PANAMA CITY, Panama — This weekend, the Archdiocese of Panama celebrated the 500th anniversary of the first diocese created on the American mainland, an event which Church leaders say “changed the history of our continent and our country.”
The archdiocese said the Jubilee Year celebrations are meant to “commemorate the fruits of our journey as a Church together with the Panamanian people” and to confirm the people in their Catholic faith and national identity.
The first dioceses in the Americas were created in the Caribbean islands after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Pope Leo X erected the first mainland diocese, Santa Maria La Antigua, on Sept. 9, 1513.
The diocese’s second bishop, Fray Vicente Peraza, transferred the see to the newly founded Panama City in 1524.
The town of Santa Maria La Antigua eventually was destroyed by fire in 1671 and rebuilt next to the town of Ancon in 1673.
A key focus of the 500th anniversary devotionals is the Marian image of Santa Maria La Antigua, or “St. Mary the Ancient.” The image predates the diocese’s founding and was first venerated in the 15th century in a side chapel at the Cathedral of Seville in Spain.
In honor of the venerated image, the Spanish explorers Martín Fernández de Enciso and Vasco Núñez de Balboa founded the Panama colony city of Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien in 1510. This fulfilled their promise to the Virgin Mary after winning a battle. Afterwards, the explorers built the first American mainland chapel dedicated to Mary.
The diocese’s three-day anniversary celebration were held Sept. 6-8 and included special Masses, rosaries and processions with the statue of Santa Maria La Antigua. The bishops of Panama gathered for Mass at the Cathedral of Panama to crown the statue on Sept. 9, the day Panama Archbishop Jose Dimas Cedeno Delgado proclaimed Santa Maria La Antigua the patroness of the Archdiocese of Panama in 1999.
The Church in Panama has marked the anniversary with a Jubilee Year coinciding with the Year of Faith. The Jubilee Year began in November of 2012 with a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Marc Ouellette, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.