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Churches lost in deadly Hawaiian wildfires

14 August 2023


An aerial photograph of Lahaina, Hawaii, after catastrophic wildfires devastated the historic town

An aerial photograph of Lahaina, Hawaii, after catastrophic wildfires devastated the historic town

THE number of people killed in the wildfires in Maui, the second largest Hawaiian Island, is expected to rise sharply as forensic work is employed to identify victims. So far, 93 people are known to have died, but about one thousand people are still unaccounted for, in what is already the deadliest blaze in a century in the United States.

The fire destroyed the historic coastal town of Lahaina, including the church, vicarage, office, and pre-school building, the Episcopal Bishop of Hawaii, the Rt Revd Bob Fitzpatrick, confirmed in an email to the Church Times on Monday.

He said that access to the area was still tightly restricted. Some fires were still burning, but most had now been quenched. He hoped to fly to Maui on Tuesday.

In an update on the diocesan website last week, the Bishop wrote: “Lahaina was devastated. Historic Holy Innocents Church is on Front Street where the fire very quickly swept into old Lahaina town. Those old buildings made out of wood, went up in flames quickly.

“Some of the buildings destroyed date back to the days of whaling and when the town was the seat of the monarchy (early 1800s). Likely, this includes our church, Holy Innocents, based on an aerial photo sent to the office.

“The Sanctuary, vicarage, pre-school and office appear to be completely gone (as does the public elementary school next door). Whole Lahaina neighborhoods are gone. Because of evacuations, downed landlines and cell towers, and the chaos of the situation, no one other than first responders are allowed into Lahaina, and we have had no first hand confirmation of the losses.”

Clergy in the area were all safe, however, he wrote. Emergency response was being delivered through the diocese’s fund A Cup of Cold Water for those who are homeless on Maui.

Visitors and congregations across the Episcopal Church responded to the Bishop’s post, many recalling their memories of services, including weddings, and visits to Holy Innocents’, Lahaina.

The church building dated back to 1927, but the parish was formed in the late 19th century, as the then King and Queen of Hawaii were both Anglicans. The King invited the Church of England to form the Church of Hawaii, which was the state church until the monarchy was overthrown in 1893. The US government annexed Hawaii in 1898, and it became a US state in 1959.

Holy Innocents’ housed a well-known altarpiece of a Hawaiian Madonna and Child, painted in 1940 by Delos Black-mar, of New York, “out of gratitude for the hospitality extended to him by the church”.

At the time that the fires started, the congregation had been raising money to renovate the church.

A Roman Catholic church in Lahaina appears to have survived, but Waiola Church, which was home to a United Church of Christ congregation in the town, was razed to the ground. Waiola stood on the site of Wainee Church, established in 1823 by Queen Keopuolani, the first Hawaiian baptised in the Protestant Church. Hawaii’s kings and queens are buried in the graveyard, the first Christian cemetery in Hawaii. Many missionaries’ children are also buried there. The present church building dated back to 1953.

The flames spread fast owing to high winds caused by a tropical cyclone which passed close to the coastline. The area was also suffering a drought. Emergency sirens which should have alerted residents to evacuate did not sound, and many are feared to be dead in their cars as they tried to escape the blaze. Reports say that the fire travelled at speeds of 60 miles an hour.

The other three Episcopal churches on Maui are now working as drop-off points for emergency aid supplies.

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