St. Louis - Waiapuka
His First Mission:
The Great Builder of Churches
Much has been written about Father Damien de Veuster; however, not many know about his missionary work on the island of Hawaii.
Father Damien was born in Tremeloo, a village near the provincial city of Louvain in Belgium on January 3, 1840. At an early age he wanted to do God's work in some distant land. On May 21, 1964 he was ordained a priest with two other companions in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu. The next day, Sunday, he offered his first Mass in the cathedral before a large crowd of Hawaiians. He and other newly ordained, Father Clement Evrard were immediately assigned to the Big Island; he to Puna in the east and Father Clement to Kohala and Hamakua in the North.
When Father Damien arrived in Puna, there were no churches, not even a house to live in. During his brief time in Puna Father Damien may have constructed four or five chapels. They were all of the native thatched hut-variety which never managed to remain permanent. From August 1864 to January 1865 he baptized nearly 100 persons and performed seven marriages.
Due to his poor physical condition, it was recommended to Father Modeste Favens, the provincial in Honolulu, that Father Clement be moved. Clement to Puna, as it was easier to serve, and Father Damien to the Kohala and Hamakua as he was “a strong man.”
Damien worked in Puna for a total of six months. In February of 1865, he arrived in Kohala to begin his new assignment. With an area of more than a thousand square miles, Kohala and Hamakua was the largest of five Catholic mission established on the Big Island. Father Damien would work out of the village of Waiapuka, the location of the principal church of the mission. A wooden church, St. Louis, was named after and blessed by Bishop Louis Maigret on June 24, 1858. It was built by Father Eustache Maheu.
It took Father Damien six weeks to do his rounds. He ministered to nearly 1000
Catholics on his mission in scattered communities along the shorelines, mountains and in near-inaccessible valleys. Church records noted the villages he visited: “Kawaihae, Niulii, Waiakamalii, Iole, Pololu, Heehia, Pukapu, Alaula, Makalapa, Honokane, Honoipo, Waikaloa, Nalaula, Kaiopiki, Kokio, Makeanehu [sic]and others.”
His travels brought moments of adventure and excitement. He had a close relationship with the Hawaiian people. As years went by, he came to be fluent in Hawaiian and accustomed to their ways. Although extremely happy with his people and his work,
Father Damien felt loneliness and isolation of a missionary life.
As he did in Puna, Father Damien erected a number of "grass hut" chapels in the village communities. Nine months after arriving in Kohala, he attempted to erect a regular chapel built entirely of wood. In a letter dated October 1865, he tells of baptizing a group of Hawaiians who in gratitude made a promise to put up a wooden church in their village.
His church building continued throughout Kohala and Hamakua. The names and locations of some of the churches built by Father Damien are not known.
Three of his churches in Kohala survived through the turn of the century:
Sacred Heart of Jesus Church 1867, St. John the Evangelist Church 1869, and
Our Lady of Victory (Maria Lanakila) 1870.
Father Damien was on the island of Hawai'i for nine years before Molokai.
Information from works by retired Diocesan archivist and historian, Father Louis H. Yim.
Published in the Hawaii Catholic Herald in two parts, in April of 1989.