Maui’s Christian History Complex Second Only to Honolulu

“Maui Fires Burn Site Where Hawaiian Queen First Brought Christianity to the Island”

Christianity Today August 14, 2023
The wooden Wainee Church in late nineteenth century from E. J. Monsarrat Collection, Hawai‘i State Archives. Fires and strong winds have in the past destroyed the Wainee/Waiola churches.

Christianity Today asked me to contribute background information to a recent article posted at Christianity focusing on the Christian history and missionary sites located in Lahaina, Maui.

Morgan Lee of Christianity Today wrote an excellent deadline piece on the Christian response on Maui to the tragic, devastating fire which broke out on August 8.

Morgan quoted me: “After Honolulu, ‘Lahaina is home to the second-most complete complex of historic Hawaiian Christian sites in one place to be found in all of Hawaii,’ said Chris Cook, an expert on Hawaiian missionary history. ‘The loss of all but the Lahainaluna sites leaves a major gap in the statewide census of intact Hawaii missionary-era (1820–1863) structures.’”

I was told by Ka‘eo Decoite of Mo‘olelo Kū‘i‘o ministries that Samaritan’s Purse and other off-island disaster-scene ministries are on the ground on Maui providing material and spiritual help.

Lahaina Banyan Tree’s Kaua‘i Roots

The literal roots of the Lahaina Banyan tree which survived the tragic Lahaina fire and is now the symbol of recovery over there, go back to the Koloa, Kaua‘i Sandwich Islands Mission Station. An account of how an 8-foot banyan tree cutting taken in Koloa became the Lahaina Banyan Tree appear in the pages of my late wife Evelyn Cook’s Smith-Waterhouse family book 100 years of Healing – The Legacy of a Kauai Missionary Doctor published in 2003. Evelyn was joined in publishing the book by Lori Dill of Kaua‘i and the late Uncle Bob Watts from Kailua.

I may be biased, but Evelyn’s account is 10 x better than the history of the Lahaina Banyan Tree being given in the news around the globe. Here is Evelyn’s carefully documented account describing the motive of Koloa missionary son William Owen Smith in planting the Lahaina Banyan in 1873.

William Owen Smith photo courtesy Bobbie McCord

Sugar cane cultivation did not assume major importance until after 1876 when reciprocity treaty was signed with the U.S. which allowed Hawaiian sugar to enter the U.S. duty free. The treaty transformed the island sugar business into a highly profitable industry, not just for the haoles, but also for the alii who leased land to the plantations and invested directly in the business themselves.

In 1873, the whaling boom was over but the sugar industry had not yet boomed. Lahaina was a sleepy little town without much crime to keep its sole lawman busy. Sheriff Smith often whiled away slow days sitting on a bench outside the courthouse watching ships in the harbor while trading stories with the elderly Hawaiian men who stopped by to chat. The old men loved it that a haole could speak Hawaiian so fluently, with all its subtle layerings, hidden meanings, and poetic flourishes. Smith could even tell jokes in the native tongue, which delighted them, and his sly sense of humor seemed very Hawaiian to them.

Historic Lahaina in the 1970s. Lahaina Banyan Tree is mauka of Lahaina small boat harbor. Hawai‘i State Archives photo

Lahaina‘s weather is sunny much of the time, and since in Smith’s day no trees grew near the courthouse, it could become unbearably hot. So when the sheriff visited his parents on Kauai and they offered to give him a young sapling to plant as a shade tree on the courthouse grounds, he willingly accepted. The tree was an Indian banyan, and Smith planted it in the courthouse square on April 24, 1873, with the help of the old Hawaiian men who liked his jokes. Although it was planted as part of a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the first Christian mission in Lahaina, many of Smith’s descendants believe that his original motive had simply been to provide some welcome shade around the courthouse for his Hawaiian friends. And to this day, the Hawaiians of Lahaina still speak with affection of W.O. Smith.

“My great-grandfather, Mr. Mona Kawenaole, who died of leprosy in Kalaupapa, was the konohiki [land steward] for Lahaina in the mid to late 1800s. He was a friend to W.O. Smith and helped plant that tree,” explained Sissa Kaumeheiwa Reynolds, a Native Hawaiian whose family has lived on Maui for generations.

“It was a friendship tree planted for their friendship and their love for the land-to watch it grow over the generations. Sheriff Smith asked this bunch of old kanaka maoli to plant it with him. They used to hang out by the water and talk story. This was told to me by my grandma and Uncle Frank Kahahani and Uncle Willieama Waiohu sitting around the table talking story, eating saloon pilot crackers and drinking hot cocoa. W.O. Smith was a friend of the Hawaiians. They wouldn’t have been hanging with him if he was no good. I don’t care what people say today. He was a friend,“ Sissa said.

The banyan tree her great-grandfather Kawenaole helped Smith plant 130 years ago is today the largest Indian banyan in Hawaii and shades nearly an acre of the old courthouse grounds. Sissa believes it symbolizes an enduring friendship between hole and Hawaiian that is far stronger than the animosity which sometimes flares up between the two peoples.

Mahalo to the Smith-Waterhouse family for permission to post this passage from 100 Years of Healing : The Legacy of a Kauai Missionary Doctor by Evelyn Simpson Cook, published by Halewai Publishing, Koloa, Kauai 2003.

Lahaina Banyan Tree Minature by Opala Art

A Lahaina Banyan Tree minature made from a piece of non-recyclable fishing net is being sold as a Lahaina fund-raiser by Kaua‘i-based Opala Art. For more details go to opala_art on Instagram.

Please Pray for People of Lahaina and West Maui

The Waiola Church Hall is pictured above in flames on the cover of the August 10, 2023 issue of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Click the front page for the latest Star-Advertiser news.

We are very concerned about the status of our Waiola Church friends.

We know Tama Kaleleiki is safe, though he lost his home located on the corner of Wainee and Shaw St. The Maui News interviewed Tama on Tuesday, August 8:

LAHAINA — Tama Kaleleiki watched in dismay as a blaze fanned by strong winds engulfed the hall of Lahaina’s historic Waiola Church. 

“This is very sad. It breaks my heart. We live for our church. My sister and I just cleaned yesterday,” Kaleleiki said Tuesday afternoon. “I just hope the church is strong enough to overcome this. I’m praying.”

All Hawai‘i is in shock over this devastation of Lahaina and other sections of West Maui. Working with Mo‘olelo Kū‘i‘o ministry we grew close to the organizers of the Waiola 2023 Bicentennial. We created and donated copies of a commemorative booklet for the Waiola Church for the bicentennial celebration held on the church grounds in late May. We are very thankful we have this snapshot in time of the Waiola Church, its people and history.

As a survivor of Kaua‘i hurricanes Iwa in 1982 and ‘Iniki in 1992 I feel deeply for the Lahaina ʻohana, recovery is a long road following a mega-disaster.

The Waiola Church congregation rebuilt their church following a fire which heavily damaged the church in 1947 (then still named the Wainee Church), only to have the infamous Lahaina Kauaula Wind destroy the wood frame church in 1951. Recovery efforts saw Congregational churches sending members to Waiola to help clean up the church grounds, and by 1952 the new church opened, renamed Waiola. Surely such aid will arrive in the future when it is time to build a new Waiola Church.

A history page from the Waiola Bicentennial program.

Lahaina Walking Tour – Sites of Second Hawai‘i Missionary Company Bicentennial

Join Chris Cook for a Lahaina Town Guided Walking Tour focused on historic sites of the arrival in Maui of the Second Hawai‘i Missionary Company in May-June 1823.

Date: Saturday, May 6, 2023 1:00pm – 3:00pm. Meet at the Baldwin House.

Interpretive guided walking tour of Lahaina & ending at Waiola Cemetery with focus on Second Company sites.

Download the PDF Handout for the Lahaina Walking Tour – Second Hawai‘i Mission Company Historic Sites