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The 3 Painted Churches of Hawaii

The 3 Painted Churches of Hawaii

St. Benedict Church in Captain Cook, Hawaii (photo: Marek Poplawski / Shutterstock)


The churches of St. Benedict, Star of the Sea and St. Theresa are the gems of the beautiful Big Island of Hawaii

Catholicism first came to the Big Island of Hawaii in the 1800s as Catholic missionaries came to preach the word of God to the island’s inhabitants. Remnants of those early days can be enjoyed by tourists today, particularly with a visit to the three “painted churches” of the island: St. Benedict, Star of the Sea and St. Theresa.


St. Benedict Church

St. Benedict is the oldest of the three and can be found on the western shore of the island, between Kealakekua Bay, where the first European explorer to visit the island, Captain James Cook, was killed in 1779, and Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, a national park which was once a refuge for those who had broken the kapu, or sacred laws, and were under penalty of death could find refuge.

Catholic missionaries first arrived on the South Kona region of the Big Island (on the western shore) in 1842 and established St. Francis Regis Chapel on the shore of Honaunau. At the end of the 19th century a Sacred Hearts priest from Belgium, Father John Berchmans Velghe, arrived and re-named and re-located the church to its current location; most of the region’s villagers had moved two miles up the slopes of Mauna Loa, an active volcano and one of five on the island, in search of cooler temperatures and more fertile land.

Father Velghe was a self-taught artist who painted much of St. Benedict’s interior to replicate the interior of the Gothic Cathedral of Burgos in Spain. Murals depict such scenes in Scripture as the Temptation of Christ, the story of Cain and Abel, the handwriting on the wall at the feast of King Belshazzar, hell, a good death and much more. The ceiling of the church is themed to the island with palm fronds and sky.

A series of pastors have maintained the church since, surviving volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes. The gravesites of many past parishioners surround the church.

It is a major tourist attraction in the area and is open for Mass five times weekly and to visitors on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. A volunteer docent is on-site on these days to talk with visitors about the church.

Penny Burgess, a long-time employee of the church, recommends touring with the guide as she can point out details they might otherwise miss. In the painting of hell, for example, one of the damned is Queen Kaahumana, a 19th-century Hawaiian ruler who banned Catholic missionaries and the practice of the Catholic faith among islanders for a time.

She also noted that the palm fronds Father Velghe painted on the ceiling are both alive and dead, with the live ones pointing to the altar and the dead ones to the exit. Penny explained, “Father used the paintings as teaching tools because of the language barrier between him and the local population. He was demonstrating that as long as we keep our focus on God we have life and if we walk away from him we’ll experience eternal death.”


Star of Sea Church

Star of the Sea Church in Pahoa is a small, wooden church painted a pale green on the outside but covered with vibrant, colorful murals on its interior. Located on the eastern shore of the island, it was built by another Belgian priest, Father Evarist Matthias Gielen, in 1938. Using an oil lantern by night, Father Gielen painted its domed ceilings with images of angels, saints and scenes from Scripture. Two other artists painted other portions of the church.

George Heidler from Athens, Georgia and George Lorch from Hilo continued painting the interior; images tell the story of St. Damien, who served on the Big Island before moving to Molokai to minister to those with leprosy, more scenes from Scripture, the Stations of the Cross and the seven sacraments. In one image, Ka Rosario, visitors are taught to pray the Rosary (with instructions in Hawaiian).

The church has been decommissioned, but Father John Molina, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Pahoa, visits on first Fridays to celebrate Mass. The church is also open to visitors.


St. Theresa Church

St. Theresa Church is located along the Volcano Road/Highway 11 between Hilo and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It, too, was built by Father Gielen in 1936, and much of its hand-painted ceilings and side panels were painted by him. Images include the Nativity, the Miraculous Draught of Fishes, the Temptation in the Wilderness, the Crucifixion, the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican and the Second Coming of Christ. Father asked members of the congregation to sponsor or make a contribution for each major work he created; he painted the images in his Pahoa rectory and then hung them on the walls of St. Theresa.

Dana Jones, an employee of the church, noted that St. Theresa, too, was a popular site among tourists (“with people taking photos of everything”), particularly those headed up to visit the volcanoes. Check the website for Mass and devotion times.

There was once a fourth painted church on the Big Island, Maria Lanakila (Our Lady of Victory) near Kealia. It was destroyed in a 1950 earthquake. A fragment of its interior artwork can be found in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.


Star of the Sea and St. Theresa in Hawaii
Star of the Sea in Pahoa, Hawaii (l) and St. Theresa Church in Mountain View, Hawaii(Photo: Claudine van Massenhove)



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