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The Church of the Black Christ – Portobelo, Panama

I don’t like it much when a vulture stares at me at the entrance to a church.  I don’t like it much either when three crows are sitting,  all consubstantially trinity-like, on the Catholic’s cross at the narthex.  Yes, that’s right, the entrance to a Catholic church is called the narthex. And no, I’m not suspicious.

 ~ ~ ~

Manuel Camabena
Nació en Portobello
El 17 de Junio de 1840
Murió en Colon
El 21 de Mayo de 1903
Su esposa e hijas le
Dedican este recuerdo

 ~ ~ ~

the black christ

The large, white church at the little Caribbean community of Portobelo is called the Iglesia de San Felipe. It is the home of the Nazareno de Portobelo, more commonly known as the miraculous Black Christ. Another of the Black Jesus I’ve mentioned before.

The giant doors on the south, east and west sides were all flung open and the interior was dark and cool. Pigeons were in the rafters and several devotees said prayers.  A blond Canadian couple bent with heavy backpacks had a fight in whispers about finding the Internet versus finding food.  The young woman was having a blood-sugar melt down.  If the man wasn’t going to give up on the Internet soon he was going to be in big trouble.

Today it is a World Heritage Site and minuscule fishing and farming village, but Portobelo was once the largest and most important Spanish port in Central America.

And so there was a church.

the black christ

The interior walls of this, the most recent incarnation of the Portobelo church are embeded with headstones from a disappeared cemetery.

~ ~ ~

Sergio Maria Carrillo
Nació el 7 de Octubre
Murió el 9 de Octubre 1908
Sus Hermanos
Cesar y Aurelia Sanguillen
le dedican este recuerdo

~ ~ ~

Sometime around 1680 a plague broke out and ran through the Spanish colonies, plantations and indigenous villages up and down the coast.

So the story goes, a Spanish ship bound for Cartegena was blown into the harbor at Portobelo carrying the statue, carved in Spain, in a crate.  The storm held the Spainiards in the harbor for days, nearly sinking it.  When the ship was on nearly done for, the crew rolled the heavy crate over into the blue Caribbean waters and the storm…yup…miraculously ended.  When the crate washed up on the shining beach of San Pedro de La Escucha (one version of the story has an Indian by the name of Kichimbanchi finding it and dragging it to shore) and was opened, the plague…yup…ended.

the black christ

That was October 21.

~ ~ ~

Gregorio Aranda
Nació el 12 de Marzo
Murió el 21 de Enero 1908
Su Esposa e Hijos dedican
este recuerdo

~ ~ ~

The Spanish-made effigy quickly begame a magnet to the criollos, the slaves, the mulattos, the sick and the poor and they came to venerate the dark, wooden statue.  Those in need could come to seek a miracle. It was pointed out however that making a promise before the Black Christ then failing to keep it would invite big problems.

None of this… “Lord, if you save me I swear I’ll give up women and booze” and then heading off to the brothel to celebrate your salvation.  Nope.  The Black Jesus wouldn’t put up with that.

the black jesus

Now, every October the devotees of the Black Christ come from miles over thin asfalt roads on bloody and torn knees and elbows. Others come bearing heavy crosses. Others whip themselves. Others have someone drip hot candle wax on them while they walk.

Devotion, I guess.

The Canadians stormed out and crawled onto a bus spray painted with a giant shark.  The Catholics crossed themselves. My friend and I walked out the western door into the sun and heat, said good afternoon to some Kuna women laying in the shade. A bearded woman in a dress pointed a toy gun at a man drawing what remains of the Spanish customs house and yelled “bang”.  He looked at us, annoyed, and went back to his art.  The woman stumbled towards the church talking to herself.

We turned right and went into the ruins of the fort where a boy was flying a kite.

~ ~ ~

Antonio M. Sanguillen
Dicario General de la Diocisis
27 de Enero de 1913

~ ~ ~

the black christ



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