In light of the upcoming 50th Anniversary Celebrations of The Methodist Church of Rio Abajo, we’ve taken the time to focus on yet another major church group founded by the West Indians in Panama.
The Methodist Churchof the Caribbean and the Americas has long considered the British Church as their mother church. It was the enigmatic figure of Mother Abel, an immigrant from the Antilles, who came to Panama via the United States of America, who first introduced Methodism to the inhabitants of the Island of Bastimentos in the province of Bocas del Toro and then in other parts of the country.
It was particularly within the areas inhabited by English-speaking Antilleans who arrived in Panama to work on the construction of the Panama Railroad and subsequently on the Panama Canal where Methodism established its roots. This was also true throughout parts of Costa Rica, where many West Indians went to work in the banana plantations.
The lay preachers and clergymen were the instruments responsible for maintaining Methodism alive and well based for decades until the British Conference sent ordained pastors during the 1800’s to minister to the new congregations that were established in the former Canal Zone towns and major cities of Panama and Colon where there were large population of English-speaking residents from the Caribbean.
A notable success story, and the inspiration for our series on the MethodistChurchin Panama, is the growth of Methodism in the indigenous Guaymí communities of the Peninsula of Valiente also in the province of Bocas del Toro. Much of the credit for this success has to go the outstanding legacy left by Rev. Dr. Ephraim S. Alphonse who was awarded the Order of Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1963, the highest honor theRepublic ofPanama gives to its most honorable citizens. But, more about the remarkable Bishop Alphonse in a future post.
Panama and Costa Rica, which spans the equivalent of a diocese, is one of eight districts of the CACM or MCCA (Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas), equivalent to an archdiocese that has its head office in St. John’s,Antigua and is led by a President Conexional. The governing body is the Conference Conexional with its Constitution as its instrument of authority and discipline of the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas. The Panama/Costa Rica District, headed by a President, is divided into five circuits which include Panama, Colon, Bocas del Toro, Valiente and Costa Rica. Each circuit is represented by a Minister/Superintendent. The District Conference is the governing body of the district and meets annually with representatives of each circuit.
The emphasis on ministering in the English language of previous years has evolved, as has the population of West Indian Panamanians have evolved, and nowadays almost all worship services are conducted in both English and Spanish in addition to the Guaymi language. The annual Conference in the District of Panama/Costa Rica is conducted in Spanish.
In our next post we will follow in more depth the historic route of the establishment of the Methodist Church in Panama.