Hidden Hawaii: Star of the Sea Painted Church in Kalapana, Big Island
If you’re visiting the Puna coastal area on the Big Island, there’s a little hidden treasure you don’t want to miss: the Star of the Sea Church, also known as Kalapana “Painted Church”. Located near the end of Hwy 130 in Kalapana, this 85-year-old wooden church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has survived many earthquakes, tsunami threats, volcanic eruptions and lava flows.
The Star of The Sea Church has an interesting history. It is also known for the well-preserved, beautiful hand-painted murals and paintings that cover most of the walls and ceiling inside the church. From the outside, the church looks quite plain, but once stepping inside, you will be enchanted by the vibrant colors, exquisite details, and fascinating stories behind the artwork.
History of the paintings
The church was built in 1928 by a Belgian Catholic priest Father Evarist Matthias Gielen. According to the National Register of Historic Places, the church was constructed in the colonial revival architectural style – typical for many wooden churches built in Hawaii during the missionary era. Father Gielen was also the one who painted the upper portion of the church interior. His magnificent paintings cover the vaulted ceiling, across the central nave, also above the altar and the portico area. These life-sized, elaborated paintings depict various scenes and religious characters from the Catholic Book of Catechism. It was told that Father Gielen did all his artwork at night by the light of an oil lamp!
The lower part of the church was painted decades later, in 1941, by an artist named George Heidler from Athens, Georgia. His paintings cover the wooden panels along the aisles on both sides of the church, as well as the altar area. These paintings tell the life story of another Belgian priest, Father Damien De Veuster, who came to Kalapana in 1864 to begin missionary work until 1873 when he went to the Island of Molokai to oversee a leprosy colony. Lepers were considered outcasts by society and forcibly quarantined on this remote island in the Pacific by the government as a means to prevent the spread of leprosy. After spending 16 years on Molokai caring for the lepers, Father Damien himself contracted leprosy and eventually died from the disease in 1889. He was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church on February 21, 2009 and became known as Saint Damien of Molokai – the patron saint of lepers and outcasts.
In 1949, another pastor of the Star of the Sea Church, Father Joseph Edward Avery (1919-1997), commissioned yet another artist named George Lorch from Hilo to do a series of murals or frescos, adding to the existing panels. The frescos depict traditional beliefs and teachings of the Catholic Church, like the Seven Sacraments, the Holy Virgin Mary, the Saints and the Angels. George Lorch’s style of painting was more detail oriented, with a flair for trompe l’oeil (an optical illusion) that created a three-dimensional look. Father Avery – originally from Massachusetts – was a popular priest, well-liked among local parishioners. He spoke the native Hawaiian language fluently and was often mistaken for a Hawaiian! Many of the murals done by George Lorch have Scriptural text painted on them – all in the Hawaiian language.
The move to escape lava flow
The Star of The Sea Church was originally built on the shoreline of Kaimu Black Sand Beach. This beach was famous for the fine black sand and lush coconut palms that lined the picturesque Kaimu Bay. In 1990, during a violent eruption from nearby Kupaainaha volcanic vent, lava advanced slowly down the slope toward Kaimu Black Sand Beach, burning a fiery path of destruction through Kalapana village. After much debate and in a last minute effort to save the church, local officials and parishioners decided to move it to a safe location. The whole structure was lifted off its foundation and placed on a trailer truck. The following excerpt is from an archived newspaper article: “The wooden Roman Catholic Church--also called "the painted church"--slowly made its way on a trailer down Beach Road, which crews had cleared of utility poles and overhanging tree branches…Church officials decided last week to save its hand-painted wall murals. Workers toiled throughout the night to prepare the church for relocation. It was trucked about a mile out of town, where it will stay until church officials decide where to move it.”
Thanks to the dramatic rescue, the Star of the Sea church and its unique, irreplaceable artwork were saved! Kaimu Black Sand Beach, however, suffered a less fortunate fate! The mile long beach, along with its coconut groves and tranquil bay, was completely destroyed and buried under 80 feet of lava! Today, almost 25 years later, a new black sand beach is slowly forming where the lava-extended land meets the ocean. Dozens of young coconut palms are growing (planted by local residents to replace the ones destroyed by lava) on the new shoreline.
With limited funding for research and restoration from Federal and State governments, Star of the Sea Church officials today are still relying on donations from local residents and visitors, in order to keep the church open – as a place of worship, cultural center, museum – and to repair some of the damages. Kalapana Ohana Association is a community organization whose members volunteer their time as the church’s caretakers, organizing various fundraising events to help pay for the much needed repair works.
Recognition as historic landmark
From 1990 to 1996, after the first hasty move to escape lava, the Star of the Sea Church sat abandoned on wooden blocks at a temporary location. It was moved a second time later to its current location – on 3 acres of state land – at the end of Hwy 130. During those six years it sat unattended, some of the paintings suffered damage by weather and termites. Heavy cracks and peelings also appeared on several murals. Attempts to repair by church officials took place but proved to be costly and required expertise. In an effort to save the paintings, as well as the building itself, church officials submitted an application to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1997 the Star of the Sea Church was selected and added to the list of historic places in the state of Hawaii.
To get here
The short way: From Pahoa village, head south on Hwy 130 (Pahoa Kalapana Road) and drive about 8 miles down the hill toward the ocean. Look for a small, greenish white church on the left between mile makers 19 and 20. Turn left into the driveway and park in the large parking lot next to the church.
The scenic way: From Pahoa village, head east on Hwy 132 (Kapoho Road), follow the curve to the left, drive about 8 miles to a four-way intersection. Turn right onto Hwy 137 (Kapoho Kalapana Road) and start the 15-mile Red Road scenic drive. At the end of the road in Kalapana, turn right and head north on Hwy 130. Drive about a quarter mile, the church is on your right.
Visiting Star of the Sea Church
- Open year round, 9am-4pm daily. Free admission.
- Mass at 4pm every first Friday of the month. Currently officiated by Father Greg (from Pahoa Sacred Hearts Parish). Everyone is welcome.
- Be quiet and respectful during your visit as there might be parishioners in this sacred place of worship.
- There are several stunning stained glass windows on the right side of the church. Best seen in the late afternoon when the setting sun shines directly on them.
- Please refrain from touching the paintings or murals. Picture taking is fine.
- Leaving a donation in the offering box near the door is most appreciated. Your contribution helps save a small piece of history!
About this article
The author lives 5 miles from this historic church. He would like to thank the U.S. Geological Survey and Hawaii Volcano Observatory for the use of their archived photographs in this article.
Other photos were taken by the author with a SamsungPL120 DualView 14.2MP Digital Camera.
All Rights Reserved
Copyright © 2014 Viet Doan (punacoast)
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