Located in Central America, occupies the Isthmus of Panama, or Darien, which extends east and west between the Caribbean Sea, on the north, and the Pacific Ocean, on the south. The republic is bounded on the east by the Republic of Colombia , and on the west by that of Costa Rica. Its extreme length is about 480 miles; its width varies from 37 to 110 miles; it has an area of 31,500 square miles and a population estimated at about 420,000. Most of the inhabitants are of mixed Aboriginal, Spanish, and Negro blood; the canal works, however, have attracted many North American whites and some 40,000 negroes, chiefly from the British West Indies. The country is rich in natural resources. Although only about one-fourth of the soil is under cultivation, the value of bananas exported from Panama annually exceeds $600,000 United States money; coffee, cocoa, and rubber are produced in abundance, besides vegetable drugs (sarsaparilla, etc.), cabinet woods, and coconuts. It is said that coal is the only common mineral not found in the soil of the republic. Cattle-rearing is carried on to a certain extent. Other minor industries are pearl-fishing (in the Gulf of Panama) and the collection of turtle-shells for exportation.
Panama, until then a state of the Republic of Colombia, became an independent republic on 4 November, 1903. The Government of the United States, having resolved to construct an inter-oceanic canal from Colon, on the Caribbean Coast, to the City of Panama, on the Pacific, concluded an important treaty (signed, 18 Nov., 1903; ratified, 23 Feb., 1904) with the newly constituted Republic of Panama. By this treaty the United States acquired "the use in perpetuity" of a tract five miles wide on each side of the route marked out for the canal (the Canal Zone), with the control of all this territory for police, judicial, sanitary, and other purposes; to provide for the defence of the canal, both the Caribbean and Pacific coast lines of the Canal Zone were also ceded to the United States ; lastly, while the Cities of Colon and Panama remained integral parts of the territory of the republic, jurisdiction in those two cities in all matters of sanitation and quarantine is granted to the United States. The Constitution of Panama provides for a National Legislature ( Assamblea , or Chamber of Deputies) elected by the people on the basis of one deputy to every 10,000 inhabitants, to meet on 1 September of every alternate year; a president elected for a term of four years, and two vice-presidents. The president is assisted by a Cabinet of five members. José Domingo de Obaldia, elected president in 1908, to succeed Manuel Amador Guerrero, died during his term of office (1 March, 1910) and was succeeded by Vice-President C. A. Mendoza.
The secession of the Isthmus of Panama, comprising the Department and Diocese of Panama (see below), from the Republic of Colombia took place when the Constitutional Government of that republic had a Catholic representation, and, after three years of civil war, the enemies of religion seemed, politically, vanquished. None of the promoters of the independence of Panama seemed to contemplate any religious change. But in order to rally to the Separatist movement the forces of the Liberal doctrinaires, so as to win over the great mass of the population to the cause of independence, the leaders had to make terms with them. Besides, some of the chief promoters of the cause, being anxious to adopt every North-American idea and custom, and not merely those which seemed likely to be beneficial, conceived certain erroneous notions: thus they assumed as an axiomatic truth that separation of Church and State was the only means of uniting those of different creeds for the common purpose of self-government and progress. In spite of the protestations which Manuel Amador Guerrero, who led the way to independence, had made to the bishop — to the effect that the political transformation would lead to no change in the relations of Panama with the Holy See , and that the missions should receive all possible support — when the Constituent Assembly began to elaborate the constitution of the new nation, it was barely admitted that a great part of the inhabitants were Catholics. The intercourse with the Holy See, which existed in accordance with the terms of the Colombian Concordat of 1887, was not recognized. The obligation of paying to the Diocese of Panama a fixed sum in compensation, or restitution, for the church property previously confiscated by the Colombian Government, and now in possession of many citizens of Panama, was repudiated. The appropriation for the Conciliar Seminary and the missions might be considered some equivalent, although the title of the Church, in strict justice, to receive these contributions as the State's creditor, was ignored. Since it was voted, this appropriation has been religiously complied with, in spite of the efforts of certain individuals to curtail, withhold, or divert it.
The National Legislatures ( Assambleas ), successors of the Constituent Assembly, have continued to yield to the Liberal majority, which has manifested anti-Catholic tendencies. The cemeteries have been laicized (Law 29 of 1909), in virtual derogation of the restitution made by the Republic of Colombia years before and confirmed in the above-mentioned concordat with the Holy See. This concordat had been recognized as a law by the Colombian Republic, and it was specially declared to be still in force — at least so far as concerned this point — by the new-born nation of Panama. The cemeteries were left at the free disposal of the municipalities. Fortunately, these bodies, representing the village communities, are, as a rule, composed of Christian men. There is also a tendency to secularize education, not merely by submitting it entirely to state control or supervision, but by introducing teachers and doctrines hostile to religion. Indeed, some of the functionaries in this branch of the public service have not waited for legal measures, but have attempted to impose their views on the school system and on the pupils.
The Diocese of Panama ( Panamanensis ) was erected by Leo X in 1520 (Annuaire Pont.) or in 1515, or by Clement VII, in 1534 (Moroni, "Diz. di Erud. Storico-Eccl."). It was at first suffragan of Lima, but is now of Cartagena. Its territory coincides with that of the republic. The present incumbent of the see (1911), Mgr F. X. Junguito, S.J., was born at Bogota, 3 Dec., 1841, and was appointed bishop, 15 April, 1901. The bishop, residing in the City of Panama, is assisted by his vicar-general, the priest of the most populous parish, his secretary, the priest of the parish of the Sagrario, and two other secular priests, who, with the assistance of a residence of the Jesuit Fathers (seven priests ), one of the Lazarists (five priests ), and one of the Discalced Augustinians (three priests and two lay brothers ), labour to supply the spiritual needs of the 30,000 inhabitants, at least two-thirds of whom are Catholics. The community of Christian Brothers, from whom the present government took away the normal school, to incorporate it in the discredited Instituto, conducts in Panama a primary school recognized by the State, and an independent college which is now in jeopardy, being non-official. The same congregation has similar schools at Colon and in each of the six most important centres of population. The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent of Paul have, at Panama, a primary school for girls, with 400 pupils, a pension and orphanage of the Holy Family, independent of the State, a government asylum, and another institution which is supported by the ecclesiastical authority. It will be easy for them to open the benevolent institutions which are eagerly solicited of them at two or three other places.
The religious interests of the Catholics who are employed at the Canal Zone are cared for at Ancon, Balboa, Culebra, Empire, Gorgona, Gatun, Cristobal, and Colon by priests specially qualified for the work by their knowledge of several languages. The Lazarists are to establish a residence at Gorgona, to give more attention to the natives, who avoid places where the Americans are numerous, under the belief that the Northern strangers look down upon them. By this means priests are provided for every Catholic in the Canal Zone, though there are not enough to work the parishes properly. The Salesian Fathers of Dom Bosco have lately come to Panama to care for a parish in a quarter of the city which is filled with workingmen, as it contains the principal railroad station. In this neighbourhood they have opened an orphan asylum which, with astonishing rapidity, is preparing the way for a school of arts and manufactures destined to educate good Christian workingmen. The Salesians number three priests and two brothers who act as masters or managers of the work. They formerly had the direction of the School of Arts and Crafts (Escuela de Artes y Oficios) established by the Government, and everything went prosperously until their anti-clerical opponents forced them to resign.
Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online