The history of Saint Francis of Assisi church is similar to that of the Church of San Jose, Church of Our Lady of Mercy and Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama. Its origins date back to when Panama City was in what is now known as Panama Viejo. The convent of San Francisco was one of the largest. Saint Francis of Assisi was the patron saint of animals and ecologists. By the way, he is my saint since I was born on October 4 and he was canonized by the Catholic Church that day in 1228.
After the attacks by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671, the city was transferred to the peninsula that is now known as Casco Viejo. In 1673, the Franciscans were given a wide space in front of the bay. The Franciscans built a convent and a church, which were burned in fires in 1737 and 1756.
Panama became independent from Spain in 1821, joining Great Colombia. The Colombian government passed a law eliminating all convents that did not have at least eight religious at mass. Therefore, the Franciscans decided to leave the country on a voluntary basis.
History of the Convent of Saint Francis of Assisi
The government took over the convent turning it into the headquarters for the First Battalion of Panama that later fought in Ayacucho, Peru. It was also the venue for the Host Congress cited by Simon Bolivar, where the Panama Protocols were approved.
By 1857, the cloister was in ruins. In 1860 it was sold to a private individual who fitted it out to be a hospital for foreigners. The church was occupied by the Jesuits between the years 1880 to 1896. Then it passed to the Piarists, who also bought the convent to open a school. But they left the country during the thousand day war (1899-1902). The Jesuits ran the church again for the next 85 years.
In 1903, Panama separated from Colombia and one of the convent’s rooms was used to hold the first Constituent Assembly. In this place the first Constitution of the Republic of Panama was written in 1904. Then, in 1910, the La Salle brothers bought the building to make a school, building three pavilions and leaving the sea front open. Later it was used by other schools such as the Bolivar Institute and the San Agustin school.
The United Nations declared the former Chapter Hall of the Franciscan Convent as a World Heritage Site in 1997. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is located in this building, currently known as the Palacio Bolivar, since 2003.
Abandonment of Saint Francis of Assisi Church
In 1918 work was done changing the facade and style of the church, to what can be seen today. Originally it had a colonial structure, with a tower of three bodies without a dome. Leonardo Villanueva, in charge of the remodeling, kept the thick walls dating from 1870. But he changed the facade and the smaller altars. He was the one who designed the current structure with the high bell tower with a beautiful dome with a cross on top.
Since 1943 the need to restore the church was discussed. In total, the Saint Francis of Assisi Church was closed for about 12 years, since 2004. The main problem was that they did not have a priest. Therefore they stopped doing baptisms, first communions and confirmations. In addition, the building was very dilapidated, the walls were filled with green mold and the holes in them allow the rods that hold them to be seen. Leaks were causing humidity problems and the lamps were burned out.
The restoration of the Saint Francis of Assisi Church was done thanks to the Friends of the Casco Antiguo Committee. They obtained donations from individuals and companies totaling $3.1 million among some 700 donors. The restoration process took three years, beginning in August 2013.
Restoration of the Saint Francis of Assisi Church
To start the restoration, they had to move seven homeless people who lived inside the church. Besides, they had to spray against a mosquito infestation and extract the water that had flooded the building. They started with the roof, using tiles brought from Ecuador, followed by plumbing and electricity. They fixed the 25-meter bell tower of the Saint Francis of Assisi Church, which is the highest point in all of Casco Viejo. They rescued and installed the Wurlitzer tubular organ that was in the Hotel Riande Continental and previously in the Hotel El Panamá.
The church altarpiece, which was designed in France and made in Venice in the 1950s, was black. It had the virgin as the central image, apart from Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Francis Xavier and Saint Ignatius of Loyola. They asked the Vatican for help in the restoration. They sent the chief restorer of the Holy See, Paoli Di Bueno, who asked to be assisted by Panamanian personnel so that they could make future restorations.
On Saturday, March 19, 2016, the Saint Francis of Assisi Church reopened. The ceremony was performed with a mass officiated by the Metropolitan Archbishop of Panama, Jose Domingo Ulloa. The President of the Republic, Juan Carlos Varela and the Attorney General, Kenya Porcell attended this event.
Visit the Saint Francis of Assisi Church
The Saint Francis of Assisi church is located in Plaza Bolivar, next to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Panama and diagonal to the National Theater of Panama. Its opening hours are from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. everyday. Every Sunday there is a mass at 1 p.m. with capacity for 450 people. The church is part of the activities that take place in the churches in Casco Viejo during Easter.