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Molokai church celebrates 150 years ‘where the birds rest’

The church has moved to three locations in Kaunakakai over time

Members of Molokai’s Kalaiakamanu Hou Church participate in a special service celebrating the 150th anniversary of the congregation Saturday in Kalamaula. The church was opened in 1866 as an extension of the Kalua‘aha Church. CHARLES BUCK photo

A month after its sister church, Wailuku Union, commemorated its 150th anniversary, Molokai’s Kalaiakamanu Hou Congregational Church marked its own 150th milestone.

About 100 people gathered at the church Saturday for a “homecoming” of members past and present, including some who are descendants of the first families that made up the congregation.

“To have them come back was just wonderful,” said Claire Iveson, a longtime member who helped organize the event.

“A lot of the ones who are in their mid-40s were people who were in the youth group my husband and I ran. It was just really sweet to see them at the church,” she said Sunday.

Members held a special worship service of hymns accompanied by renowned local musician Kenneth Makuakane. State Rep. Lynn DeCoite and Maui County Council Member Stacy Crivello offered congratulations on behalf of the state and county. People with ties to the church came from as far as New York to celebrate the occasion and share the luau luncheon after the service, Iveson said.

Members share a laugh during Saturday’s special service. While the physical church building may need repairs in the future, the congregation itself is still going strong, members said. CHARLES BUCK photo

Since its inception in 1866, the church has hopped around Kaunakakai, from its original location where the state building now sits, to its current spot on “church row” in Kalama’ula, across from the historic coconut grove. It’s a congregation of the United Church of Christ.

In 1866, the Rev. A. O. Forbes opened a Sunday school in Kaunakakai as a extension of the Kalua’aha Church on Molokai’s east end, where Forbes was the pastor, according to a church history compiled from oral testimonies and members’ research. Known as the Hawaiian Congregational Church, it occupied the site of what is now the state building.

But for several years, the church did not have a minister of its own, instead relying on active members and ministers from other congregations to preach and care for the church. In 1907, the Rev. Isaac D. Iaea stepped in as the church’s first regular minister, said Marie Yamashita, church historian and the oldest active member at 96 years old.

Not long after that, the church made its first move down to the Kaunakakai Wharf at the former site of King Kamehameha V’s home. The doors to the new building were officially opened on Christmas Day 1909. It was this shorefront location that led to the church’s new title. In the evenings, birds came to settle along the sandy beach in front of the church, giving way to the name Kalaiakamanu, “the place where the birds rest.”

In 1928, the Hawaiian Homes Commission gave the church permission to use an acre in Kalamaula for its new site, Yamashita said. Although the church only had about $1,500 on hand, members managed to get the new church built in 1931. It was renamed Kalaiakamanu Hou, the “new Kalaiakamanu.”

Shrewd use of resources and tireless efforts from members would continue to help the church grow. Using materials from the old church building at the wharf, members added a parish hall in 1934, according to the church’s compiled history. In 1965, church members put in nearly 4,000 hours of labor building a new five-classroom Sunday school building. The old parish hall was later demolished, and a new hall erected in 1978.

When Yamashita joined the church in 1953, the congregation had about 20 members. Hoping to see it grow, Yamashita started collecting the dishes and plates that the local gas station gave out to loyal customers.

“My husband and I stopped there often, and we accumulated quite a few of these plates,” she said.

Yamashita started giving them away as an incentive for people to come to membership meetings during the week. During this time, she also served as the moderator and had the sticky job of trying to quell disputes between church members over hymn selection and sermon interpretations.

“Building a congregation takes time,” Yamashita said. “Our church has lasted 150 years. We’re doing good, and we’ve got a wonderful moderator now. She doesn’t have to hand out plates.”

Iveson, who moved to Molokai from San Francisco in 1978, said the church currently has about 50 members on paper, but usually about 20 in the pews on Sundays. Many of the older, longtime members have died, she said.

“One of the changes is that some of those people who were very active and in the church, now it’s their children and their grandchildren that are starting to participate,” said the Rev. Robb Kojima, who pastored the Kalaiakamanu Hou Church from 1983 to 1991 and now leads out at the Wailuku Union Church on Maui.

Kojima, who attended Saturday’s service, said Kalaiakamanu Hou was the church that “taught me how to be a pastor” and took a chance on hiring him straight out of seminary.

“They had a lot of strong personalities, but they had so much of a love of God and the church, and we actually formed a really nice community,” Kojima said.

Kalaiakamanu Hou doesn’t have a minister right now, but will get an interim one in February, Iveson said.

And while the congregation itself may have many more years ahead of it, the church building is starting to show some wear. According to a structural engineer, the building needs “major work,” and members will have to decide whether to tear it down or renovate it.

“We’re having to look at the physical building’s future,” Iveson said. “But the church — the body of the church — is strong.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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