We have seen how, in the latter part of the 19th century, grand edifices for Catholic worship were being erected in New York. But, at the same time, on “the far side of the world” in Hawaii much more modest but equally impressive churches were being built. For Hawaii, like the Canadian maritime provinces, is a small treasury of church architecture – executed primarily in wood.
Above: the most unusual octagonal Holy Ghost Church, Waiakola, Maui. It was built in 1894-95 by a German missionary priest, Fr. James Beissel, for his Portuguese congregation. Father Beissel was both architect and contractor. The altar and stations of the cross – also from the 1890’s – are the work of the famous artist and woodcarver Ferdinand Stuflesser of the Tirol (then in Austria). His firm is still in existence! They were brought around the coast of Africa to Hawaii by ship and to the church by oxcart.
(Above and Below) This altar would seem more at home in Germany than Hawaii! Today it is a revered local treasure.
(Above) The Portuguese inscriptions on the Stations of the Cross. At this time large numbers of Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and the Azores were coming to Hawaii. Along with other Catholic immigrants they greatly increased the presence of the Church in the islands.
Below are two simple churches built by St. Damien on the island of Molokai. The leper colony, where St. Damien was assigned, was on a peninsula isolated from the rest of the island by a steep cliff. Aside from his demanding work with lepers, Fr. Damien found time to leave the colony to minister to Catholics on the rest of the island, where he built four churches. And he literally built them – he was skilled as a carpenter.
(Above and below), St. Joseph Church, built by St. Damien in 1876
(Above and below), Our Lady of Sorrows Church, built by St. Damien in 1874, rebuilt in 1966.
(Above and below) although the damaged church had to be rebuilt in the 1960’s, much of the original interior and its decorations remain. A plaster statue (such as Catholics of the 20th century were taught to despise) was in 1874 a very welcome guest if it had to be transported from Europe halfway around the globe. Here the Madonna of Lourdes is adorned with a lei and St Joseph with a necklace of shells.
(Below) The Stations of the cross – a series of prints we were told were donated to this church around Fr. Damien’s time by admirers of his work.
On the “Big Island” of Hawaii, Father John Berchmans Velghe, who, like Father Damien, was Belgian and a priest of the “Picpus Fathers” (the Society of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary), built in 1899 the tiny Victorian church of St.Benedict. He himself painted an extraordinary cycle of paintings in the years 1900-04 covering the entire church. For his congregation – at that time Hawaiian – Father Velghe transformed the ceiling of the nave into a forest and the sanctuary into a vast cathedral ambulatory. Yet his most interesting works are the paintings on the walls of the nave. For there, in stark contrast to today’s “soft” pastoral approach, Father Velghe created unusual, dramatic or ecstatic images: Belshazzar’s feast, St. Francis receiving the Stigmata, Eve weeping over the dead Abel, the soul at the moment of death and, finally, a horrifying if sadly damaged rendering of hell. The Hawaiian inscriptions on the columns accord well with the striking pictures.
St Benedict’s Church enjoys a location of unmatched splendor high above Kealakekua bay.
A Lourdes Madonna bedecked with leis before the church.
(above) The soul at the moment of death; (below) Belshazzar, Daniel and the handwriting on the wall.
Great care has been taken in recent years to restore these churches. I hear that even the cathedral of Honolulu, subject of disastrous renovations after the Council – and not very professional ones before it – is also the object of grand renovation plan; one of the objectives being to restore it to how it would have looked in the 19th century – Fr. Damien’s time. It seems quite a change for a diocese which had a distinctly progressive reputation! And quite a contrast to New York where the artistic and historical legacy continues to be obliterated.