Bits & Pieces

December 10, 2010

The Methodist Episcopal Church

In 1979, the Panamanian Institute for Tourism (IPAT) made the unfortunate decision to tear down the building that had housed the Methodist Episcopal Church.  IPAT made this decision on the grounds that the real sate tax was not sufficient to warrant the maintenance of the building.
Dr. Thomas Wood, PhD, a missionary of the Methodist faith, arrived at Panama from Peru in 1904.  His purpose was to preach the faith to the workers toiling in the construction of the Panama Canal.  His search for a site on which to build a church led him to piece of property by the old seawall next to the parcel of land on which the Government of Panama was going to build its Government Administration Building (Palacio del Govierno).
Considering this the best location for a Methodist Church and School, Dr. Wood contacted his superiors at the Office of Foreign Missionaries of the Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City.  Their approval was immediate and authorization was given to purchase the land from Federico Boyd for the sum of $11,000.  The transaction was completed in 1907 with construction beginning as soon as the architectural plans had been created.  At the same time, The task of Construction and of the establishment of the church and school was given to the reverend John C. Elkins who became the first pastor of the church.
The building was completed in July, 1908.  The Star & Herald, at the time, carried the following comment: "The beautiful building, in construction for some time, is now completed.  It will be inaugurated on August 2, by the reverends A. S. Watson and G. T. Arms, arriving from Chile.  The new building will serve both as a church and a school.  The top floor will house the living quarters, the street level floor will accommodate the church and the classrooms will be beneath the church facing the sea.  The school will be named Colegio Americano.  Much attention has been given to providing excellent sanitary needs.  There will be daytime classes for whites (Note the call for race segregation in a country which did not have it.) and night classes will be free.  Religious services will be on Sundays at 10:00 AM in English and at 8:00 PM in Spanish."
The new facility as dutifully inaugurated on August 2, 1908, two months before the grand opening of the new National Theater of Panama.  The style of the church was Gothic in character and its cost had been $10,000.  The beautiful and valuable stained glass windows were donated by the reverend and Mrs. Thomas B. Neely and the Bishop of Bristol in memory of his daughter.  Mr. Elisondo Herrera, a prominent local business man, donated the church benches.
The first student to register at the school of the Methodist Episcopal Church, also called Sewall Church, was Alexis Lindo.  The first Principal of the school was the reverend John C. Elkins and the first teacher was Clara Rosa Pena de Ports.  The teaching was in English and followed the North-American education system.  However, the teachers were required to be fluent in Spanish and English so there would be no misunderstandings when teaching the Spanish-speaking students.  This prestigious school became popular with the more affluent citizens of the capital.
In 1909, the cost of attending the school were published as follows:
Standard Course.................$5.00 gold
Kindergarten......................$2.50 gold
English Only.......................$3.00 gold
French and piano, conventional prices (whatever that meant)
A discount is given to families sending more than one child.
By 1917, the school had outgrown its premises and a new building, protruding over the water's edge, was added behind the main church building.  Its cost was $15,000.  A third building next door was added in 1921 and, finally, after relocating to other parts of the growing city, the building was sold to IPAT in April, 1979, for $46,500.  That same year, the building was demolished.

(Left Photo):This 1908 photo looking down Central Avenue to the sea shows the Sewall Church under
construction.  On left of the picture is the Government House (Palacio de Gobierno) under construction.
(Right Photo): The Seawall Church as it looked a few months before being demolished.

Side view of the Seawall Church.  On the right is the original building clearly showing the three stories.
On top floor are living quarters. The middle floor, street level, was the church. 
The lower floor housed the school.  On the left of the photo is the building added behind the church in 1917. 
Photo was taken shortly before demolition and shows the wear of time and neglect.

Source for story and photos, Epocas, March 1986

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas