The Timekeepers

Story by Lynn Cook. Photo by Monte Costa

Some places have a sound you notice only when it isn’t there. Since my small kid days, the Kawaiaha‘o Church’s bell has been a constant in an ever-changing Honolulu. Depending on the time of day, the chime can be lilting, comforting or—when I’m walking past the church’s graveyard at night—spooky.

Today I’m waiting for Vincent and Doug Mahoe-Mulford in front of what has been dubbed the Westminster Abbey of the Pacific. Its clock was purchased from Howard & Davis Clock Makers of Boston and installed in 1850 under the supervision of King Kamehameha III. It hasn’t stopped once since January 1851. The reason for that small miracle is the Mahoe-Mulford family, who for four generations have accepted the kuleana (responsibility) of being keepers of the clock—named Kauikeaouli after the king, who, like most Honolulu residents of the day, measured out his days by its hourly chime.

A pickup truck and a white sedan glide to a stop in front of the church, and Vincent and Doug climb out. They start by bursting a bubble: The clock isn’t always spot on, Vincent tells me, and “that’s why we come every seven or eight days—to catch it up.” Wind, weather and age mean a few lost seconds every week. “Nothing about this clock is automatic,” Vincent says. “No electronics, only manpower”—the only such clock in the state. “Bad weather, we recalibrate. It has to be on time for services
on Sunday.”

Before the brothers took on the task in the 1970s, their grandfather Benjamin Hulu Mahoe and their mother Abbie Aulani Mahoe-Mulford did the job. “Mom was on clock duty in 1957 when a hurricane hit, breaking the clock hands,” says Vincent. “She fixed them, and the repair lasted thirty-something years.” Abbie once took the visiting clockkeeper from the Tower of London up to see the clock workings, says Vincent. “He asked, ‘Why so much oil?’ The answer was, ‘Tūtū man [grandfather] always put plenty oil because the coral blocks of the walls have salt—not a friend of metal gears.’”

The brothers lead me on the long ascent to the gear house: up stone stairs, then wooden stairs to the choir level. Big step up onto a wooden platform and around a corner past the organ pipes. Then thirty vertical feet up a steel ladder to the level at which the clock’s pendulum swings, then more stairs to the level with cogs and gears. My admiration for the Mahoe-Mulford brothers, both past retirement, grows. But, they agree, they’ve never considered giving up the job.

From the tower we have a commanding view of the city. “We lived right over there in a little house,” says Vincent, pointing toward the area behind the church. “Even before we graduated to tending the clock, we had chores,” Doug adds. “We were paid a dollar to clean the missionary cemetery.Weekends we cleaned the churchyard. We worked at the poi factory down the block and tended the artesian well dug byour grandfather. It still feeds the church fountain today, and we still tend the water lines.” Other responsibilities were less tedious: Each Christmas Eve, Doug and friends would stand on the church roof dressed like angels in white choir robes and play trumpets while the bells rang at the end of services.

The brothers have lived their lives with at least one foot in the Islands. While one brother was on the Mainland for work, school or the military, the other stayed behind to care for the clock. They both married and had children. Do they know whether the lineage will carry on? Too soon to tell, they say. “We aren’t pau [finished] with our kuleana.”

When the bell rings it echoes off the downtown buildings and clear into Chinatown. When I was young the chimes were just part of the music of the place as I trekked from Papakōlea to Chinatown to fetch manapua for my auntie. The manapua store is gone, and Honolulu is changing faster than I ever remember. But the bell is always there, and so, for now, are its keepers. HH

Story by Lynn Cook. Photos by Monte Costa