We cannot leave the history of the Methodist Church movement in Panama without including the account of Bishop Ephraim S. Alphonse whose story has not been given its due importance. Bishop Alphonse is a true icon of the Silver People of Panama as his tireless work and unbounded love have left its imprint for all eternity for all people who profess to spread the spirit and word of Christ Jesus.
Ephraim Simeon Alphonse was born on June 24 1896 on the island of Carenero which is in Bocas del Toro Province. His father, John Alphonse, was from the island of Martinica and his mother, Carlotha Reid, was a native of Bluefields in Nicaragua. Alphonse was educated in what we call Spanish School in Bocas del Toro between 1903 and 1920. Upon finishing, he went to Kingston, Jamaica to attend Calabar Theological College from 1924 to 1926.
In addition to his missionary and ministerial work, Alphonse was a prolific writer and translator. Who’ Who of Jamaica (1941-1946) attributes to his achievements having “reduced the Valiente Indian Language to writing; wrote the first grammar in Guaymi and grammar and vocabulary in Hindustani, Spanish and English; also translated four Gospels in the Valiente Tongue and became translator of scripture for the American Bible Society, 1928 and 1929.”
He was also a composer and compiled a hymn book and a catechism. In addition, he was a playwright having written and staged the following plays in Jamaica, “Youth-time and Eternity” and “The Gospel Ship.” He also authored “Among Valientes” and “The Pageant of the 4th Force.” He travelled to Costa Rica, France, and to England, 1938, where he gave missionary addresses on the Valiente Indians.
Although in his native Panama he was honored with Order of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and a Medal of Belisario de Porras, ironically, it would be in Panama where his many brilliant accomplishments were least known. We cite the recent notes of a young Hispanic Missionary who, in preparation for his missionary duties in Cambodia, first traveled to the Valiente Peninsula (Bocas del Toro) amongst the Guaymi Indians and discovered the treasure trove of Bible translations and other books left behind by Bishop Alphonse.
Amazed, he said, “The work of translating the Bible, properly speaking, started in Panama with the arrival of the Panamanian Ephraim Alphonse (who was then with the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Jamaica) to the Valiente Peninsula in Bocas del Toro with the Guaymi.
He didn’t actually arrive with the purpose of translating the sacred scriptures into a grammatically correct document in the Guaymi language, but such was the case. Without training and without the sophisticated and modern missionary infrastructure behind him, he accomplished just that. The incredible thing is that his work is unknown by the majority of the Panamanian Protestants.”
My most intimate memory of him, although I never knew him personally, I gleaned from my grandmother, Marcella Anglin Green, who was one of the early pillars of the Methodist Church in Rio Abajo. According to my Aunt Winifred, a long time resident of Rio Abajo, even in her declining years when she became more or less housebound due to illness, my Naní (my grandmother) continued receiving communion from the faithful Reverend Bishop Alphonse who came to the house personally every Thursday to minister to one of the most loyal members of his flock.
My aunt relates that my grandmother said her final goodbyes to him and he blessed her and told her that he would soon see her in Glory. This was back in 1990, the year my grandmother passed away. Bishop Alphonse soon followed her, true to his word. He died on May 31, 1995 and according to his grandson, Wesley Jones Alphonse, “His ashes were buried in his beloved Cusapin on September 5, 1995.”
He did, however, work to his very last breath leaving behind him an unending list of attainments to better the lives of thousands of people especially the Guaymi and the Naso Indians of Bocas del Toro Province who remember him with great love.