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Vol.18, no.1
February/March 2015


The Restoration Movement 
Story By: Alan McNarie
Photos By: Megan Spelman

Kailua-Kona’s Mokuaikaua Church—the oldest extant Christian church in Hawai‘i—has weathered earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis. It’s still standing, but badly in need of major repairs. In addition to natural disasters, the trifecta of wind, termites and time has taken its toll: The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently added Mokuaikaua to its list of America’s Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places.

The church, which has stood since 1837, is built of lava rocks held together with lime made from burnt coral. It was completed seventeen years after the first Christian missionaries in Hawai‘i—among them Reverend Hiram Bingham and Reverend Asa Thurston—arrived in Kailua-Kona from Boston aboard the brig Thaddeus in April of 1820. The missionaries immediately called on Queen Ka‘ahumanu and her son King Kamehameha II, Liholiho. Liholiho gave the missionaries his own house for their first church. That building was replaced by a small grass hale (house) in 1823. When that church burned down in 1835, construction began on the current Mokuaikaua Church on the same site; it was dedicated two years later.

Today about four thousand visitors tour the historic church on Ali‘i Drive every month, and the church doors are open to all every day from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. But Mokuaikaua’s congregation itself numbers only about two hundred. Termites nest in the ‘ohi‘a wood beams in the roof above as the faithful sing hymns. The wooden steeple still soars into the heavens, but it is fragile. Three huge cracks, reminders of a 2006 temblor, run down one wall. The congregation is holding various fundraisers but can’t afford to shoulder the entire $3 million price tag for repairs. Publicity from the NTHP designation has helped, though: The church has already gotten one large grant and is waiting to hear about two others.

Still, when you’re dealing with a building in the tropics that’s 177 years old, the pressure is on. “We need to move quickly,” says Mokuaikaua’s Reverend David De Carvalho, “so things don’t fall apart faster than they’re renewed.”