This is the story of a beautiful little church that lived by the sea. Ah yes, many of us have quaint ideas (and memories) of beautiful little churches that are set beside the sea. These small oases seem to have a bit of everything. History, location, and an air of importance in an old village. This particular little church has a great big history both in the Catholic church as well as in the community in which it has dutifully served for over 86 years. This is the story of the Star of the Sea of Kalapana, Hawaii.
In 1864, a newly ordained priest, Father Damien, was commissioned in Eastern Puna on the Island of Hawaii. Father Damien built a thatched hut that served as a school building and a temporary place of worship. He made these small ‘chapels’ from materials that were easily found nearby. Such things as bamboo, pili grass, and coconut fronds were used to shore up the buildings against torrential rains and heavy winds. Father Damien spent nine years in the area. Eventually, he received a letter asking him to go to Molokai and look after people afflicted with Leprosy. Father Damien subsequently went to Molokai. After arriving in Molokai, it was apparent to Father Damien that the conditions for the people were utterly abysmal. After several years, father Damien began to write letters to various church organizations to help because he was overwhelmed by the amount of work needed to be done for the people. He not only gave last rights to those who were dying, but it was said that he was teaching them and trying to provide medical care as best he could. Finally, in 1883, one of his letters for help reached a Sister Marianne Cope, who managed a hospital, answered his call. Sister Cope and six sisters under her supervision arrived in Honolulu where they continued assistance for the people of Molokai. Later, Sister Marianne Cope went to Molokai, where she assisted father Damien as he died from the disease. Sister Cope never became ill from the disease. She spent her life creating girls’ homes and supervising hospitals for families and patients afflicted with Leprosy. Father Damien and Sister Cope were later canonized for their endearing efforts for the people afflicted with Leprosy. Their story now rests in murals that are painted in the Star of the Sea Church of Kalapana. It was painted there in remembrance of the work and faithful seeds that St. Damien of Molokai planted while serving in Kalapana.
Various Father’s visited the area, but none stayed for long. However, in 1926, Another father was sent to the Puna area. Father Everest Gielen. Father Everest built a permanent structure which was named Sacred Hearts. This building is in Pahoa at the edge of town. Father Everest also built a chapel for the people of Mountain View. Around 1927 Father Everest started construction on the Star of the Sea church. He bought a small lot in Kalapana and built the church using leftover lumber from Sacred Heart. With the help of residents in the village, they built the church, a gymnasium, and a small house. Father Everest painted the murals in the church. These are seen on the church’s ceiling. They depict bible scenes. Father Everest painted much of this at night by the light of Kerosene lanterns. It is said that it took 4 to 5 months to complete. On April 19, 1931, the church was formally dedicated and named Star of the Sea. Kalapana was a fishing village, and the name signified the importance of the ocean to the residents. During this time, father Evarist organized basketball and volleyball teams for boys and girls in the area. They competed against groups as far away as Honomu and Honoka’a.
In the 1960s an artist from Georgia: George Heidler created 14 stations of the Cross from the rare Koa wood, and he painted the lower walls of the building. However, in the Spring of 1975, Father Evarist revisited the Kalapana Church and repainted and touching up the murals he had created almost 46 years earlier. Several years later an artist from Hilo was asked to add the artwork to the walls of the church. Lorch painted several scenes which includes one of Father Damien’s first church in Kalapana. He wrote verses in Hawaiian that can still be seen on the church walls.
In 1977, lava from Kilauea’s east rift zone threatened the church. Church officials were advised to move the Star of the Sea. However, the lave stopped about 3500 feet from the structure, and the church remained. In the 1980s both Sacred Heart and Star of the Sea received minor renovations. Sacred Heart was expanded to make more seats available, and both buildings received new roofs.
In 1986, Kilauea volcano started eruptions toward the village of Kalapana. The lava was somewhat slow moving, and various contractors came to the area to move homes and help people gather their belongings. In the spring of 1990, the lava was advancing on the church. Some of the Parishioners wanted to move the church, and others were against that idea. County Defense Director Harry Kim ordered everyone out of the village. At this point, a contractor and LDS Bishop. Bishop Hook offered to move the church for free. Local men were asked to help shore up the church and help move it. I do not remember everyone that was there, but I know that Tony Enriquez, Ray Hendershot, Ron Sewell, Walter Kaneakua and Gilbert Kauhi (Zulu) were among some of the people that helped.
On that day it was warm and sunny. The lava was advancing quite rapidly, and Harry Kim was worried about the safety of the people left due to the lava advancing over roads and the gasses it omitted. With a red glow behind, a forklift helped put the fragile old building on the flatbed truck. It was shored onto the bed of the truck and gently moved to higher ground. Later that day, the lava advanced where the church had been. As a thank you to members of the LDS church that helped. Gilbert Kauhi or Zulu (comedian and actor) came to a Sunday Sacrament meeting and Sang with several women Amazing Grace in Hawaiian. It was sincere and inspirational.
At this point, the small village of Kalapana was gone. An entire village…everything… gone.
For several years the church was basically homeless. It wasn’t until later when a permanent location was negotiated; it was placed where it sits now. On highway 130 in Kaimu along the side of the road. The church sits on a hillside overlooking new Kalapana.