July 8, 2014

[11 Most Endangered] Mokauikaua Church in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

  • By: Katherine Flynn
Credit: David Casteel
Mokuaikaua Church was built in 1837 by Hawaii's first Christian missionaries. 

The ohia wood rafters in the sanctuary of the Mokauikaua Church in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, have been sheltering worshipers since 1837, when King Kamehameha II gave Hawaii's first Christian missionaries his blessing to build the structure just a stone's throw from the ocean.

Mokauikaua -- 177 years later -- has become immeasurably valuable in not only giving residents of Kailua-Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island a beautiful place to meet and worship, but also in helping to tell the state’s unique story. Pastor David de Carvalho, the 31st to serve at the church, estimates that it welcomes about 400 people every Sunday, an even split of regulars and tourists eager to experience a service in the Aloha State's oldest house of worship.

That’s why, in light of structural damage from a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in 2006 and a slew of problems due to typical wear-and-tear in Hawaii's tropical climate, the National Trust decided to grant the church a place on its 2014 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Credit: David Casteel, Flickr
The church's interior prominently features koa and ohia wood, both of which are native to Hawaii. 

De Carvalho and other advocates hope that with the increased visibility afforded by inclusion on the list, the church will be able to finance an estimated $1.7 million in repairs. The church's structural problems are numerous: Cracks threaten the integrity of its stone walls, dysfunctional and faulty electrical wiring poses the threat of a fire, and termites and dry rot have eaten away at wooden beams in the steeple and wooden window frames throughout the building.

Renovation plans include shoring up the roof and walls and adding an interior steel frame that would protect it from seismic damage in the future. Without immediate attention, though, the beloved and iconic Moukauikaua Church may be beyond repair.

“One of the main parts of the structure that we are looking at as a priority that we need to attend to right away is the steeple,” de Carvalho explains. “The steeple is what you can see from every place in town. When the ships go by, it’s what they can identify.”

A sum of $250,000 would cover replacement of some of the rotting and weather-damaged wood in the steeple's interior.

“When we do the construction, it will be a short amount of time,” he says. “We would like to begin and complete in a week. That way, we don’t need to stop functioning as a church. The steeple we would like to begin as soon as possible. We’re looking at three to four months to get permits together.”

Credit: Steve Conger
Current threats to the church include cracks in the stone walls, termite and dry rot damage, and dysfunctional and faulty electrical wiring. 

De Carvalho is adamant that the church’s history is closely linked to that of the state of Hawaii itself.

“Right in 1820, right before the missionaries arrived, Kamehameha [I] died and his son took over, and threw out the old religion,” he explains. “[Native Hawaiians] have an old prophecy that salvation would come in a black box. When missionaries came they brought a gift to the king and queen, and that was a black box, and inside of it was a Bible. The king and his family began to believe in the God of the Bible.

“The church represents a new era of freedom for the people,” he continues. “When the church was built, it was basically the beginning of Christianity here in Hawaii.”

De Carvalho says that the first phase in saving the church is to engage the congregation and church leadership in fundraising efforts, starting with a Fourth of July benefit concert this past weekend at the local Honoka’a People’s Theatre. He’s hopeful that through subsequent restoration work, Mokauikaua Church will be around to serve as a living testament to Hawaii's rich history for another 177 years -- at least.

“The building is a great symbol. We would like for the story to continue,” he says. “We don’t want that to die.”

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


URGENT: Contact your Senators asking them to pass the Route 66 National Historic Trail Designation Act before 2019!

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