally arrived in its present location. Plaza Independencia got its name because it was here that independence from Spain was proclaimed on November 28, 1821, and independence from Colombia was declared on November 3, 1903. Both announcements were delivered from the steps of the Catedral.
hastily erected in 1674. A few years later, in 1677, a devout parishioner contributed the sum of 14,000 pesos. The funds were used to dismantle the remains of the old Panamá Viejo cathedral so that the stone could be used to construct the new one. However, it was not until 1688 that the first stone for the current building was laid by Bishop Lucas Fernandez de Piedrahita. Work continued in fits and starts for the next 108 years. In 1737, a great fire devastated Casco Viejo, severely damaging the partially-constructed cathedral. The bells, which had survived Panamá Viejo's destruction, melted in the 18th Century conflagration. By 1749, all but the towers and the ashlar-stone facade were complete. In 1751, Bishop Francisco Javier de Luna Victoria y Castro began to supervise the project and the pace picked up. Born in 1695, he was the first Archbishop of Panamá native to the isthmus. The Bishop died in 1777, before the church was finished. The Neo-classical bell towers were built between 1762 and 1796, during the last stage of construction. The towers are 36 m (118 ft) in height and are inlaid with mother-of-pearl from the Gulf of Panamá's Pearl Islands.
critical for Panamá since 1514. In that year Spain's King Phillip II directed the conquistador Pedro de Arias to build roads to connect the Caribbean and Pacific Coasts and to look into the possibility of a canal. The King wanted to facilitate the transport of Peruvian gold and oriental luxuries back to Spain. Panamá Viejo, and its successor Casco Viejo, were founded as key Pacific ports for this purpose. The trade flow continued throughout the colonial period and into the 19th Century, gaining great impetus from the California gold rush of 1849. In 1850, an American-owned railroad company began construction of a 76.6 km (47.6 mi) line across the isthmus. The project cost $8 million and as many as 10,000 lives before it was finished in 1855. It was one of the shortest railroads ever built, but it was a huge achievement against stupendous obstacles, including bottomless swamps, raging rivers, and deadly diseases. On a macabre note, the work was partially financed by the selling the corpses of workers who died during construction to medical schools for practice autopsies.
designed in 1907 by Italian architect Genaro Ruggieri, the same man who designed Panama's National Theatre. Although the building is a 20th Century creation, it has the distinction of housing the oldest continuously functioning government body on the Western Hemisphere's mainland. Panamá City's municipal government is a descendent of the one established in 1510 by Diego de Nicuesa at Santa Maria la Antigua del Darién. The current building was dedicated 400 years later in 1910.
The canal idea was not a new one. After some experience with Panamá's wild interior, Pedro de Arias informed King Phillip of the project's enormous potential cost, difficulty, and overall impossibility given 16th Century technology. However, the vision would not die. In 1529, one of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa's former lieutenants suggested four possible canal routes, one of which is close to the actual route chosen almost 400 years later. During the 18th Century, such figures as Benjamin Franklin and the German philosopher Goethe advocated for an isthmus canal. During the 1820s, the South American Liberator Simón Bolivar sent engineers to Panamá to investigate a route but, in the end, took no action. The explorer Alexander Humbolt also suggested an isthmus canal, but in Nicaragua rather than Panamá.
Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French builder of the Suez Canal. However, digging a canal through the flat sand of the desert was not the same as pushing one through the swamps and jungled mountains of Panamá. By 1888, the French effort went bankrupt. The last efforts to revive de Lesseps' project was abandoned in 1894. The Colombian government, based in Bogatá, then rejected a US proposal to complete the project. These twin failures had profound effects on Panamá's trade dependent economy. By 1903, Panamanians had had enough. They decided to separate from Colombia and go it alone.
Tomás Arias (1856-1932) was a businessman and politician who was born in Panama City and educated in Panamá, Jamaica, and the United States. Like many other leaders of the independence movement, Arias was from an elite family. Also like the others, he had served the Colombian government in a variety of posts including Treasury administrator, assembly deputy for the Department of Panamá, representative to the Colombian Congress, senator, and government secretary. The new Republic of Panama was fortunate to have such enormous experience available in its initial leadership. After the separation from Colombia, Tomás Arias served the Republic as foreign minister, consul to Mexico, and chairman of Panama's National Assembly.
two blocks from Plaza Independencia. Iglesia San José was built as a replica of the original Augustinian church, destroyed during the pirate attack on Panamá Viejo. Construction on the new church in Casco Viejo began in 1671, shortly after Panamá Viejo was abandoned. The unfinished church and its Augustinian convent were inaugurated in 1675. Work on Iglesia San José continued until 1677.
legend about the Golden Altar and the pirate Captain Henry Morgan. When, in 1671, the residents of Panamá Viejo heard that the dreaded marauder was hacking his way through the jungle from the Caribbean side of the isthmus, they panicked and began hiding their valuables. At the time, an Augustinian monk named Juan de Villa de los Santos was in charge of the church.
This version of the Virgin Mary is especially revered by the Augustinians. As Captain Morgan's pirates drew closer, Juan the monk was faced with a difficult problem. The Altar of Gold was much too large and cumbersome to move. If Juan left it as it was, the pirates would no doubt hack it to pieces in order to carry off as much of it as they could. They would, no doubt, have been particularly angry to find that the altar was only covered with gold leaf, rather than solid gold. Who knew what sort of barbarities they might commit in their frustrated rage?
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354 AD - 430 AD) was an early Christian philosopher and theologian. He is recognized as one of the four most important Doctors of the Church and his writings heavily influenced early Catholic doctrine. In Panamá Viejo, Juan the monk wracked his brains for a solution to his dilemma. He hit upon the idea of disguising the Altar as something greedy pirates might overlook. Gathering the few parishioners who had not fled into the jungle, he began to paint the great structure with albayalde (silver oxide).
San José is the patron saint of workers and the protector of the Catholic Church. When Captain Morgan himself burst into the church, eager to pillage it of its gold, he found a black altar rather than one of shining gold. The pirate chief grumbled that he had been badly misinformed and that this was a poor example of an Augustinian church. Juan the monk worked hard to confirm this impression. He pleaded poverty and even suggested that the Morgan should make a donation to help complete an unfinished part of the church.
This completes Part 4 of my Panamá series. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, and you would like to leave a question or comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments box, PLEASE also leave your email address so I can respond.
Hasta luego, Jim