Many of the community’s faithful believe they see a high power at work.

Hundreds of Lahaina residents are finding signs of divine favor in the midst of despair that settled over Lahaina since the destructive Aug. 8 wildfire.

At least four sacred sites surprisingly survived the conflagration, giving Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all reason to give thanks in the past two months.

Some even think it is miraculous.

“It was the ray of hope amid the sadness, gloom and loss,” said Wendy Coon, a Catholic who has taken consolation from her church’s survival. “That ray of hope has kept us going.”

Interior of Lahaina's Maria Lanakila Church, before Aug. 8 fire
Before the fire, Lahaina’s 165-year-old Maria Lanakila Church welcomed many of the Catholic faithful. (Courtesy: Father Kuriakose Nadooparambil)

The Waiola churchyard, home of the royal tomb that served as the launching pad for Hawaiian Christianity two centuries ago, made it through almost unscathed, its lawn still green, while a Hawaii state flag remarkably continued to ripple overhead.

The 165-year-old Catholic Maria Lanakila Church in downtown Lahaina emerged so intact that the flowers lovingly placed at the altar the day before the fire were discovered there still in full bloom.

Two churches in Lahaina that house wards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints —one whose members speak Tongan and one that is English-speaking — both remain standing with no major indications of damage.

And the giant copper Buddha at the Jodo Mission, which serves as a gathering space in Lahaina for Buddhists and also the broader West Maui community, also survived the flames.

Lahaina has had a well-deserved reputation as a party town, where people looking for a good time have flocked ever since rowdy sailors first began stumbling ashore during the whaling era. Even today, Lahaina’s annual Halloween parties have been known as booze-fueled, anything-goes bacchanalias that lure revelers from across the state.

But Lahaina has also had a deeply spiritual side as well, with generations of devoted members of religious faiths maintaining a strong presence in the town. These two forces have coexisted at times with a certain amount of friction, with whalers famously shooting cannon balls at church elders and, more recently, church elders taking aim at sybaritic Halloween festivities.

Christianity Has A Strong History In Lahaina

It can be said that Christianity first really took hold in Hawaii at Lahaina when Hawaiian Queen Keopuolani, the sacred wife of King Kamehameha and the mother of his two heirs, Kamehameha II and III, moved to her ancestral homeland at Lahaina and converted to the newly introduced faith.

Born to the highest blood line in Hawaii, she was highly influential. Kamehameha himself had needed to approach her naked on his hands and knees when he wished to have contact with her.

Their lives together took place amid a blood-soaked era of civil war as Kamehameha conquered the islands, but Keopuolani emerged as one of the most revered and beloved figures in the islands, known to be a peacemaker.

The royal tomb at Waiola Church in Lahaina
The Waiola Churchyard, where Queen Keopuolani and King Kaumualii were buried together, survived the flames. (Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2017)

Tahiti’s rulers had converted to Christianity in about 1815, and the island nation, viewed as an ancestral homeland by Hawaiians, soon began sending out missionaries to spread the gospel, including to Hawaii. Keopuolani had become interested in what they had to say.

One particular Tahitian, an alii from Tahiti whose name was Taua, came to serve as the queen’s “private chaplain,” wrote Charles S. Stewart, a missionary from New York who wrote a memoir of his time in Hawaii, “Journal of a Residence in the Sandwich Islands.”

By the time she died in 1823, Keopuolani had been baptized and was buried in Lahaina in what became the cemetery of the Waiola Church, mourned by some 5,000 local residents, many of whom soon joined the Christian church.

“It was her wish that we know the word of God,” said Waiola church member Faith Maile Shaw, known as Auntie Maile. “She chose Jesus for us, all her people.”

The next year, 1824, Kaumualii, another high-ranking chief who was king of Kauai and a cousin to Keopuolani, died. Kauai was the only island that had successfully avoided violent conquest by Kamehameha. Kauai’s king arranged to be buried with Keopuolani, which meant that he was adding his prestige to Keopuolani’s in indicating that this was the future course he wanted Hawaii to take.

“He realized the symbolism of them being buried together and the peace and unity that would lead to,” said Peter Mills, a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii who has studied Kauai’s history. “He was doing that for the common good.”

The royal pair told the missionaries that by being buried together, they would rise up together side by side on judgment day.

Waiola Church burned down in the fire on Aug. 8, and it will need to be rebuilt, but the congregation was thrilled to learn that the cemetery itself seemed almost completely untouched.

“It was like there was a wall and the fire couldn’t get over the wall,” said Nadine Noelani Aquino, whose family has served as caretakers of the royal tomb over the decades.

A week before the fire, hula instructor Gordean Leilehua Lee Bailey had brought her hula halau to the graveyard, arriving at high noon to place handmade leis on the royal tomb and perform chants to honor Queen Keopuolani.

Kailani Ross, who serves on Waiola Church’s board of trustees, observed the ceremony and said she believed it had erected a defensive shield around the property.

“Auntie Gordean’s halau brought a hedge of protection around the gravesite, creating a vibration of love and aloha that was strong enough to push away the wind and fire,” she said.

The Catholic Church Appeared Untouched

The 650 parishioners at Maria Lanakila Church also believe their beloved church was sheltered by the power of prayer.

The church’s priest, Father Kuriakose Nadooparambil, spent the day at the church worrying about the power outage and the high winds, which were ripping panels off buildings and sending them crashing in every direction. He realized he and the church staff needed to flee the building when he saw palm trees in the cemetery catching on fire.

Father Kuriakose Nadooparambil said a prayer as he left the church
Father Kuriakose Nadooparambil prayed to St. Joseph to save his church, Maria Lanakila, which survived. (Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2023)

As he started to leave, he stopped to pray for divine intervention.

“He asked St. Joseph, a carpenter, to watch the church while he was gone,” said Coon, a parishioner who has been a member of the church for more than 50 years. “’Take care of the church,’ he said, and then he left.”

Father Kuriakose and other church leaders set off in two cars and soon found themselves funneled onto Front Street, where they hit a wall of traffic. He was saddened to see that some frightened motorists weren’t allowing others to access the road and he paused to let others pass in front of him.

The priest noticed that one man took his picture as he edged out on the street in front of the priest’s car. That man narrowly managed to escape the fire and Father Kuriakose did so as well.

It turned out that the man, Ray Barbuto, was a friend of Coon’s, and when they looked together at the picture of the man who had saved Barbuto’s life, they were delighted to realize it was their priest.

It was the only hopeful news they heard at first, as they learned the scope of destruction in Lahaina.

“When the fire was going we thought the church would be gone and there would be nothing left,” Coon recalled.

Father Kuriakose returned to the church as quickly as possible after the fire was under control. He was stunned and could barely believe his eyes — the church’s interior looked almost exactly as it had the day he had left it.

“The church looked intact,” said Coon. “It was unaffected. It’s amazing considering the destruction all around it. Father went in, and he discovered the inside was immaculate.”

Interior of Maria Lanakila Church, completely unscathed
After the fire, Father Kuriakose Nadooparambil was amazed to see the interior of the church was almost identical to before the fire. (Courtesy Father Kuriakose Nadooparambil)

Father Kuriakose and his parishioners are now meeting at Sacred Hearts Mission Church at Kapalua. Many believe they received help from a higher power.

“The Lord protected it,” said Father Kuriakose. “There’s no doubt about it for me.”

Both LDS Churches Made It Through

The two LDS churches in Lahaina attract almost 550 people each Sunday. They have two wards, or congregations, in Lahaina: One is English-speaking and it is located on Ulupono Street near the Lahainaluna Bypass. The second, with its services conducted in Tongan, is located across from the water near the Lahaina Civic Center.

They lost some members of the two wards in the fire, said Paul McDonald, a stake leader for the area, who declined to say how many. In addition to that blow, they also initially believed that both of the churches had been destroyed, because both were located in areas that had burned, he recalled this week.

As soon as the fire died down, McDonald said, members of the church rushed in to help with the relief efforts and learned to their amazement that both churches had actually survived.

He said many church members have suffered in the fire, either through death or loss of their homes and jobs. He said they have found consolation in the fact that their churches remain standing.

The overwhelming feeling they were left with was “shock and gratitude,” McDonald said. “It’s such a great blessing and a source of strength to our members in real tough times.”

Freed from worry over the church structures, they have poured their energy into helping their members and the community recover, he said.

He said members of the church have worked with survivors to make sure they registered for all the aid for which they were eligible and have looked for ways to ensure the fire survivors among them have housing, food and the other essentials they need to restore stability to their lives.

Teams of mental health experts have arrived to help church members struggling with stress, anxiety and sadness, McDonald said.

“It’s been a very concerted effort,” he said.

The Golden Buddha Survived — Again

Almost all of the Jodo Mission was destroyed in the Aug. 8 fire.

The Jodo Mission, located on the ocean with views of three islands, has long been a gathering place for area Buddhists and for the larger community. Established more than 100 years ago, it was founded to provide spiritual support for Japanese immigrants to Hawaii.

This Amira Buddha was saved from the Lahaina fire
The congregation at the Jodo Mission has been heartened by the survival of this Buddha from the fire. (Courtesy Rev. John Hara)

The family of Rev. Gensho Hara, the 87-year-old minister of the mission, barely escaped with their lives late that afternoon, fleeing at nearly the last minute to the Lahaina Civic Center evacuation site.

The wooden main hall, a three-story pagoda and other buildings on the property were consumed by the flames.

But a nun in training rushed into the temple’s main hall to save a golden statue of Amida Buddha and succeeded in doing so.

It marked the second time the statue had been rescued. In 1968, the temple caught fire, and that time it was Hara’s wife who took it to safety, according to an article in Japan News.

A 12-foot-tall copper statue of Amida Buddha, which is associated with light and compassion, also survived the flames.

“Luckily there was nothing around the Buddha to burn, so it was completely intact,” said Yayoi Hara, Rev. Hara’s daughter, who lived on the temple grounds.

The survival of the two Buddhas has been a source of comfort to the congregation.

“Twice we were able to protect the Buddha, who has provided spiritual support for Japanese immigrants and their descendants in times of joy and sorrow for more than 100 years,” Rev. Gensho Hara told Japan News.

“The temple was burned down but our spirit is still there,” he added.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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