Story by Shannon Wianecki
Photos by Kyle Rothenborg
The Wai‘anae coast is a twenty-mile stretch of startlingly white beaches flanked by tinder-dry mountains. Some of O‘ahu’s prettiest landscape, it’s terrain few tourists see. The small communities strung along the leeward shore—Nanakuli, Lualualei, Ma‘ili, Wai‘anae and Makaha—are proudly Hawaiian. But many families here struggle. Some live in their cars or on the beach. Farrington Highway, the sole way in and out of Wai‘anae, deadends at Ka‘ena Point. In ancient times this windswept outcropping where young albatrosses fledge was known as a leina a ka ‘uhane, a place where spirits leapt into the next world. In modern times it’s a bad place to leave a vehicle unattended.
When Father Luigi “Gigi” Cocquio arrived in Wai‘anae in 1979, he bypassed the parish rectory and instead moved onto a vacant church lot down the road in Makaha. The sun-scorched land was choked with weeds and home to three dilapidated Quonset huts — a place as marginalized as the young Italian priest himself. He’d come to Hawai‘i uninvited, having been expelled from the Philippines. Reluctantly the bishop of Hawai‘i had assigned him to Sacred Heart Parish in Wai‘anae. Perhaps there the black sheep would be too far out to pasture to cause further trouble. As they say, God works in mysterious ways.
With his very first sermon, Father Gigi managed to ostracize half of his new flock. The Mass fell on August 6 — the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In a thick Italian accent, the staunch pacifist decried the horrors of war. One by one parishioners slipped out of the pews. By the day’s end the bishop had heard an earful. Church regulars wanted to know: Who was this bearded malihini (newcomer) lecturing them on politics?
Sister Anna McAnany suggested that Gigi focus on rehabilitating the Makaha land. She had plans for the Quonset huts: catechism class and a women’s support group. A garden might be nice, too. So the nonconformist priest patched holes and tilled the soil. Parched as it was, the land responded. Father Gigi soon had a plot of vegetables growing. He invited anybody who wanted to garden to join him.