Views of Panama

Around Crypts and Campaniles

The second incarnation of Panama City —what is now called the Historic District, located on a peninsula— is home to five sumptuous and historically significant colonial churches that are attempting to recover their former splendor.

By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Luis Eduardo Guillén


The velvet darkness of the catacombs in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama City dulls the senses. The sun glares down outside, but in the crypts the damp teases tourists’ nostrils, and visitors are barely able to discern the niches containing the remains of those interred here decades ago.

A group of students touring the churches of the Historic District walks through the vaulted underground of the Cathedral, the country’s principal church, their path lighted by cell phones. Shouting and joking, they feel their way along the walls of the church. Construction of the structure began in the 17th century and was completed in 1796.

The Metropolitan Cathedral is a spacious building on the Plaza de la Independencia. The Cathedral had the honor of hosting Pope John Paul II and it is the final resting place of the archbishops of the Archdiocese of Panama City. The last to be buried here was Marcos Gregorio McGrath, who served as archbishop of Panama City from 1969 to 1994, and died on August 4, 2000.

The ancient church was also the final earthly destination for some of the walled city’s other inhabitants, such as young Feliciano Pascual, whose tombstone stands on one side of the central nave. He was born on July 27, 1861 and died on January 20, 1866; a century and a half later, we can still imagine his parents’ grief as they selected the words to be carved upon the stone for posterity: “His brief life filled his parents’ hearts with joy; his departure leaves a sad, tear-stained memory.”

Businessman Ricardo Gago has a Roman nose, stands 6’2” tall, and is descended from Spanish settlers in Panama. A few months ago, he became President of the Comité de Amigos de Iglesias del Casco Antiguo (Historic Quarter Church Preservation League), a non-profit group formed to promote the restoration of five Historic District churches ravaged by time, the climate, and a lack of funds for maintenance.

Since becoming head of the group, Gago has organized tours of the churches. This particular Tuesday he is leading a group of students from the Inter-American Academy of Panama (AIP). “The Cathedral has endured fire damage and been mutilated by changes such as the replacement of the red brick floor with cement,” he explains, while a woman cleans the nearby floor with an old mop. Enthusiastic and eager to share his knowledge, Gago points out a site and relates its history. He is visibly concerned, since there is no getting around the fact that rescuing this monumental structure will cost a great deal of money.

He notes that the only original altar to have been preserved here is the so-called “Mouse Altar,” which shows the little creatures on the deck of a ship with sailors gazing at them in astonishment. It seems that the ship was a pearling vessel, and the crew realized that it was sinking when they noticed frightened mice streaming out of the storerooms. The President of the League tells us that the grateful friars had two altars made for the Cathedral, although only one remains.

The Cathedral is currently closed to the public to protect it from further damage and also from the pigeons that used to roost in the high ceilings. There is a priest onsite, but most of the time he is accompanied only by the souls spending eternity in the catacombs, the altar, the nave, and even the walls.

Having satisfied their curiosity, the young people emerge from the subterranean vault behind the altar, and Gago leads them to their next stop: the Chapel of San Felipe Neri.

Understanding the Historic District

The first surprise encountered by visitors to Panama City’s Historic District is finding themselves in a city seemingly under constant construction thanks to restoration work on the brick streets. The second eye-opener is a panorama of narrow houses with exquisite balconies and a scattering of derelict houses, with fierce sunlight glinting off every surface. The sea breeze and even the traffic, weave in and out on the way to the various government institutions located here.

Construction of the city’s Historic District began in 1673, after English pirate Henry Morgan attacked in 1671 and destroyed what is now called Old Panama City, which was founded by the Spanish in 1519.

A General History of Panama tells us that after the pirates leveled the town, Spain sought a more sheltered spot in which to reconstruct the city; they chose the Chiriquí Peninsula, now the site of Plaza de Francia and Paseo Esteban Huertas.

Only two buildings escaped Morgan’s fury: the San José Church and Convent (belonging to the Order of Augustinian Recollects) and the La Merced Church and Convent (belonging to the Mercedarian Order). Mercedarian friar Javier Mañas remarks that La Merced survived because Morgan used it as an encampment.

The new city’s first priority was building walls to protect the town. As building material was in short supply, the Mercedarian Order donated stones from their own convent, which is why the reconstruction of La Merced took longer than planned.

The second incarnation of Panama City took shape in an area measuring no more than seventy-four acres. It was built on a five by ten street grid. Esteban Huertas marks the ocean side boundary. Inland, one of the entrances was through Casa Boyacá and the other was situated between the La Merced Church and City Hall. Poor neighborhoods sat outside the walls.

Even though only “high-class” families enjoyed the protection of the walls, living amidst the churches and government buildings was not always pleasant. A General History of Panama records the thoughts of Eugenio María de Hostos, who traveled through the country around 1850 —when it was part of Greater Colombia: “…it is impossible to lead a decent life in Panama City…due to the dreadful variant of cosmopolitanism that reigns there… Europeans impose the effrontery of their vainglorious civilization; North Americans impose a brazen dominance; and every Latin American insults the patriotism of his neighbor with the unbearable intemperance of his own.”

UNESCO named the Historic District a Monumental Complex in 1976 and a Historic World Heritage Site in 1997.

San Felipe Neri and San José

Unless you know it is there, you will have trouble finding San Felipe Neri, a tiny French-style church on one side of the Plaza Bolívar, the most-visited area in the Historic District. The original church was built in 1688, but it suffered serious damage from fires in 1732 and 1756. It was rebuilt in 1855 and a cement roof was installed in 1913 to prevent leaks, but the paintings that adorned the ceiling were covered in the process.

Ten years ago, an investment of two million dollars allowed a team of experts to painstakingly return the church to its former glory, revealing many decorative details. The paintings on the walls, however, could not be recovered. Only fragments of the decorations created by the cloistered nuns who lived next door to the church remain on some of the altars.

San Felipe Neri was closed for nearly a decade, but now mass is held there every Sunday at 12:30 p.m. This is the best-preserved of the five churches in the Historic District, and it boasts the only two-level choir loft in the country, as well as superb acoustics. The original gilding of the shrine is being restored.

A few blocks away, at the outer edge of the neighborhood, stands the legendary church of San José (of the Augustinian Order). The board at the entrance features an eye-catching announcement: “Time slots for weddings fully booked through 2013 and 2014.”

This church, famous for its gold altar, was another survivor of the fire caused by Morgan’s assault in 1671. Legend has it that the altar was saved from the greedy pirates because the priests painted the altar black, thereby disguising it from the brigands. In 1675, the altar was moved to the building at Avenida A and Calle Octava, where today’s altar stands; the original altar was lost in a fire. The current altar is made of mahogany covered with gold leaf; it is a replica of the one found in Old Panama City. Gago tells us that faulty air-conditioning has caused the gold leaf to flake, endangering the artisan’s splendid handiwork.

Mass is held here every Sunday at 8:30 a.m., and the black-veiled women sitting in the pews are a throwback to an earlier time.

San Francisco de Asís and La Merced

We were not able to enter San Francisco de Asís that Tuesday because the Vice-President of the United States, Joe Biden, was visiting Panama’s Presidential Palace, known as Palacio de las Garzas, located a few blocks from this church that hugs the shoreline.

This church was also closed for some years, and Gago remembers that they opened the doors to find that the nave was completely flooded because of the poor condition of the roof. The church is now dry and the seats and doors are being repaired, but the walls still show greenish water marks.

With the restoration in full swing, the best thing about San Francisco de Asís right now might be its campanile, which provides a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean —although the view is spoiled by a highway project-— and a great panoramic view of the old quarter.

Located on the central avenue running through the Historic District, La Merced is a church of surprises. Mañas tells the now tired students that the Mercedarian Order’s decision to donate materials from their convent and church to construct the city walls left them unable to move to the new city. They did manage to preserve and transport the complete façade —dating from 1590— and even though the structure is eroding, it is still quite impressive.

La Merced has been modified over the years. The 72-foot columns of medlar wood were overlaid with cement and tile in 1964, and the original wood ceiling was plastered over. Now, however, restoration has begun and the original ceiling, with nary a nail or screw, is visible.


La Merced is a charming and whimsical church, featuring statues of Jesús Pobre, the Caridad del Cobre Virgin, and Santa Eduviges. Devotees have placed dozens of tiny houses at the foot of the latter’s altar, honoring her status as the patron saint of houses. The altar preserves the original carving of the Virgin of La Merced, donated by Spanish king Felipe V.

One of the highlights of the church is the ecclesiastical museum, located in the sacristy. Lecterns, crucifixes, candelabras, and staffs from the 18th and 19th centuries are on display, along with historic documents such as the birth certificate of General Tomás Herrera, and the marriage certificates of Manuel Amador Guerrero, Panama’s first President, and poet Ricardo Miró.

According to Mañas, the Panama Civil Registry was created in 1903, when the Republic was born after the country separated from Colombia. Since 1743, La Merced has held all the registers, not only of births and marriages, but of baptisms and deaths as well. There were volumes for recording the sacraments of whites, and separate ones for the sacraments of blacks and other historical racial categories.

Javier Arteta’s written testimony of the U.S. invasion of Panama on December 20, 1989 is included in the documents here. Arteta was the priest in charge of the Parish of Fátima in El Chorrillo, one of the neighborhoods most affected by the invasion.

Three old bells are included in the museum’s treasures. When restoration began, one of the bells was discovered to date back to 1232, while the other two were made in 1670 and 1761. The worn and cracked bells were recently taken down and replaced with three new electronically-activated ones.

After the tour, Gago reiterates that millions of dollars will be needed to repair the churches of the second incarnation of Panama City. Progress is slow but certain. After all, the Historic District abounds in attractions and it is evident that the magic of former times still infuses the present day.