Photo Exhibit

San Miguelito

Just before Christmas 1965, Fr. John Enright arrived at the Archdiocese of Chicago’s mission in San Miguelito, Panama. Fresh from Spanish language study in Mexico, the Chicago priest—known in Panama as Padre Juan Segundowould spend the next 12 years in Panama on the forefront of some of the most innovative and controversial liturgy and catechesis in Latin America. Fr. Enright was an avid photographer and documentarian of life in San Miguelito. His experience, told through his papers and other collections housed at the Archdiocese of Chicago Archives, provides a window into this exciting era.

Rev. John Enright with his camera.
The cross atop Cristo Redentor Church, San Miguelito. 1975.


Motivated by Pope John XXIII’s call for established dioceses to send aid to the Church in Latin America, Albert Cardinal Meyer, Archbishop of Chicago, sent Fr. Leo Mahon to scout a location for a diocesan mission. In 1962, Cardinal Meyer committed to sending a team of priests to oversee a parish in Panama. The parish, which would be located in San Miguelito near Panama City, was to be an “experimental parish.” In an era of change and Vatican II, the priests of San Miguelito were expected to approach their work with innovation and experimentation. This experimentation led San Miguelito to the cutting edge of liturgical, architectural, and educational innovation, as well conflict and controversy.

First page of a letter from the Pontifical Commission for Latin America thanking Cardinal Meyer for agreeing to sponsor the San Miguelito Mission. 1962.

Plan for an “Experimental Parish” from Fr. Mahon and Fr. Gilbert Carroll’s proposal to Cardinal Meyer:

“This plan would attempt to solve two problems at one and the same time: Firstly, the spiritual care of a specific parish or territory…; secondly, the care of his parish in such a manner so as to develop ideas, methods and procedures which might be an answer to some of the problems in Latin America.”

(Memorandum from Carroll and Mahon to Meyer, February 15, 1962, Box HIST/H3300/288, Folder 1, John Enright Papers.)



FORMING THE MEN 1963 – 1964

The first three priests from Chicago—Fr. Leo Mahon, Fr. Jack Greeley, and Fr. Bob McGlinnarrived in San Miguelito in the spring of 1963 and immediately set to work on reenergizing the Catholic community. The community these Chicagoans first encountered was marked by low engagement, particularly among the men. Seeking to reverse this trend, the priests devoted their early attention to forming the men of the parish. As a result of this early focus on men and a continued goal to educate adults, the evangelization methods of San Miguelito became known for their engagement in adult faith formation. Overtime, this focus on adults would grow through San Miguelito’s communidades de base, small faith communities led by the laity, and their adoption of the Crusillo movement, hallmarks of the Panama parish’s innovation.

Men's cursillo participants. 1968.
San Miguelito priests prior to Fr. Leo Mahon's departure. March 1975.

From the San Miguelito Priests’ First Report to Cardinal Meyer:

“What practice of Catholicism there is in the area seems to be centered around the women and children.”

(Mahon to Cardinal Meyer, March 7, 1963, box 1 CBC Agency Files-Panama Mission, folder 1, John Patrick Cody Records)


Almost as soon as they arrived, the priests of San Miguelito realized the enormity of their project and petitioned Cardinal Meyer for additional help. These requests for additional aid would become a refrain in Fr. Mahon’s reports to Cardinal Meyer and his successor, Cardinal Cody. In addition to priests from Chicago, the mission would eventually host Maryknoll nuns and clergy and lay volunteers from far and wide. In their very first report to Cardinal Meyer on the mission in San Miguelito, however, the priests asked specifically for one man who had previously volunteered to accompany them—Fr. John Enright.


From the San Miguelito Priests’ First Report to Cardinal Meyer:

“We would like to have John Enright…We put the matter in your hands, Your Eminence.”

(Mahon to Cardinal Meyer, March 7, 1963, EXEC/C0550/190, box 1 CBC Agency Files-Panama Mission, folder 1, John Patrick Cody Papers.)




Answering the requests of his priests in Panama, Cardinal Meyer sent John Enright to San Miguelito in 1964. Having just completed a course in Spanish in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Enright was put immediately to work at the parish. In short order, Enright, known in Panama as Padre Juan Segundo, was officially designated the assistant pastor at the community’s main church, Cristo Redentor.

Note from Fr. Enright to Cardinal Meyer expressing his joy at accepting his new assignment in Panama. May 24, 1964.

Fr. Enright’s First Days in San Miguelito

Fr. Enright arrived in San Miguelito just before Christmas, 1964. Here is how he remembered that first holiday in later life:

“No White Christmas here, I arrived on the mission scene 2 days before Christmas. And was introduced to Don Luis who was to be my chauffer for the holiday mass circuit. Monte Oscuro, Pan de Azucar and the Valley of San Isidro were scheduled on the hour into midnight. I was told that the latter locale was to be my area of work. The expectations dating back to a first assignment at St. Andrews parish, where the Christmas schedule ran to 15 overcrowded masses with thousands of communions following a week of 8 hours daily in the confessional. On December 24th at 9:30 p.m., Luis packed his van for the Christmas circuit. Along with the mass kit he had an iron triangle to ring at each site to announce our arrival. Monte Oscuro had a congregation of 10 kids 6 adults, no communions; Pan de Azucar, a bit better with a few more kids and adults with three communions. Finally San Isidro, my future home, no shows as Luis practically pounded his triangle into a circle. There was biter [sic] disappointment, until I learned the reason why on a daylight return on Christmas day. San Isidro was a squatter community, populated by campesino families. It was harvest time, so all were off into the backhills where they had sown their rice and beans well out of sight of any landowner. Gleaning their mannah even on Christmas was the most important chore at hand. Personal disappointment dissolved in the face of human reality and on a lonely stroll through the fvalley that day ‘no room in the inn’ for Mary and Joseph took on new meaning…”

(“Homies in Search of the Holy Grail,” Box HIST/H3300/288, Folder 1, John Enright Papers.)



Like all things associated with San Miguelito’s Catholic community, Cristo Redentor was not an ordinary church. Conceived as a “parish center,” the new building constructed for the mission church, which would become the center of San Miguelito’s Catholic community, was meant to be versatile. With open walls and a circular shape, the building was far from the architecture of Panama’s colonial mission churches. To the priests of San Miguelito, that was all to plan. In a 1965 newsletter to supporters in the United States, the priests praised the parish center for its “informality.” Since the Blessed Sacrament was retained in a chapel separate from the parish center and brought in only for Mass, “before and after Mass, the people feel free to congregate and chat in the cool shadows of the center.”

Panama's Nata Church, one of the oldest churches in the Americas.
Cristo Redentor Church, San Miguelito, as seen from above.
Community gathered for Fr. Leo Mahon's farewell Mass at Cristo Redentor. March 1975.
The congregation sat on wooden benches that filled the circular space.

From the January 1965 Panama Mission News Bulletin:

“Our new parish center does not have walls, and so everyone participating at 6:00 mass can watch the sun rise over the ocean in the distance…” “One striking feature of the new center is its ‘informality’…”

(Panama Mission News Bulletin, January 1965, box Administrative Records – Administrative Files, box ADMN/A1350/617, folder Opening and Closing of Mission, John Enright Papers.)



In addition to being without a tabernacle, Cristo Redentor’s parish center was also lacking statues. Keeping to its innovative nature, the sanctuary did not contain traditional art, but rather a collection of modern murals. Designed and painted by Lillian Brulc and dedicated in 1968, the murals on the support walls of the parish center depicted biblical scenes in a new, Panamanian context. The largest murals in the parish center were entitled “The New Passover” and “The Prophecy.”

"The New Passover" mural, completed in 1968, inside Cristo Redentor Church, San Miguelito. 1975.

An Excerpt from an Explanation of “The New Passover”:

“The event of the First Passover is recalled and represented as it is actually being re-experienced in Panama. Pictured in the lower left-hand side of the mural, a small group gathers around a leader and discusses the Word of God. The doorposts and lintel are marked with red and on a table are bread and wine the food of the New Passover Meal. A Group of San Blas Indians meet in similar fashion around a teacher. Above both groups hovers a guiding angel.

The right side of the mural shows men building the foundations of the new Church, shutting out the pharisaism symbolized by two figures in clerical garb who represent the opposite of what the Christian message should be: freedom and respect for life.

Among the workers another type of priest-leader grasps the hand of one of the men and passes on to him the Living Word.

The entire composition of the mural centers in the figure of a Panamanian farmer with a bamboo stalk across his shoulders, making a cruciform shape.
Below and to the left of center is the figure of a young boy—an idiot, an enigma to our utilitarian society: he stands in the same relation to that society. as does Faith. He is a kind of key to the inner meaning of the mural.”

(“The San Miguelito Murals,” box ADMN/A1350/614, folder Lillian Brulc’s Remarks, Donald Headley Papers.)




Thanks to the approach of San Miguelito’s enthusiastic priests, the congregation at Cristo Redentor grew quickly. By 1966, the priests decided to establish permanent churches in surrounding areas. Fr. Enright was named pastor of La Sagrada Familia in San Isidro. San Isidro was a squatter community of residents newly arrived in urban San Miguelito. Many families still traveled to the country to grow their own crops on hidden plots of unsuspecting landowners. A smaller community than that surrounding Cristo Redentor, the priests nonetheless counted Fr. Enright’s parish at 7,000 to 10,000 people.

Group walking to or from a pastoral visit in Sector Samaria. 1975.
Booklet used in comunidades de base. 1968.
Family of God book used in small faith groups. 1965.
La Sagrada Familia Church, San Isidro, at the "Y" in the road.
Fr. Enright celebrating Mass at La Sagrada Familia. 1973.
Small groups, like this one, were a centerpiece of San Miguelito catechists.
In 1971, Fr. Hector Gallego disappeared from Panama. His name and image became a rallying point of Panamanian Catholicism and social justice.
Group Gathered for Mass in the Sector Hector Gallego. 1975.

These high numbers, however, did not necessarily mean high participation. To affect change in San Isidro, Fr. Enright employed many of the same strategies of evangelization that he and his brother priests had first employed at Cristo Redentor. Modeled on methods developed to minister to Puerto Rican communities in Chicago, these strategies gave central importance to the leadership of the laity. This lay leadership, as well as some of the San Miguelito liturgical innovations, were controversial. In 1973, Fr. Enright sought to explain these efforts, which might today be associated with liberation theology, in a report to Archbishop Mark McGrath of the Archdiocese of Panama.

The first step of the process of San Miguelito evangelization, as described by Fr. Enright, was a Program of Visits (Programa de Visitas). These visits to community residents, often led by teams of lay men and women, came in two varieties. The Visits of Exploration (Visitas de Exploración) sought first to identify the essential social challenges in an area, and then to help meet the practical needs of that community. The other type of visits, Visits of Animation (Visitas de Animación), spurred the creation of small communities of faith. These small groups studied and prayed together, often using a book called The Family of God (La Familia de Dios). Lay and religious group leaders met with neighbors and acquaintances outside the walls of the church, often in the leader’s home, and fostered these comunidades de base.


From the 1964, “San Miguelito Paper”: 

“Our catechetical and preaching methods in the past have too much concentrated on informing people rather than forming them.”

(The Priest of San Miguelito, “The San Miguelito Paper,” January 20, 1964, unlabeled white folder, Administrative Records – Subject Files – San Miguelito Panama Mission, ADMN/S8100/512.)


From these small groups, many people proceeded to cursillos—courses in the Catholic faith, in the cursillo tradition. These retreats, meant as a further introduction to a life of faith, fostered deeper relationships with the church and with neighbors. In addition to these introductory cursillos, Fr. Enright and his counterparts throughout the San Miguelito parishes offered talks, meetings, and cursillos on a variety of themes. By actively engaging the laity in the evangelization of the church, the San Miguelito system was truly innovative.


“El cursillo de iniciación es una invitación, el anuncio de la Buena nueva, que provoca una consideración seria del compromiso bautismal.”

(John Enright, “1973: Reporte annual de la Parroquia La Sagrada Familia,”box ADMN/S8100/512, folder Parish Report, pp. 35-36.)


Along with the architectural and catechetical innovations of San Miguelito, the parish experimented widely with liturgical celebrations. In his photographs, Fr. Enright captured many of these new and experimental practices.

These innovations were not always successful, nor were they universally praised. On a few occasions, the priests of San Miguelito had to defend themselves and their practices against accusations of liturgical abuse and even heresy.

Many of the contested practices of San Miguelito revolved around Mass. Even before the Second Vatican Council introduced increased use of the vernacular language, Mass at San Miguelito used Spanish widely. In addition to the vernacular language, the liturgies at Cristo Reactor and her sister parishes integrated traditional Panamanian dance, music, and clothing.

A page from a San Miguelito liturgical song booklet.
Children perform a dance for Mother's Day. December 1974.
Archbishop Cody and Panamanian parishioners in traditional garb. 1968.
Holy Thursday Feet Washing Ceremony. March 1975.
Liturgical Musicians. August 1975.
A scene from the first passion play at San Miguelito. Holy Week [1965?].

The priests, including Fr. Enright, encouraged active participation from the congregation. Much of the lay participation at San Miguelito, such as serving as song leaders or readers, would become standard throughout the Church following Vatican II. The priests at San Miguelito were strong advocates of the permanent diaconate. Panamanian men serving as permanent deacons became an important part of the San Miguelito team.


Story of a Permanent Deacon: Modesto Contreras

Modesto was one of the first permanent deacons ordained in San Miguelito. His journey to the deaconate was not an easy one. An early volunteer with the mission, Modesto helped with cursillos and home visits. He was an invited member of the first formation group for male lay leaders. In the second week of the formation group, the members made a commitment to the ministry and received a New Testament as a gift. For Modesto, this is where the problem began. In the words of Fr. Enright:

“His wife told me later that when he arrived home he was in tears over what he had done. He had accepted a book as a gift for his promise without realizing that he just might be asked to read from it. He was what you would call illiterate, as he never had a day of formal education. There was no school where he was raised as a child and neither of his parents could read or write. There in his ranch oby the light of a kerosine [sic] lamp he mad a pact with his wife. She was a reader and could write her name. she was also very shy. Their pact: “teach me to read and I will help you to overcome your shyness. And so the pact began, using the new testament as a text for learning alphabet and words … an hour each night after the kids were off to bed. His initial ministry was home visiting, so his wife was brought along to help her relate to her neighbors. Modesto was with me in the van on our way into the city. As we neared an intersection he started to shout: ‘stop! stop!’ when I did he bounded out of the van and raced back to a large sign advertising coka [sic] cola. In front of the sign he began a victory dance as though he had scored a touchdown. ‘Hey, mario [sic] what’s up??’ today this sign spoke to me. I’ve seen it for years passing by and knew by the picture of the bottle what it was about; but today it spoke to me: ‘drink coka [sic] cola’. Before continuing our trip, we dodged traffic running to the gas station across the road, where we drank a toast to coke and the new reader, who was hearing the world and the word in new light. Today mario [sic] is a permanent deacon, together with his wife they coordinate ministry programs in 5 parishes.”

(“So Who Is the God We Preach?” Box HIST/H3300/288, Folder 1, John Enright Papers.)

Some of the San Miguelito innovations, however, may seem less familiar or more scandalous. In Fr. Enright’s Masses, the faithful would sometimes confess their sins in public, while Fr. Mahon noted that a member of the laity would sometimes give a “personal witness” after the homily. Some of these unfamiliar practices and San Miguelito’s other experiments prompted investigation by Church leaders. Rather than finding heresy in the mission, however, the investigators affirmed the success of San Miguelito’s evangelization.



In 1976, Fr. Enright left Panama. After 12 years at San Miguelito, he returned to Chicago and took up work with Spanish-speaking communities at Epiphany Parish. The work of the San Miguelito Mission continued. The last Chicago priest at the mission, Fr. Donald Headley, was brought back to Chicago in 1980. Headley’s return was unplanned. While home on vacation in the United States, he was informed that he would not be returning to Panama. Headley’s controversial recall from Panama came at the request of Archbishop of Panama Mark McGrath, and raised suggestions and accusations of liberation theology, clericalism, Marxism, and local control. Although the Archdiocese of Chicago continued to provide minimal financial support for the mission for a few more years, Chicago’s direct connection to the innovations of San Miguelito had ended.

The priests that had served at San Miguelito carried the practices and lessons of their Panama experience into their Chicago ministries. Fr. Enright put his Spanish to use with Spanish-speaking communities in both Chicago and the Diocese of Joliet. He continued to speak about his experiences in Panama and to incorporate the practices of San Miguelito.

One of several letters sent to Fr. Donald Headly upon his departure from Panama. 1980.
Father Enright celebrates with students at Epiphany School. Date unknown.

Timeline: Fr. John Enright and San Miguelito Mission

May 1, 1953 – Enright ordained a priest by Samuel Cardinal Stritch

July 1953 – Enright named associate pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish, Chicago

July 1956 – Enright named associate pastor of St. Henry Parish, Chicago

February 15, 1962 – Rev. Gilbert Carroll and Rev. Leo Mahon submit a proposal to Cardinal Meyer suggesting a Chicago mission in either Puerto Rico or Panama

July 1962 – Enright named associate pastor of St. Nicholas of Tolentine, Chicago

Spring 1963 – Fr. Leo Mahon, Fr. Jack Greeley, and Fr. Bob McGlinn arrive in San Miguelito and begin the mission

May 1964 – Cardinal Meyer appoints Enright to Panama

Until December 1964 – Enright sent to Cuernavaca, Mexico (Center of Intercultural Formation) to learn Spanish

Christmas 1964 – Enright arrives in San Miguelito just prior to Christmas, and celebrates three masses on Christmas Eve 

1965/1966 – Enright named assistant pastor under Greeley at Cristo Redentor

April 1966 – Local parishes founded and Enright made pastor at La Sagrada Familia in San Isidro (10,000 people)

1975 – Fr. Leo Mahon leaves Panama; Enright becomes the senior member of the San Miguelito team

1976 – Enright leaves Panama and begins work as pastor at Epiphany Parish, 2524 South Keeler Avenue

1980 – Fr. Donald Headley, the last Chicago priest at San Miguelito, is prevented from returning to Panama, and the presence of Chicago priests at San Miguelito is ended

January 1993 – Enright named Vicar of Santa Tersita, Palantine

1994 – Enright retires from Epiphany

July 1997 – Enright retries to Mayslake Village, Diocese of Joliet

October 1998 – Enright becomes an associate to the Hispanic Ministry Program, Joliet

2001-2002 – Enright visits the Joliet Mission Program in Sucre, Bolivia