Kawaiaha‘o Church represents the movement from old to new Hawai‘i. With its founding came a hope and the fiber with which to build a Christian nation. Kawaiaha‘o stands as the first Christian church to be built on O‘ahu, and today is respected as the Mother Church of Hawai‘i, where God’s work continues and the Hawaiian culture and language is perpetuated.

Prior to the missionaries arriving in the islands, the flat plain just south of the village of Honolulu was a barren, windswept dust bowl – little more than a desert.  However, in the midst of this sun-parched land there was an oasis, a spring whose waters were reserved exclusively for the land’s high chiefs and chiefesses.  One such noble who frequented this pool was the chiefess Ha‘o.  Eventually these waters, and the surrounding land, came to be known as Ka Wai a Ha‘o-the freshwater pool of Ha‘o.

In 1820, the first missionaries arrived in Hawai‘i, and found themselves well-accepted by royalty as well as the general populace. They were granted land at Kawaiaha‘o for the purpose of establishing their residence, and thatched houses were erected by local labor on orders of King Kamehameha III.

Thatched with grass and lined with mats, the first sanctuary was erected in the native manner.  . Measuring 54 feet by 22 feet, the structure was designed to seat 300.  As the congregation continued to grow, and in some cases as the result of fire or severe wind storms, three more thatched structures were erected to replace their predecessor.  It was not until 1837 that the gathering of materials for the great stone house of worship begun.

On July 31, 1838, the digging of the foundation was begun.  It was no minuscule task, nor was it one lacking in support as many as a thousand people assembled on the grounds of Kawaiaha‘o to dig down to bed rock to ensure the best footing for their cathedral.

The “Stone Church,” as it came to be known, was in fact not built of stone; but of giant slabs of coral hewn from ocean reefs.  These slabs were not easily accessible; and had to be quarried from under water and transported, each weighed more than 1,000 pounds.  Natives dove 10 to 20 feet to hand-chisel these pieces from the reef, then raised them to the surface, loaded them into canoes, and ferried them to shore.  The physically and spiritually strong hauled some 14,000 of the slabs to their final destination.

Following five years of labor The Great Stone Church was ready for dedication ceremonies on July 21, 1842.  The grounds of Kawaiaha‘o overflowed with 4,000 to 5,000 faithful worshippers.  King Kamehameha III, who contributed generously to the fund, attended that service.  It had taken the community five years from commencement to completion – two years less than it took Solomon to build his temple.  The estimated cost was $30,000.  Kawaiahaʻo Church has witnessed much history, within the walls the kingdom’s royalty prayed, sang hymns, were married, christened their children, and finally laid in state.  On the grounds surrounding the church are buried a number of original missionaries.  The 9/11 tragedy found many in prayer in the sanctuary.

In 1900, when fire destroyed a great portion of the city, thousands left homeless found refuge at Kawaiaha‘o.  On December 7, 1941, the faithful crowded into the church’s basement in search of inspiration and safety.  The historic occasion of statehood was marked by ceremonies within the sanctuary’s walls.

Kawaiaha‘o Church, is listed on the state and national registers of historic sites.

The Sanctuary

The tower clock, commonly referred to as the Kauikeaouli clock, in memory of King Kamehameha III, its donor, is of great historic significance.  It was made by the Howard & Davis Clock Makers of Boston, Massachusetts.  Kawaiaha'o Church SanctuaryMechanics arrived with the clock in 1850 and preparations were made for its installation – King Kamehameha III was selected to supervise the task.  The clock, which tolls the hours, still operates on its original machinery, which four generations of the Mahoe-Mulford family have maintained.  As you enter the sanctuary, you will see the royal pews, located to the right and left.  Within these enclosures stand four kāhili(feather staffs), symbols of royal rank.  Kings and queens of an era gone by sat in these pews.

The Hofstot portraits of the Ali‘i (Hawaiian royalty) that hang on the walls of the upper level represent the rich history of Hawai‘i.  It is the only collection by one artist in one location.  They are numbered 1 to 21, beginning with Kamehameha the Great at the far end at the left as you face the altar.

Kawaiaha‘o’s pipe organ, the fifth the church has had in its long history, dated from 1964.  It was designed and built by Aeolian-Skinner Company of Boston, builder of the finest organs in the United States.  It has 52 different voices, or stops, three manuals, and 2,500 pipes.  The largest pipe is 22 feet long and one foot in diameter.  The smallest is the size of a pencil.

Other Landmarks on the Grounds of Kawaiaha‘o

Kawaiaha‘o Fountain (Located along the left side of the sanctuary): The High Chiefess Ha‘o frequented the freshwater spring located in this location, and thus the Church bears her name: Ka Wai a Ha‘o – the water of Ha‘o.

An original rock that was found next to the spring has been incorporated into the existing foundation that commemorates the spring (located in front of the sanctuary, at the main entrance to the grounds).

William Charles Lunalilo was the kingdom’s sixth monarch and proved to be very popular with his subjects during his reign.  King Kamehameha V had preceded Lunalilo and had died without naming a successor.  Therefore, Lunalilo was appointed by the Legislature, but to affirm he was the people’s choice, the newly appointed king called for a public election and was voted to the throne by his loving public.  His investiture was held here in Kawaiaha‘o Church.  He was destined to rule only a little over one year, dying February 3, 1874 at the age of 39.  The king’s last wish was to be laid to rest near his people, and that is why his tomb stands here on the grounds of Kawaiaha‘o Church, rather than at the Royal Mausoleum at Mauna‘ala.

The Landscaping (Located around the Lunalilo Mausoleum and around the sanctuary) The plants on the church grounds are endemic to Hawai‘i.  Some of the plants found on the grounds are:

  • ‘Ōhi‘a Lehua – found in Hawai‘i from the high, cloud drenched rain forests to salt misted windward coastal slopes. Lehua means “hair” in Hawaiian which applied to the flower of this tree because of its hair-like filaments.  Rare yellow and orange varieties adorn the grounds.
  • Koki‘o ‘ula‘ula (Hibiscus) – the early Hawaiians used the buds of the Koki‘o as a mild, pleasant tasting laxative.  The fiber of the bark of the Hibiscus was used for cordage and sennit.
  • The ti, or Kī or lā‘ī – believed to have been introduced into Hawai‘i by the ancestors who came in voyaging canoes.  They are planted around the mausoleum.  Green kī planted around dwellings is thought to ward off evil.  Leaves worn around the neck and wrists are both decorative and serve as charms.

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