The Altar is actually made of mahogany wood but covered with gold leaf in the Baroque style from the 18th century. The church itself is a historic gem; of its 3 naves, the left one has 4 windows that were made in Florence, Italy and installed in 1963, representing Saint Rita of Cascia, St. Augustine, Our Lady of Consolation and St. Joseph .
When the decision was made to relocate the city to what is now the Old Town area, the friars of the Order of Augustinian Recollects decided to move their church to the new town. The convent and church were inaugurated in 1675, as visitors can read above the main entrance.
The Golden Altar is shrouded in legend. Tradition has it that this altar was one of the few things to survive the English pirate Henry Morgan's attack in 1671, when he sacked and burned the city; however, studies on the style of the altarpiece date it to the 18th century, which puts this version of the story in question.
According to the legend, when the English pirate Henry Morgan attacked and burned Panama City, now known as Old Panama, the order of St. Joseph was constructing his stone church on the outskirts, near Puente del Rey. The church at that time already exhibited its high altar, the greatest golden treasure of the time.
It is said that at the time of the looting, a monk named John from the Villa de Los Santos was in charge of the church. Warned of the impending attack, he covered the golden altar with a mixture of Albayalde (silver oxide), to make it appear unfinished, since it seemed colored black. When Morgan arrived at the church, he complained about the Order's poverty, and so the monk John begged him for alms, on the order of a thousand ducats, in order to complete the Altar. The story goes that, after a long laugh, Morgan exclaimed, "This layperson is more of a pirate than I am," and ordered for the money to be given to the monk.
The images one can see on the Golden Altar are of St. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus Christ, St. Thomas of Villa Nueva, on the top right, Saint Clara of the Cross of Montefalco, top left, St. Augustine below St. Clara, and Our Lady of Consolation, holding the baby Jesus on her lap. Above the altarpiece and within a circle is the Eternal Father, his head framed in a triangle symbolizing the Trinity, and while his right hand blesses the world, the left hand holds a scale, symbol of Justice holding the Universe.
Come to St. Joseph Church and let yourself be surrounded in history and the legend of the Golden Altar.