THE GOLDEN ALTAR, THE CHURCH OF SAN JOSE PANAMA CITY
May 24, 2002 (Updated May 9, 2005)
The Bottom Line A fascinating piece of living history. Remember look but don't touch. Especially if your name happens to be Morgan.
It was only a simple can of paint but it foiled the ambitions and dreams of a famous pirate and preserved a historic treasure for future generations to appreciate. The Inglesia de San Jose, the Church of San Jose is a small almost nondescript building on a narrow street in the San Felipe district of Panama City. There are many other churches both in this district and throughout the rest of the city. This is after all a predominantly Catholic country, and one where the church has been established for some five centuries.
Many are of course much larger, much grander buildings including the nearby Cathedral with it's mother of pearl inlaid towers, a few blocks away. The Church of San Jose though has one rather unique artefact that makes it special. Here is located the Altar de Oro, the Golden Altar. As it's name would suggest this large barouque altar is made of pure gold.
The church was built soon after the first Spanish settlement was established on the Pacific Coast in 1519. In the 17th Century this settlement was abandoned and moved to it's present location on the small peninsula that that contains the San Felipe district of the city. When the church itself was moved so was it's most famous possession.
The reason the original settlement was abandoned was that it's original location was indefensible. In 1671 the English Privateer Henry Morgan attacked and sacked the small but important town. His reason for doing so, it from was here that the gold and other riches from Peru and the other colonies in South America were shipped to. From Panama City they were sent overland to the Caribbean coast and on to Havana and eventually Spain.
Not all of the gold was sent onward, and soon the Church of San Jose found itself possessed of a rather unique artefact. An entire altar was crafted from pure gold. When Morgan attacked and sacked the town one of the things he most wanted to capture was this altar.
Legend has it when news of Morgan and his men's approach reached the settlement the priest tried a desperate strategy to preserve the altar. He painted it completely black. When Morgan entered the church the priest was able to convince him that the alter before him was made of simple wood not gold.
Morgan of course demanded what had happened to the "other altar." The priest supposedly told him that another pirate had beaten him to the prize. He even managed to get the Privateer to donate money to a fund to replace the altar. Morgan is supposed to have said to the priest, "I don't know why, but I think you are more of a pirate than I am."
The Church is open to the public most days and is easy to find located on Avienda A near the corner of Calle 8. Most organised city tours include it as one of their stops. It is still used as a place of worship and visitors should exercise some good judgement and discretion when visiting especially if a mass is underway.
Security for such a priceless object is surprisingly minimal. While people cannot actually touch it, you can get quite close and only a simple barrier in front exists. Then again it is probably too large and heavy for just anyone to make off with unnoticed, and it's not as if they're expecting Henry Morgan to come storming back any time soon.
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