The Society of Jesus, commonly called Jesuits, are a religious order founded in 1534 by the Spanish Ignacio de Loyola. They were approved by Pope Paul III in 1540. They are currently the largest Catholic religious order and their activity focused on missionary and educational work. Jesuit missionaries arrived in Latin America decades after the discovery of Christopher Columbus.
The Jesuits passed through Panama in 1568 when they were on their way to Peru. They asked Father Jeronimo Ruiz del Portillo (1532-1589) for permission to establish an educational center. The Conventual Ensemble of the Society of Jesus was founded in 1578 by the Jesuit father Miguel de Fuente. In 1594, the Society of Jesus founded a school in what is now called Panama La Vieja. Originally it was made of wood, but in the early seventeenth century it was changed to stone and factory structures. Its 5,000-square-meter building is one of the few that still has standing ruins.
The Society of Jesus in Casco Viejo
In 1671, the old city of Panama was destroyed after the attack organized by the pirate Henry Morgan. The Jesuits were left homeless on the beach after having lost all their belongings. In 1673 they moved to the city to Casco Viejo. Father Francisco de Luna, future Bishop of Panama, insisted that the Jesuits continue their educational work.
In 1749, a Royal Decree granted the Jesuits license to found three professorships (philosophy, moral theology and scholasticism) at the College of the Society of Jesus in Panama. Thus, “La Real y Pontificia Universidad de San Javier” was founded as the first University of the Republic of Panama. In 1751 the convent of the Society of Jesus, which occupied the entire block, was completed, being one of the largest.
Ruins of the Society of Jesus
The King of Spain, Carlos III, signed the Pragmatic Sanction expelling the Jesuits from all the Spanish territories. On August 2 of that year, the Jesuits were put in prison and their property was expropriated. Most died in exile. Unfortunately, in 1781 the convent and church of the Society of Jesus were victims of a fire. Then in 1882 an earthquake aggravated its condition. The complex was never rebuilt and much was left as a shell with nothing inside.
The wing of the building that went towards A Avenue had a 56-meter-long facade, similar to the Portobelo’s customs, with only the rear wall remaining. The wing that goes to calle 8 has two highs with wide balconies. It was used as the residence of Ramon Vallarino, then in the late nineteenth century it was the International club, and in the twentieth century, it was transformed into a tenancy house. It also hosted the first synagogue in Panama, the Col Shearith Israel Synagogue, which was installed in 1917.
The ruins of the Society of Jesus Church are a true spectacle, with an architectural composition highlighting numerous snail-shaped niches, representing the marine wealth of Panama. It was built after 1749, so it was probably not finished. This is noted in the bell tower that is missing a body. The main chapel was in a rectangular plaza, later transformed into a two-story house. The space of the ships was used as a stable, it even had two houses. In 1982 the architectural complex was emptied. This is the only church in Casco Viejo that is in ruins. The Santo Domingo Convent is also a ruin that contains the famous Arco Chato.
What to do with the Society of Jesus Church?
In 2006, rehabilitation works began in the ruins of the Society of Jesus Church. The floor was cleaned and removed using at-risk youth from the San Felipe neighborhood. The idea was to use $350,000 to make a botanical garden that would display Panamanian orchids. In addition, a museum dedicated to the history of the Jesuit church and the first Panamanian synagogue was to be built. I remember when they were doing the jobs, but unfortunately this idea never happened.
The idea of the Jesuit museum (without the botanical garden) re-emerged in 2015, but was rejected by the San Felipe Residents Association. In the end, the project did not happen, despite the fact that other sectors supported the initiative.
The ruins of the Compañía de Jesús Church are the property of the Panama Tourism Authority (ATP). In 2018 Gustavo Him, director of the ATP, transferred the right of use of the ruins of the church of the Society of Jesus to the Hotel La Compañía that bought the block (between Avenida Central and Avenida A with calle 7 and 8 west) where the Jesuits were located. According to the agreement, the Hotel La Compañía has the obligation to renovate and maintain the ruins that will be a public garden. The concession can be renewed for another 20 years. You can book La Compañía Hotel here.
Very helpful information. Coming in April and planning a self-guided walking tour. Thank you!