The history of the San Jose Church begins in what is now known as Panama Viejo. In the seventeenth century, Bishop Fray Agustin de Carvala allowed the installation of the convent of San Jose. Those who visit this place can see the ruins of the convent which is one of the furthest from the Plaza Mayor, near the Puente del Rey.
This convent was managed by the religious order of the Augustinian Recollects. This order arose in Toledo in the sixteenth century, when a group of the Order of Saint Augustine decided to live more austerely and interiorly. They still have a presence in 22 countries around the world. On April 15, 1612 they founded their church in Panama.
Legend of the Golden Altar
Everyone who visits Panama’s Casco Viejo knows about the legend of the golden altar. Panamanians believe this story and love to share it with those who visit. In 1671, the English pirate, Henry Morgan, attacked Panama City. To prevent the famous altar from being taken away, the priests painted it with a black oil that looked like tar. When the pirates arrived at the stone church, they exclaimed how poor it looked. Fray Juan, who was in charge, even asked Henry Morgan for alms to finish the altar, who replied that this fray was more pirate than he and gave him a handful of coins.
The new San Jose Church in Casco Viejo was left in ruins after a fire in 1737, as was the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama and the Saint Francis of Assisi Church. The church was rebuilt again, very similar but with some modifications. As the church was consumed in fire, there is no way that the altar was the original. Studies on the altarpiece show that it was made in the eighteenth century. The influence of baroque art reached America in the seventeenth century.
The gold altar, made of bitter cedar, was gilded with low-grade gold, but today only its pediment retains some of this precious metal. According to Ricardo Gago, “in the beginning it was gold leaf, but over the years, due to lack of maintenance, it has been lost. The authorities have painted it with gold paint. If the lights go out, it stops shining. ”
Ricardo Gago is the president of the Friends of Casco Antiguo Churches Archdiocesan Committee, an organization that is responsible for restoring churches and holding religious events. He estimates it would cost millions of dollars to completely restore the church. A box of gold leaf with 15 small 24-carat plates can cost €112 ($122) in Spain. They would need thousands to cover the altar.
The golden altar has eight Solomonic columns on two levels. In its center is Saint Joseph (San Jose) with the baby Jesus, to the sides other saints accompany him. Above the altar is a skylight that allows it to be illuminated during the day.
San Jose Church in the Casco Viejo of Panama
San Jose Church has the year 1675 on the outside. The church is believed to have been built between 1671 and 1677, being the third church in Casco Viejo. The interior style is baroque with influences from colonial art. The side entrance is more elaborate than the front and has a single tower with a bell tower.
Its interior is divided into three naves. In the left nave there are four stained glass windows that were made in Florence, Italy and were placed in 1963. They have images of Saint Rita of Cascia, Saint Augustine, Our Lady of Consolation and Saint Joseph.
In 1832, when Panama was part of Greater Colombia, the National Congress issued a law to eliminate convents. Therefore, the Augustinians had to leave the country. They sold their convent in 1855 and in 1861 they changed the church to a college chapel. Finally, they returned in 1898, some 65 years later. Today the San Jose Church belongs to the Archbishopric of Panama.
Without a doubt, the San Jose Church needs restoration. The last restoration was made in the 20th century. In 1915, the golden altar was completely restored by Mr. Donderis. From the outside, the building feels a little abandoned with a coat of paint that has its age and weeds growing from the ceiling. The original roof was wooden on the inside and tile on the outside, but in a renovation it was replaced by low-quality plastic and the outer part is zinc. Remains of the original columns remain between the two. One of the few changes made recently was to put air conditioning in to preserve the church.
Visit the San Jose Church
Many of those who visit the San Jose Church look for the altar of Saint Nicolas of Toledo that is on the right side. The faithful leave the names of the deceased in their baskets to request favors. The altar of Holy Christ of Forgiveness, acquired by voluntary donations in 1943, has a canvas painted by the Panamanian master, Roberto Lewis. The church has part of the pulpit that belonged to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama. Previously, it was in the church of Santa Ana until the beginning of the twentieth century. The Augustinians bought five of the boards they brought out for just $50.
The image of the altar of Our Lady of Grace is made of rag and wood, with certain parts of porcelain. In September its Eucharist is celebrated and her dress, shoes, pillow and wig are changed. The San Jose Church has a small crypt where the remains of famous citizens rest. However, the oldest tomb is located lateral to the baptistery where the remains of Bolivar Alfaro, who died at the age of ten in 1894, rest.
San Jose Church has opening hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. There is no entry fee, however they ask for donations for its maintenance. Enter the room on the right to see a gigantic nativity scene that used to be in Albrook Mall. This church is located on Avenida A and calle octava, near Plaza Herrera.