Originally, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama or Cathedral Basilica Santa Maria La Antigua was located in Santa Maria La Antigua del Darien, which was the first city on the American continent founded by the European conquerors in 1510. Its founders were Martín Fernández de Enciso and Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. In 1513, Balboa discovered the South Sea, currently known as the Pacific Ocean. Balboa was later appointed governor of the Darien between 1511 and 1514.
In 1513, Pope Hadrian VI issued the bull to raise the rank of the church from diocese to cathedral, naming Fray Juan de Quevedo as the first bishop. He arrived to Panama in 1514 with Fray Diego de Torres, and 17 clergymen. That year Pedro Arias Davila was appointed as Governor to replace Balboa. There began to be problems between the two men and Pedro Arias Davila ordered that Balboa be beheaded. This caused the fray to request a transfer back to Spain.
Santa Maria La Antigua del Darien was the capital of the Government of Castilla de Oro until 1520, when Pedro Arias Davila completely moved the population to Our Lady of the Assumption of Panama founded in 1519. This was the first European city in the Pacific Ocean.
From Panama Viejo to Casco Viejo
In 1520, the Cathedral Basilica Santa Maria La Antigua was transferred to Panama Viejo, but it was the victim of a fire in 1644. In 1652 its reconstruction ended, but it was burned again in 1671. There are still the ruins of the church structure that may be visited. As a curious fact, the beams made of guayacan wood survived.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama is located in the Independence Plaza, also known as Cathedral Plaza in Casco Viejo. It was built in 1674, being one of the first buildings in the new city. In 1688 it suffered from another fire and finally it was decided to stop building it out of wood. That year the construction of the new cathedral began using masonry foundations. Again, it was the victim of another fire in 1737, when almost the entire city was burned, including the San Jose Church.
In 1741 the plans were modified to make the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama more spacious and light. It was finally consecrated in 1796. This means that its construction took 108 years, from 1688 to 1796. In 1941 it was declared a National Historic Monument.
The Panama Cathedral was the protagonist of the most important events in the country, since the declaration of emancipation of Panama from Spain on November 28, 1821, and the Separation of Panama from Colombia on January 3, 1903 were read on its steps. State funerals are also held in the cathedral.
Architecture of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama
For a long time, the two towers of the Cathedral Basilica Santa Maria La Antigua were the tallest in all of Latin America. These are encrusted with mother of pearl from the Las Perlas Archipelago. The outer part of the center is made of stone. 67 cruciform stone and brick columns support the ceiling. Besides there are 10 large windows with stained glass.
Restoration of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama
In 2014, the President of the Republic, Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez (who is very religious) approved to restore the Cathedral Basilica Santa Maria La Antigua. The cost of the restoration was $11.9 million for the monument and $4 million for its equipment. These funds came from the National Institute of Culture (INAC), now the Ministry of Culture of Panama. In addition to these funds, private donations were raised.
The works began in 2015 and should have been completed in 2017, but the work suffered delays and was finally opened to the public on January 26, 2019 for World Youth Day (WYD). In December 2014, the Archbishop of Panama Jose Domingo Ulloa Mendieta announced that the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama would carry the title of minor basilica with the approval of Pope Francis. Its altar was consecrated in 2019 by Pope Francis during World Youth Day.
Remodelation of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama
Some of the changes that you should observe are the bells that were made of bronze in Saldaña (Spain). They took two years to make and have an electronic system that allows them to have concerts and work in unison with those installed in the churches of La Merced and San Felipe Neri. They were largely financed by people who collected historical bonds at a cost of $5. The old bells are exhibited in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama.
The Barsanti company from Italy made marble pieces including the altar table that weighs a ton and was made by hand with precious stones from Pakistan, Brazil, Italy and Portugal. Also made of marble are the twelve new crosses with silver veins and 23-karat gold leaf details.
The patron saint of Panama, Santa Maria la Antigua, has her own altarpiece with the flower of the Holy Spirit and the national emblem. It can be accessed using the new ladder. 200 wooden benches were made in Panama by the cabinetmaker Hernan Guardia.
A new pipe organ was made by Damian Kacmarczyk from Poland, who worked non-stop from 2 a.m. until 10 p.m. to build it in 11 months. It weighs eight tons with a tall chorus of over 53,000 pieces, including 3,000 tubes of wood and metal. It has marble-style paint details and 23-carat gold leaf.
Visit the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama
The opening schedule of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama is from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. On Sundays there is mass at noon. There is no entry fee and photos are allowed. It is recommended to wear appropriate clothing and remove your hat before entering. Apart from the cathedral, there are five other churches in Casco Viejo and a chapel.