For centuries, in the midst of the flat plain just south of the village of Kou (now Honolulu) was a sacred spring whose waters were reserved for the islandʻs ranking male and female chiefs. The high ranking female chief Haʻo frequented this spring, and eventually these waters and the surrounding land came to be known as “Ka Wai a Haʻo” – the (sacred) water of Haʻo— for which this church is named. You may read more about that moʻolelo here.
When the first Protestant missionaries arrived in Hawai‘i in 1820, they were granted land at Kawaiaha‘o for the purpose of establishing their residence and mission church by Hawaiʻiʻs monarchs.
Thatched with grass and lined with mats, the first sanctuary was erected in the traditional Native Hawaiian architecture. 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, three more thatched structures were erected to replace their predecessor.
The church building was commissioned by Kuhina Nui (Queen) Kaʻahumanu during the reigns of Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III and was designed by Rev. Hiram Bingham. As many as a thousand people assembled to dig down to bed rock for the church’s foundation. The church was constructed between 1836 and 1842 of 14,000 slabs of coral rock. Native Hawaiians dove 10 to 20 feet to hand-chisel these pieces from the reef, raise them to the surface, load them into canoes, and ferry them to shore. The estimated construction cost was $30,000.
Hale Pule Lāhui: National Church of Hawaiʻi
Kawaiahaʻo was the scene of many celebrated events from the oath-taking of Hawaiʻiʻs Kings to royal weddings to state funerals. Due to its long royal history, it was called the “Westminster Abbey of Hawaiʻi”, “the Great Stone Church”, “ka Hale Pule Lāhui” (“The National House of Prayer”), “Ka Luakini Kristiano” (“The Christian Tabernacle of Hawaiʻi”), and “The Great Church” among other titles.
Kawaiahaʻo Church also served as a civic center hosting Hawaiʻiʻs early elected parliaments and constitutional conventions. It was here in 1843 that King Kamehameha III uttered what became the Hawaiian Kingdomʻs motto and is now our state motto—”Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻāina i ka pono” or “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”. For more on Hawaiian history, please visit out Hawaiian History page. It was also at Kawaiaha’o Church that “He Mele Lāhui”, composed by the future Queen Liliʻuokalani, was debuted to King Kamehameha V and the public. It became Hawaiʻiʻs national anthem until being replaced by “Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī”, written by the Queenʻs brother, King Kalākaua.
Today, Kawaiahaʻo Church is a member of the United Church of Christ and the building and site are listed as a registered state and national historical site.
Kawaiahaʻo: The Protestant Mission Church
Kawaiahaʻo also played a role in evangelizing other parts of the Pacific including Pohnpei, Kosrae, Kiribati, Chuuk, the Marshall Islands, Tahiti, the Marquesas, and parts of Indonesia in the 19th century. Kawaiahaʻo Church therefore in many ways is not just a mother church to Native Hawaiians but to other Pacific Islanders due to its past extensive missionary work. For more information: Protestant Missionaries in Micronesia
According to legend, the large lava rock incorporated into the Ka Wai a Haʻo fountain was brought from Kaimukī and set at the mouth of the spring to raise the water level to the height of a person. The fountain on the mauka (mountain) side of the church is fed by an artesian well from beneath the church.
King Lunalilo’s Tomb
King William Charles Lunalilo was the kingdom’s sixth monarch and nicknamed “The Peopleʻs King”. After the passing of King Kamehameha V, King Lunalio was elected by popular referendum and by the Hawaiian Kingdom’s Legislature thus becoming Hawaiʻiʻs first elected head of state. Like previous kings, he took his oath of office to the Hawaiian Constitution at Kawaiahaʻo Church. Sadly, he was to rule for 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 at the entrance to Kawaiahaʻo Church rather than at the Royal Mausoleum in Nuʻuanu. Before passing away, he willed that all of his lands and wealth be used to create Lunalilo Homes to provide for the elderly.
The “Kauikeaouli Clock” was donated by King Kamehameha III (whose personal name was Kauikeaouli) and made by the Howard & Davis Clock Makers in Boston, Massachusetts. Mechanics arrived with the clock in 1850, and the king supervised its installation. The clock still tolls the hours with its original machinery!
Kaʻiulani’s Bench and Plantings
In 1899, Archibald Cleghorn Cleghorn dug an artesian well, planted a lawn, and set out the line of royal palms mauka of the building as memorial to his daughter, Princess Kaʻiulani. The wrought-iron bench beside the fountain is from the princess’ home of ʻĀinahau in Waikīkī. A red ‘ōhi‘a lehua grows in its center. Like the ʻōhia, many of the plants on the church grounds are native or endemic to Hawaiʻi.
As you enter the sanctuary the royal pews are marked by Kahili (feather staff) that symbolize royal rank. The portraits on the balcony walls depict Hawaiian Ali‘i (royalty). They are numbered 1 to 21, beginning with Kamehameha the Great. The baptismal font was a gift from Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the great-grand-daughter of Kamehameha I. The organ dates to 1964 and has 2,500 pipes— the largest pipe is 22 feet long and one foot in diameter, and the smallest is the size of a pencil! In 1925 the building was almost entirely reconstructed due to termite infestation. The reconstruction attempted to return the building to its New England simplicity. The pulpit furniture was made from salvaged ‘ōhi‘a and kauila. The arched windows on either side of the pulpit and the crescent opening above the cross were retained. New, insect-proof redwood seats were installed, and the royal pews were closed to visitors. The outer walls were spray-coated with a cement plaster to preserve the coral blocks from damage by birds pecking at them!
The Royal Pews
These pews were reserved for members of the Hawaiian Royal Family. Originally, they were installed by King Kamehameha III and eventually the pews were passed down from monarch to monarch down to Queen Liliʻuokalani.
Today Kawaiahaʻo’s worship services are held in the Sanctuary at 9:00 am. You are most welcome to visit our grounds and join us for worship!
- Rev. Hiram Bingham 1820-1840
- Rev. Richard Armstrong 1840-1848
- Rev. Ephraim Clark 1848-1863
- Rev. Henry Parker 1863-1917
- Rev. Akaiko Akana 1918-1933
- Rev. William Kamau 1934-1940
- Rev. Edward Kahale 1937-1957
- Rev. Abraham Akaka 1957-1984
- Rev. William H. Kaina 1984-1997
- Rev. James Fung 2000-2002
- Rev. Curtis P. Kekuna 2004-2017
- Rev. Kenneth Makuakāne 2018 to present