Tale of Two Churches

Jesus icon in Atalaya church

Two fascinating early American churches in close proximity to each other are in easily accessible Panama, a lot closer than Europe.

Atalaya, Panama, about a half-hour drive west of Santiago, is home to an annual pilgrimage for Panamanians from around the predominantly Catholic country. Like many of the religious ceremonies throughout Latin America, it has a rich history and is fascinating to witness.

Festivities in Atalaya begin several weeks before and continue until Palm Sunday. As many as 20,000 people walk from their communities to the church — many on crutches or amputated limbs seeking healing — to show their Catholic devotion. They pray for blessings, relief from economic hardship and ask for good health. For this reason, the church in Atalaya has been designated by the Vatican as a Minor Basilica. As you drive the Pan American Highway during this time period, you see the pilgrims walking on the side of this major highway in a seemingly unending line.

Although much of the history of the pilgrimage is unclear, the church there wasn’t built until 1807 but historical documents show the pilgrimage began as early as 1730. Once inside, the church people pray before an icon of Jesus on display in an alcove behind glass next to the main altar.

The church has a unique purple trim. This is why it is sometimes called the “purple church.” Impressive fresco-covered ceilings dominate overhead inside the church, stretching down the center isle that is held high by pink marble pillars.

Next to the church, across a small unpaved street, priests and assistants who serve the church emerge from a monastery frocked in green. They walk the short distance to the church to conduct services throughout the year, but during the annual pilgrimage when crowds swell, civil police are needed for crowd control, making it almost impossible for the clergy to cross the rural street.

In 2009, the icon of Jesus was removed for cleaning. Devoted churchgoers rioted, requiring an armed civil police response. The manifestation could not be quelled until the local bishop promised the prompt return of the icon. Still the rebellious masses would not leave the church until the icon was replaced. Zealots reported seeing another church icon — of the Virgin Mary — shed tears for the absent icon of Jesus.

While in the area, nearby in mountainous terrain about 15 minutes north of Santiago, is a church dating from 1630, making it one of the continent’s oldest churches, contemporaneous with the landing of the pilgrims in the U.S. The small church of San Francisco is built of a stone exterior with a remarkable wooden bell tower and wooden interior, recently meticulously restored.

No services are held in the church today. There are no pews. Preserved today as a museum, there are explanatory signs explaining the intricate wood carvings in mahogany, which resemble masts on Columbus’ ships that sailed to this “new world” on his fourth voyage. The church played a large part in encouraging the surrounding population at the time, all indigenous, to convert.

Another typical Latin festival takes place annually here to celebrate the church’s patron saint. Practically everyone in town and many visitors fill the green area adjacent to the church. For a small admission fee, you eat all the food you can, much of it typical rice, pork, chicken and corn meal dishes. While this is a particularly good time to visit this beautiful mountain community, even if you’ve been before, the renovation is worth seeing even if the festival isn’t taking place. The church has a 4-star rating on Trip Advisor and closes around 3 p.m.

These two churches, off the beaten path, infrequently seen by tourists, should be on must-see lists. Seeing them during the festival times will mean a more crowded visit, but make for an experience you will never forget.


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