March 23, 2021

Mokuaikaua Church: Restoration for the Next 200 Years

Learn more about the National Fund for Sacred Places and the 2020 grant recipients.

Founded in 1820 by Reverend Asa Thurston, Mokuaikaua Church was Hawai’i’s first Christian Church. Construction of the building in Kailua-Kona on Hawai‘i, the Big Island, began in 1835 under then-Governor Kuakini, merging the expertise of native Hawaiian members and foreign workers to erect the sanctuary. Mokuaikaua Church and its impressive steeple are a landmark visible from both land and sea for locals and visitors.

The construction style for Mokuaikaua exhibits the ‘new’ western architecture of early 19th-century Hawai‘i, with an open post and beam timber structure made of ohia, a wood species native to Hawai’i; high galleries; and a western-proportioned construction. The building is also unique to Hawai’i as the stone and mortar building features lime made of burned coral, binding the lava stones together.

Historic Houses of Worship - Mokuaikaua Church, Kailua-Kona, HI

photo by: Stelios Michael/Alamy Stock Photo

Exterior view of Mokuaikaua Church.

“History is very important to us,” said Pastor David de Carvalho, the 31st to serve at the church. “In 1836 they began construction of the current structure and the whole island came together, dragging stones from different places. The wood came from local areas and they built the building together under the leadership of the government.”

Mokuaikaua is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and documented as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey. By 2014, deterioration and earthquake damage landed Mokuaikaua on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. This sacred place is considered an integral part of Hawai‘i’s past, built by the joining of native Hawaiian believers and missionaries more than 180 years ago acting as a symbol of lasting aloha—living in harmony with the people and land around you with mercy, sympathy, grace, and kindness.

In addition to the Mokuaikaua Church Building, which serves the congregation, community, and visitors for weekly services and daily tours, there are also two other buildings onsite that serve the community: the Education Building constructed in 1963, which serves as a preschool campus, and the Activity Center, constructed in 1972, which hosts administrative offices, gathering lanai, one small conference and two multi-purpose rooms used for weekday ministries, special events, and youth and Sunday school classrooms.

Structurally Sound

In 2006, a 6.7 Richter scale earthquake inflicted major damage on the church and temporarily closed Mokauikaua. A subsequent structural engineering inspection revealed numerous necessary repairs for the building’s wood and masonry elements, and major repairs to the iconic, but deteriorating, church steeple.

Specifically, the steeple had extensive water decay and termite damage to substructure posts and beams, roof structure-related deficiencies, poorly functioning electrical systems, and silenced bell chimes. The original exterior stone walls had three major cracks connected to the existing roof, and the structural repair plans called for an upgraded rigid roofing system, interior bracing posts, and tie-down connections to provide protection against future seismic events.

View of the Mokuaikaua Church Steeple in Kailua-Kona Hawaii with trees in the foreground

photo by: Photo by Steve Conger

The steeple Mokuaikaua Church with a view of the broader landscape where it sits.

Inside the building, some of the tall ohia beams had dry rot and termite damage. The walls and ceilings needed restoration work, and there were numerous fire hazards. This was a multi-million-dollar project in order for Mokuaikaua Church to safely serve visitors and congregants.

In response to these threats the congregation began work on “The Mokuaikaua Church Preservation Project.” This plan included a reinforcement of the sanctuary and renovation of the bell tower, and would provide structural reinforcement to increase protection against high wind and seismic events.

All of the engineering work had been designed to strengthen the building, while maintaining the church’s historic construction character. The three-phase restoration project had been initiated to make the building more structurally sound by adding structural steel tie-beams at the interior side of the existing stone masonry walls for stabilizing the structure during accelerating force events; adding retro-fitted, customized, steel hold-down attachment hardware at the existing rafters and beams; adding roof plane (diaphragm) sheathing reinforcement for wind shear resistance; and adding gravity-load, perimeter post supports for the balcony beams.

Restoration work began in May 2019, and the three-phase project—steeple, exterior, and interior—was expected to finish in 2020 in time for the 200th anniversary. However, due to the global pandemic and need for additional county approvals, the project timeline has been pushed back. Also, the work on the interior restoration has been delayed as additional work on the steeple needs to be completed before the building can be utilized again for services. The staff at the church hope to see the project completed by the summer of 2021.

Grants and Community Support Help Advance Restoration Work

To assist in the ongoing restoration work, Mokauikaua Church received grant funding from several sources, including the Samuel & Mary Cooke Preservation Fund and The Freeman Foundation. A $250,000 grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places in 2019 not only provided much needed funding toward the restoration, but also provided training and resources for church staff to fundraise and gain national recognition.

“The National Fund for Sacred Places was the key to opening the door, it was a tremendous blessing for us,” stated De Carvalho. “We knew that we should raise funds for the church, but especially for me, I don’t have a background in fundraising, so the training was eye-opening. Without that, we couldn’t move forward.”

Interior of Mokuaikaua Church with wooden beams overhead creating the framing.

photo by: John Hildreth

Interior of Mokuaikaua Church where you can see the ohia beams that form the framework for the structure.

The community and the congregation were instrumental in supporting the restoration. While more than $250,000 was raised from major donors, smaller gifts were also given by more than 400 congregants. The staff at the church have been overwhelmed by the goodwill of their community, even during the events of 2020.

While the church is still not in use and with COVID-19 restrictions in place, services have been taking place outside next to Mokauikaua. In a neighborhood reliant on tourism (a challenge during the pandemic), staff at the church have been engaging local businesses and community members to ensure their survival.

“It is exciting to be able to lead the church, which also functions as a museum, storytelling place of the island, as well as tourist attraction,” said De Carvalho. “Our desire is we have another 200 years.”

A construction crane outside the Mokuaikaua Church as part of a restoration project.

photo by: John Hildreth

Exterior of Mokuaikaua when exterior work was in progress.

The National Fund for Sacred Places

The 100,000+ historic houses of worship across America play a crucial role in shaping the character of our communities, and many are works of art whose beauty and history make them irreplaceable parts of our national cultural heritage. All are places that bring people together, strengthening and enlivening communities.

The National Fund for Sacred Places, a program of Partners for Sacred places in collaboration with the National Trust, provides training, planning grants, technical assistance, capacity-building support, and capital grants up to $250,000 to congregations of all faiths for rehabilitation work on their historic facilities.

The National Fund for Sacred Places has now accepted 68 houses of worship from Birmingham, Alabama to Alaska into the grant program. The National Fund will ultimately award $20 million to support projects that range from steeple stabilization to exterior masonry repair to HVAC replacement.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Colleen Danz is the senior manager of Forum Marketing at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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