Church of San Felipe de Portobelo: History, Culture and Tradition
This religious temple is the home of the Black Christ of Portobelo, a Catholic saint who draws hundreds of parishioners every year on October 21. Below, we present the historical background of the church and its importance to its community.
A narrow path, picturesque houses, residents dressed in Congolese dress led us to the Church of San Felipe de Portobelo, which was declared a national historic monument by Law 56 of 1928. Then in 1941, by Law 68, it was declared a national historic monument again and Law 56 of 1928 was repealed. We were able to appreciate the locals, who have shops around the temple, where they sell souvenirs such as rosaries, candles, prints with prayers to the Black Christ, among others. The products vary in price and you can find items from $1 and up. The owners of the premises only have the cash payment method available.
As you advance, contemplate the benches with signs, altars where the image of different virgins rests, as well as other Catholic saints, on one side of the church you can see the remains of people embedded in the wall of the religious temple. After contemplating the whole place, we headed towards the altar of the Black Christ of Portobelo, full of offerings, many candles and we observed devotees on their knees raising prayers to the Catholic saint.
This church is not only visited by locals, but also by hundreds of foreigners who come every year to appreciate the history that protects this place. Further on, a few steps away, you can see the structure of the Catholic temple, the walls covered in white and the lilac color traced on the outside. Inside, just at the main entrance, there is an alcohol gel dispenser for biosecurity measures, however, the imposing wooden ceiling catches the eyes of visitors, followed by the altar and on the left side you can see the Black Christ of Potobelo.
Historical data indicates that the first church was built approximately in the 17th century, however, it was destroyed by the pirate Henry Morgan when he attacked Portobelo. Later, a provisional wooden church was built that served as a parish until 1780, when the parish functions were transferred to the convent of La Merced and the Church-Hospital of San Juan de Dios. It occupied the same location where the current one is located, since the tombs of Juan Vitrián Beamonte y Navarra, president of the Royal Court of Panama, who died in 1651, and that of Melchor de Navarra y Rocafull, viceroy of Peru, who died in 1691, when he was passing through Portobelo on his way back to Spain.
Other data specify that it was not until 1814 that the current church was built, with plans by Diego Caicedo, although it did not have the bell tower, which was built in 1945. Its inauguration was carried out even without being finished, and historically it was the last work built in Portobelo during the colonial era.
Myths of The Black Christ of Portobelo
Locals state that there are three legends surrounding the saint.
The Box and the Storm. Some say that a ship that was heading to Cartagena de Indias, every time it tried to set sail from Portobelo, a violent storm broke out, forcing them to return to the port. On the fifth attempt, the crew was nearly shipwrecked, so they decided to lighten the load by throwing overboard a huge, heavy box they were carrying in their hold. After this the ship was able to navigate without problem. Then some fishermen found the box and when they opened it they saw that it was an image of the Nazarene, then taking it to the town, they placed it in the church.
The Floating Box and Cholera. Another legend states that some fishermen found a box floating in the sea during a cholera epidemic, inside was the Christ and they placed it in the church, minutes later the black Christ began to sweat; the patients took it out and when a little of the sweat stopped, the epidemic ended and the patients recovered quickly.
The Nazarene that Stayed. The third legend points out that the church located in Taboga (an island in the Pacific), ordered the image of a Nazarene Jesus from a supplier in Spain. On the other hand, the Church of Portobelo asked the same craftsman for an image of San Pedro. There was a mistake when sending the images, and the San Pedro ended up in the Taboga Church and the Nazareno in Portobelo. All the efforts that were made to try to correct the mistake were unsuccessful, because something always happened that prevented the Nazarene from leaving the town. In this way, the community interpreted the difficulties as a divine message and gave up the idea of exchanging the images.
Faith, Devotion and International Processions
Every year on October 21, pilgrims come to Portobelo to worship Christ, some people even begin their pilgrimage days before and take long walks to reach the church, others carry images of the saint, dress their children in representative colors of the saint, others drag themselves to the church, but the most anticipated is the procession, where this tradition has been suspended due to the pandemic.
A curious fact is that the Nazarene of Portobelo has various tunics, suits that the faithful have given him in gratitude for his requests. Also this catholic saint owns jewels granted by the devotees.
On the other hand, we can mention the international processions of the Christ of Portobelo. For the dates of his pilgrimage, singers of the salsa genre met in Colón, for example, Ismael Rivera, who wrote a song dedicated to this saint called ‘El Nazareno.’ Artists such as Celia Cruz, Cheo Feliciano and Gilberto Santa Rosa, among others, have also performed.
Astrid Chang has a degree in Journalism with an Emphasis in Audiovisual Production. Since 2018, she has been a journalist at La Estrella de Panamá. Her work in the newspaper was initially as an intern, where she developed in the area of sports, nationals, social networks and the web. Later, she was hired to lead the themes for World Youth Day and to be a presenter for the segment “Flash Economy.” She later became part of the Café Estrella team, a new content proposal by ‘La Decana’. In this booklet she has written articles on the environment, technology, health, sports, society, music, culture, sexuality, art, fashion and tourism. Likewise, she has organized and directed projects with visual artists for the International Book Fair of Panama. She too, was sent special to cover the Lima 2019 Juegos Parapanamericanos, and currently she is the coordinator of sports issues in the newspaper. She has training in journalistic leadership.