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Hawaiian wildfires destroy Holy Innocents’ church, vicarage, and office

18 August 2023

Most of the congregation and clergy in the area reported safe

BRUCE DEGOOYER

Holy Innocents, Lahaina, last weekend, after its complete destruction

Holy Innocents, Lahaina, last weekend, after its complete destruction

THE needs of the people of Maui as a result of the wildfires which devastated part of the second largest island in Hawaii are “beyond comprehension, like responding to needs in a war zone”, the vicar of a church on the island which was razed to the ground by the blaze has said.

The Vicar of Holy Innocents’, Lahaina, the Revd Bruce DeGooyer, said on Tuesday that people had lost everything. Many bodies remain to be recovered.

The death toll from last week’s fires had reached 106 as the Church Times went to press on Wednesday. It is expected to rise sharply as forensic work is employed to identify victims. About 1300 people are still said to be missing.

The worst-affected area was the coastal town of Lahaina, of which 80 per cent has been destroyed. The church building, its vicarage, office, and the pre-school next door were all destroyed, although the sign outside the front of the church was unscathed. Mr DeGooyer and his wife, Sylvia, and most of the church’s congregation are reported to be safe.

Mr DeGooyer told the Church Times: “The needs are almost beyond comprehension, like responding to needs in a war zone. People have lost everything (homes, possessions, family members) and the place they have lived their whole life doesn’t exist any more for all practical purposes. There is also frustration in the community because, due to the need for government agencies and volunteers to carefully go through the ruins (looking for people who died in this), no one can get back in. It is very difficult for people.

“Everyone is helping everyone. Of those members who could get out ahead of the fire — which I read was moving at about 60-70mph because of the winds, many are staying with friends or relatives or in shelters. We have one member staying with us while she figures out what to do, where to go. Some older members have gone to the mainland to live with family there, probably never to return. There won’t be homes to go back to, and it will take years for Lahaina to recover.”

BRUCE DEGOOYERHoly Innocents’, Lahaina, before the wildfires

The Episcopal Bishop of Hawaii, the Rt Revd Bob Fitzpatrick, flew into Maui for an ecumenical prayer service on Tuesday and to meet with clergy. He said: “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).”

He reported that clergy in the area were all safe. Emergency response was being delivered through the diocese’s fund A Cup of Cold Water (AACW) for those who are homeless on Maui. The fund is a volunteer collaboration run by Maui’s four Episcopal churches: the Good Shepherd, in Wailuku; St John’s, in Kula; Trinity Church-by-the-Sea, in Kihei; and Holy Innocents’, Lahaina.

One volunteer, Deb Lynch, said that the team were making trips daily to provide humanitarian aid. “ACCW has almost daily Runs — sometimes in the Lahaina area, when access is allowed (it varies each day), but also to other parts of Maui, like Central Maui and Kihei, where people are in great need, too. We find people needing water, food, blankets, and towels as top needs. The Hongwanji Buddhists are making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches weekly for us — something those we serve truly love receiving. Some of our priests go on the Runs, too, offering prayers and spiritual compassion.”

News of the destruction of Holy Innocents’, posted on on social media and the diocesan website, was received with horror. Many visitors and congregations across the Episcopal Church recalled their memories of services, including weddings, and visits to the church.

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.

For updates and to donate, visit episcopalhawaii.org/maui-relief.html

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