“Panama: Sheltered by an Umbrella,” Ensign, Mar. 1998, 76–77
Panama, a country surrounded by beautiful beaches and transparent water, links not only two continents but also two oceans. This Central American country, easily traversed in two and a half hours between its Atlantic shores and the Pacific Ocean, is home to more than 27,000 Latter-day Saints. Best known for the Panama Canal, the country is a melting pot of many races and is characterized by a happy and affectionate people.
The first known members of the Church to visit Panama arrived in 1941, when soldiers stationed at the military bases of the Canal Zone held meetings at Fort Clayton, where the first branch was organized. However, it wasn’t until 1961 when Elder Marion G. Romney of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave a copy of the Book of Mormon to the president of the Republic of Panama, Robert F. Chiari, that serious efforts got underway to have the Church officially recognized. In 1965 the Church received official authorization for the preaching of the gospel in Panama. Today the nation has 5 stakes, 5 districts, 25 wards, and 38 branches.
The blessings that have been left upon this country by the Apostles who visited it in recent years have resulted in many positive changes for members. Even youth feel a need to contribute to the expansion of the kingdom through active participation in Church programs, including seminary and institute classes. Youth and adults alike gain much spiritual strength through performing ordinances in the Guatemala City Temple, which to reach by land they must pass through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador.
When the first stake was organized in November 1979, Elder David B. Haight of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “This stake will be an umbrella for Panama. … It will be a protection for her.” At the time there were 3,500 members of the Church in Panama. Still, the idea that someday Panamanians would be taking the gospel to their own countrymen seemed unlikely. Then in 1989 the Panama Panama City Mission was created, and in the same year the majority of the assigned missionaries—mainly from the United States—were reassigned to other countries due to harsh dictates of the governing regime. Young Panamanians not only stepped in and did the proselytizing work but also developed great self-discipline as they obeyed mission rules. Several of them worked only minutes from their homes.
Many of the earliest converts are still active and serving diligently in the Lord’s work. Sister Dalila Samaniego de Torrero, once a single mother, found the Church when two sister missionaries knocked on her door. “The gospel came into my life at the exact moment I needed it,” she says. “My conversion was a fountain of strength for the challenges of raising youth of Zion in this dispensation.”
Her dream was to send each of her children on missions. In time they served missions to Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras. And in 1989 Dalila was sealed in the temple to her husband, Marco. Over the years she served faithfully in many callings, including seminary and institute teacher and Church Educational System coordinator for Panama.
Another faithful family is Nelson and Ester Altamirano and their four children, who were baptized in 1972 and sealed as a family in the Los Angeles Temple in 1976. Brother and Sister Altamirano have been leaders in the Church since the time of their baptism. In fact, Brother Altamirano was the first Panamanian to be called to serve as a district president. He later served as president of Panama’s first stake, formed on 11 November 1979. He also served as a regional representative until 1992. Brother Altamirano is an aircraft mechanic, and Ester is working toward a master’s degree in education.
In this country that links continents, the gospel message is increasingly bringing families together in joyful ways.