#ChurchSunday: Exploring the Big Island’s Historic Churches

#ChurchSunday: Exploring the Big Island’s Historic Churches

Author’s note: This article is part of my #ChurchSunday series on Instagram (@DeniseLaitinen). The series came about a few years ago while doing research on historic churches for a magazine article I wrote. Now, in my travels around the island, I stop to photograph old churches when I come across them and created this weekly series that I feature every Sunday on Instagram.

Finding this tiny Big Island historic church was an adventure. And I was even more excited when I realized that this church, its builder, and the person it was built in honor of – are connected to several other churches I’ve written about in the past as part of my #ChurchSunday series! It’s like finding another pearl for a necklace. After I posted about Kauaha‘ao Church in Waiohinu last year, one of my Facebook friends mentioned that there was an old church several miles down the road in the golf course area of Punalu‘u.

Exploring Punalu‘u

I’ve been to Punalu‘u Beach Park several times and had never seen a church in the area, so I was intrigued. My curiosity was further piqued when I drove around the town of Pahala, just five miles from Punalu‘u and couldn’t find any old churches. Pahala used to be a thriving sugar plantation town and there are several homes in the community that are more than a hundred years old. But the two churches within the town itself – a Catholic one and a Baptist one – are definitely modern in design (the Catholic church is built of concrete block and the Baptist church is a former private home.)


Exploring the Ka’u coastline at Punalu’u I made an exciting discovery.

While in Punalu‘u for the Ka’u Coffee Festival I went down to Punalu‘u Beach Park for some early morning exploring before the coffee festival got underway. Rather than go to the famed black sand beach, (which already had a fair amount of visitors given the early hour in the morning), I headed to a spot along the shore that a local coffee farmer had told me I could see a lot of sea turtles. I followed the path to the shoreline, and while it was beautiful, I saw no turtles.

When I turned around and headed back toward the road, I caught my breath. There in the distance atop a hill, was a church steeple. Was this the old church my friend had told me about? I hurried back to my car and saw a dirt road that climbed a steep hill. I drove up and down the main road a little bit to see if there were any other points of access and then proceeded to drive up the one lane road, that was, thankfully, paved in the steepest parts.

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon this quaint church and adjoining cemetery overlooking Punalu‘u beach!

Hoku Loa Congregational Church


The inlaid cross-shaped window at the front of the church overlooks the beautiful Ka’u coastline. Someone left a spam musubi in the window as an offering.

The current church, which was completed in April 1957, was built by the Layman’s Fellowship, the Congregational Christian Churches of Hawaii, and Gifts of the Woman’s Board. Made of lava rock, the small simple church is open on the right and back sides with plexiglass providing shelter from the elements on the left side. A cross-shaped window opening was built into the front of the church providing a view of the gorgeous coastline below.

Like many old churches on island, there is a separate structure that houses a large bell, presumably rung in days gone by to let residents know services were being held.

I was really excited to have found this church, probably the most remote one I have discovered an offering in the in the two years I’ve been posting about historic churches on Hawaii Island. My pulse really quickened though when I read a plaque on the inside front of the church. The Hoku Loa Congregational Church is also known as the Henry Opukahaia Chapel.

This little chapel is part of a thread that connects several different people and churches mentioned in my previous #ChurchSunday posts!

Built by Hawaii Island’s most prolific church builder

The original chapel on this site was built by Rev. John D. Paris, among the most prolific church builders on Hawaii Island. A Christian missionary originally from Virginia, Paris built 11 churches across a large portion of west and south Hawaii Island in the mid-1800s. Originally stationed in Ka’u in the 1840s, Rev. John D. Paris is perhaps best known in the Ka’u district for building Ka‘uaha‘oa Church in Wai‘ohinu, a large stone church that was destroyed by earthquakes in 1868. However, during this time he also built a small stone chapel called Hoku‘loa on a hill overlooking Punalu‘u beach, as a memorial to the birthplace of Henry Opukahaia.

Henry Opukahaia and Hawaii Island’s first missionaries


Born in Ka’u, Henry Opukahaia is credited with inspiring the first missionaries to travel to Hawaii Island. Originally buried in Connecticut, in 1993 he was reinterred at Kahikolu Church in Captain Cook.

Readers of my #ChurchSunday series may remember that Henry Obookiah (as his named was spelled in the 1800s), is the man widely believed to be one of the key players to bring Christianity to Hawaii. Born in the Ninole area of the Ka’u district in 1792, Henry sailed to New England in 1809 and eventually wound up converting to Christianity while at Yale. He was in the midst of preparing to return to Hawaii to minister as a Christian when he died of typhus at the age of 26.

As a tribute to Henry, his friends set sail on a mission to bring Christianity to Hawaii and were the first missionaries to arrive on island in Kona in 1820 on the boat Thaddeus. Today, you can read about these early missionaries and see a replica of the ship that brought them to Hawaii at the Mokuaikaua Church on Ali‘i Drive in Kailua-Kona.

Originally buried in Connecticut, in 1993 Henry Obookiah was reinterred at Kahikolu Church in Captain Cook. As it turns out, Rev. John D. Paris built one of the churches on the site of Kahikolu Church.

A note about Rev. John D. Paris:

Paris left Ka‘u just a few years after building the chapel in Punalu‘u after the death of his wife. He left for the mainland, where he remarried in New York and he and his second wife returned to the Big Island, this time for missionary work in Kona where he built several churches. John D. Paris’ son became a rancher and the Paris ohana has gone on to become well-known for their ranching and rodeo skills in the Kona community where they maintain a ranch to the this day.]

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