Easter: A Special History Treat at Casco Viejo, Panama

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

A classic Panamanian tradition during Easter is to visit at least seven churches to pray and/or leave candles at their door.  Casco Viejo, being Panama`s colonial city, makes this task quite easy as it offers several options. Among the best known are the Cathedral Church, San José`s Church (or Golden Altar), San Francisco de Asis (now closed for repairs), La Merced Church, Santa Ana Church… and the hidden and always closed to the public San Felipe Neri.

San Felipe Neri is located at the corner of Plaza Bolivar. Once upon a time, it stood alone in the corner, but today it is hidden behind the convent that was later built in front and are the current headquarters of Fundacion San Felipe.

The foundation restored the church a couple of years ago, but left it closed to the general public. Only open for special occasions, they`ve used it for special events such as Christmas Carols and more recently for the ceremony of appointing Panama`s new Bishop.

This past Sunday, the church was open to visitors and I had the opportunity to take these photos.  I had seen the church “before and after” restoration… and they did a beautiful job.  One of the main pieces is the stair at the back that held the chorus.  The roof is stunning, simple and elegant. But also, what tells an even more intimate story of the Casco are its floors and walls, as back in the day they served as funerary monuments for important figures.

Here, you can see the plaque of Manuela Barranco de Avila, born in 1792 and deceased in 1866.  Casco Viejo was founded in 1763, so she was a full Casconian (head to toe!), living her full 74 years in a time of change that saw Panama`s first railroad be built  (1855) and the Gold Rush take over.  It would have been an amazing time, and you can only wonder if she was aware of the advances of technology and social revolts around the world.  The magnetic pole was discovered and Washington was appointed the capital for the US.  When she was only 8 years old, Napoleon conquered Italy, and when she was 12, Haiti became the first country in America to break with colonial ties. This most have been groundbreaking for Panama`s politics of the time were people from all races and background lived in peace and were busy making business.

She was 27 years old (and probably married and with children by then) when Simon Bolivar “liberated” the New Granada (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador), a combo we would later join after declaring independence from Spain in 1821.  She was 58 years old when this happened.  So basically, she went from being officially under Spanish rule  to being Colombian.  Did she ever feel Panamanian? back then, this little part of the World was referred to as the “Isthmus of Panama”, and many called themselves “istmeños”.  The only true thing is that Casco Viejo was her only constant environment, probably the only place she related to and called home.

She died the year Alfred Nobel invented the dynamite, and when Austria defeated Prussia and Italy.  She never saw the electric light, invented by Thomas Edison in 1879 which eventually led to one of the best inventions quoted in 2003 in Panama by an almost 100 year old Panamanian that was interviewed for Panama`s 100 anniversary as a Republic…. the air conditioner.

Back then the Panama Canal was probably only a dream.

I think what is amazing is that with just one look at a physical part of Casco Viejo you can touch World`s history and be truly transported.  Another reason to love this town and be part of it!

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