While studying Spanish for two weeks at Casco Antiguo Spanish School in Casco Viejo, I spent much of my free time strolling the streets of the Old Town. I loved taking in the different scenes which range from ruins to restored buildings and everything else in between. Unlike many places in Europe, the churches are free to visit.
While I visited the churches at various times of the day, I found that popping in just before class between 7:30 and 8am or just after an early dinner before they close at 8pm are the most rewarding as the atmosphere is very tranquil. Both the art and architecture vary in each place of worship making each visit interesting, even for the non-religious tourist.
Below is a list of the churches in Casco Viejo:
Iglesia de San José
Iglesia de San José is located on Avenue A on the west side of Casco Viejo. The rectangular Augustinian temple was one of the first to be constructed in the Old Quarter. Destroyed by fire in 1737, it was later rebuilt and ultimately abandoned when an 1832 law abolished all convents. The church was used as a school chapel until the late 19th century upon the return of the religious order.
From the outside, the drab white exterior and large wooden door, hardly attract the eye of a passerby. The church’s elaborate interior, however, speaks for itself. The Iglesia de San José features a spectacular wooden altarpiece covered in gold leaf.
Legend has it that the friar in old Panamá saved the altarpiece from the pirate Henry Morgan when he attacked the city in 1671. The friar threw the altarpiece’s gold columns and other valuable elements into the ocean and told Henry Morgan that it was under construction. The friar even requested 1,000 ducats to complete the work to which Henry Morgan responded, “The friar is more of a pirate than I am!” and resolved to give him the necessary money.
The legend, however, is just that, because the altarpiece’s style comes from the 18th century and records indicate it was covered in gold in 1915. In addition to the altarpiece, the church features other ornate carvings and artwork as well as a small museum that displays an intricate nativity scene year-round.
Iglesia de La Merced
Iglesia de La Merced is located on Calle 10 Este, just a few blocks northwest of Iglesia de San José. It might be my favorite church in Casco Viejo. With its worthy museum, small mausoleum, and a chapel that requires a stationed guard, this church deserves at least 30 minutes if not an hour to visit. There is so much to see.
This Mercedarian Temple is the only place of worship in the Old Quarter to preserve its original wood roof and columns which date back over 300 years. In addition, its baroque façade is made of the stones from its original location in Old Panamá. Its interior feels very authentic and while the pulpit is very beautiful, I particularly liked an area reserved for the worship of St. Hedwig.
St. Hedwig and her husband founded monasteries. Upon her husband’s death, she became a nun and continued to work with the sick and poor. Panamanians pray to her for a home, and as a result offer houses at her feet. There were stacks of homemade houses piled at the base of her figurine.
Outside of the church to the north is a courtyard which features a water well and the church’s original bells which were removed in order to ensure their preservation. Without nearby rivers, the well was a necessary source of water. Just as we do today with coins, townspeople used to toss stones in the well to make wishes. The well at La Merced is also a symbol of salvation to Catholics.
Behind the courtyard and up the stairs is the entrance to the Museum of Religious Art. The museum features valuable religious relics, a permanently displayed nativity scene, and the oldest parish archive in the city.
La Catedral Metropolitana
Just a few blocks east of the Iglesia de La Merced stands La Catedral Metropolitana. It is located on the west side of Plaza Mayor, also known as Independence Square. The Panama Canal Museum and the Municipal Palace also sit on this square thus the surrounding area is always busy. There is almost always an event taking place just steps from the church’s giant doors, so it’s worth visiting for no other reason than to absorb the surrounding scene.
La Catedral Metropolitana took 108 years to build between 1688 and 1796 after which it was virtually abandoned. It bears witness to two very important pieces of Panamanian history. Both the readings of the Panamanian Emancipation Declaration from Spain in 1821 and the Separation of Panama from Colombia in 1903 were read from the Cathedral’s steps.
Renovated in 2003, the cathedral, with its black and white checked marble floors and immense organ is the largest church in Casco Viejo as well as one of the largest in Central America. In fact, small flat screen monitors are mounted on its columns to provide the parishioners a better view of mass, though I suspect they were installed when the Pope officiated mass in January of 2019. Despite its grandness, the well air-conditioned, bright interior has an inviting feel.
La Iglesia San Felipe Neri
A few blocks further to the northeast is La Iglesia San Felipe Neri. I walked by this place of worship multiple times before I noticed its not descript entrance on the corner of Calle 4a Este and Avenue B. I’m so glad I found it, as its art deco style is unique to Panamá.
The church, dating back to 1688, was on of the first constructed in Casco Viejo. Through the years it has been used as a hospital for priests, a school, and seminary. While the church survived several fires, only its walls and steps are original. I loved the decorative remains of the walls found during a restoration in the late 1990’s. This church in Casco Viejo is definitely worth a visit.
Iglesia San Francisco de Asís
Just across the Plaza Simon Bolivar from La Iglesia San Felipe Neri, stands Iglesia San Francisco de Asís. The original temple and convent of Iglesia San Francisco de Asís burned in 1737 and 1756. As with Iglesia de San José, it was rebuilt and later abandoned. Its 1918 remodel altered both its interior and exterior as well as its bell tower.
It’s ornate exterior invites visitors into a relatively tame interior. Its white tiled walls and columns with its muted colored pulpit create a modern feel. This church’s beauty is best displayed at night when it is alit with bright light. Stop by after enjoying an early dinner at one of the restaurants with outdoor seating on Plaza Simon Bolivar.
Casco Viejo is small enough that all the churches may be seen in one day. As I mentioned previously, I recommend visiting them in the early morning or late evening. Each one features unique qualities, so they are all worth a visit. While I recognize churches might be for everyone, they are air-conditioned, so at the very least stop in for respite from Panamá’s heat. Out of respect to the parishioners, please act with deference and wear the appropriate attire. ETB
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