by Lydia M. Reid
The history of this landmark church which had close ties to the Panamanian West Indian community dates back to the 1930s. Rio Abajo District residents began efforts to build a chapel in that part of the city since the nearest church was Our Lady of Lourdes in La Sabana which meant a considerable distance walk in the absence of urban transport. Rio Abajo was not incorporated into the city at the time and although Via España was as already a main artery, between Rio Abajo and La Sabana there existed a very long and practically uninhabited distance to walk.
Definite construction of this house of worship began in the 1940s when steps to build a church began in earnest. The first step- to acquire a parcel of ground to build upon- was made possible by Mr. Enrique Lefevre, owner of the area known as Parque Lefevre, with a donation of land.
After realizing many social activities such as collections, raffles, etc., a chapel was built and inaugurated on December 8, 1944. It was a small rectangular building with a façade of stone which culminated in a bell enclosure. It was due to the stone facade that the people began calling it “The Stone Church“.
The Vincentian Friars of St. Mary’s in Balboa, who were in charge of the spiritual care of the residents of this part of the city, customarily celebrated Mass in English as most of the inhabitants were English-speaking. By November 8, 1954, however, the parish of St. John the Baptist of la Salle was created and it provided a more complete service to the parishioners of Rio Abajo and Parque Lefevre; in other words the services were extended and celebrated in both languages.
The Augustinian Recollects
On November 20 of that same year, Bishop Francisco Beckman entrusted the newly formed parish community to the Augustinian Recollect Fathers. The Augustinian Recollects have a great tradition in Panama, in fact, since their presence dates back to the 17th century.
The Augustinian order now runs the prestigious St. Augustine School and the parishes of San Lucas, San José (the Golden Altar Church) and St. John Baptist de la Salle him in Panama; Holy family, David and the Mission of Bocas del Toro with missionary centres in: Bocas del Toro, Rear Admiral, Changuinola, Chiriqui Grande and Kankintu. Jesús Sanzol was the first parish priest resident and served until 1961.
Miraculous Medal Center Intensifies Parish Life.
In 1953 the Legion of Mary founded the Miraculous Medal Center giving great impetus to the evangelization effort with home visits, visits to sick, prayer of the Rosary in the Church and in households. Subsequently new groups such as catechism classes for first communion and confirmation, Christian youth movement, and Neo-catechumenal communities have arisen giving new vigor to parish life.
The parish center of the Miraculous Medal facilities was inadequate to accommodate all group activities giving rise to the need for the construction of a new building. The building now consists of two floors with different rooms to meet the demands of parishioners. On the second floor is the main hall which can accommodate several hundred people. It has a setting that enables the presentation of plays. Remodeling and expansion of the small stone church parish church was insufficient for a parish community as dynamic and large. The expansion of the parochial Temple was a long-held dream. Finally able to get the land located between the Church and the priests housing and from there the project began to take shape.
Construction of the New Church Edifice
In August 1995 demolition of the former chapel was begun and in 1996 the new Church was opened conserving its distinctive stone facade. The new Church is actually called St. John the Baptist de La Salle and Santa Monica. It consists of a nave of 35 meters long by 16 wide without columns, which leads to a spacious presbytery presided over by a window with a risen Christ and the saints of the order, better known as “Augustinian Heaven.”
Today, Rio Abajo’s “Stone Church” has been transformed into a parish of great vitality and is more than just a landmark for Rio Abajo. Groups and associations and partnerships that have contributed to this dynamism include the Legion of Mary that existed since 1953, The Christian Youth movement, which was started in 1969 and by 1982 was the main youth group of the parish.