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On a wing and a prayer

Kahakuloa residents work to restore historic church after the bell tower and roof collapse

Volunteers assess what remains of the Kahakuloa Hawaiian Congregational Protestant Church on June 24. Most of the church walls and its roof were removed after the church’s bell tower and part of its roof caved in on June 11. The Kahakuloa community is working to repair the 138-year-old church. -- RUDY HUBER photo

Kahakuloa’s 138-year-old Pro-testant church roof and bell tower collapsed on June 11, leaving the picturesque wooden building and nearby residents broken and torn.

“It is a sad moment for everyone,” said lifelong Kahakuloa resident Kendall “Chico” Kekahuna Kaonohi. But the moment “also is the start of a new coming up of our church.”

Kaonohi is one of the organizers spearheading the effort to fix the Kahakuloa Hawaiian Congregational Protestant Church, a longtime gathering place for his family and Kahakuloa village residents. These include the famous Hoopii family, and other musicians, whose voices were trained and their instrumental musicianship skills were honed in church, according to the book, “Celebrating Advocacy: Past, Present & Future,” by the State Council of Hawaiian Congregational Churches.

Kaonohi, 48, held a cleanup day on June 24 during which volunteers salvaged what they could of the broken church and took down the remaining roof portion and two of the church walls.

A day before the roof fell in early June, Kaonohi and family members braced one of the walls, so if anything were to happen, it would not fall on tombstones nearby. And it worked. On June 11, none of the church walls fell.

In the middle of 2015, Kaonohi said, services were halted at the church because the building was becoming unstable.

Another lifelong Kahakuloa resident and famous falsetto singer Richard Hoopii Sr. said the community took responsibility for the church.

“Whoever could come and maintain the yard and the plants would be there,” the 76-year-old said.

He said it was hard to keep up the maintenance of the church because congregation numbers declined over the years — some years it was five people, others a dozen.

Admitting he knows nothing about construction, Hoopii said that in the 1980s after work was done on the First Hawaiian Bank building along Kaahumanu Avenue, he inquired about the red tiles left over from the bank’s roof. Eventually, the leftover tiles were donated to the church and placed on its roof. Some said the tiles may have been too heavy for the roof to withstand.

Hoopii said it’s sad to see the church fall down, but it needed repairs.

The Kahakuloa Hawaiian Congregational Protestant Church is a member church of the United Church of Christ and a member of the Hawaii Conference United Church of Christ, conference church officials said. The conference is not involved in the daily upkeep of the church.

The Kahakuloa church is referred to as a historic Hawaiian Protestant church, but it is not an officially designated historic property, the Hawaii conference said.

Veteran runner and event organizer Rudy Huber also noticed the church falling apart over the years when he was in the area. He began the Kahakuloa Half Marathon and Relays from Fleming Beach in Kapalua to Kahakuloa in 2012 as a way to raise some money to repair the church.

He said the run is one of his most scenic events.

“I love doing that race so much,” he said.

The elements and the church’s age combined to bring its roof and tower down, he said.

“It just took its toll,” Huber said.

The Maui News Index says the church was renovated and rededicated on Dec. 8, 1948.

Hoopii said repairs were done to the church over the years, but the overall structure remained the same.

Kaonohi has reached out to friends with construction experience and has a contractor on board to fix the church. And Kaonohi’s daughter has put up a crowdfunding campaign on Go Fund Me’s website.

Although the fundraiser’s goal is $120,000, Kaonohi said it will probably cost much less to make repairs if the community receives volunteer help.

The Go Fund Me page reads: “It is a very tragic loss to our village and many hearts are broken. The memories of our church are now demolished. Beside the church is where many of our ancestors & loved ones are resting. This sacred place has so many memories to all. This is our place of worship. This is our home and our foundation still to even families that no longer reside in the village. In the past, our church has brought so many families, outer communities, & churches together joyfully.”

Kaonohi said that as a youngster he attended the church with other Kahakuloa families as well as other families who came from other places around the island to worship.

“The church was used every Sunday,” he said.

Several decades ago, the church was always full, Kaonohi said, estimating that around 100 people could fit inside the church.

As families moved into town, church attendance dwindled in the late 1990s, he said.

In the early 2000s, services were held once a month by various pastors, Kaonohi said.

Hoopii recalls singing old hymns and following the kupuna in the church.

“I would be on stage. I would give praise to the man who is larger and wiser than you and I.”

Hoopii is looking forward to the church’s restoration.

“We want to put back everything, put the same things back . . . We just want to thank the people willing to help.”

Overall, Kaonohi said that hopefully the sad event will bring positive light to the community.

“Hopefully this will bring our village together. Especially for our younger generation, all of them going be part of this,” Kaonohi said. “This is a fresh start. Not just for the little ones, (but) for the kupuna who (are) still living.”

To make a donation, see www.gofundme.com/kahakuloachurchrestoration.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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