Untouched by flames, a historic Lahaina church emerges as a symbol of hope

When the wind-driven wildfires roared through Lahaina, the flames surrounded Maria Lanakila Catholic Church, just a stone’s throw from Front Street.
Published: Aug. 22, 2023 at 5:01 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - When the wind-driven wildfires roared through Lahaina, the flames surrounded Maria Lanakila Catholic Church, just a stone’s throw from Front Street.

Monsignor Terrence Watanabe says the church was surrounded.

“Everything around it was on fire,” he said.

But an amazing thing happened, the flames skirted the sanctuary.

Today the structure stands virtually untouched despite how close it sits to homes and buildings that burned to the ground.

Inside, it appears as if the fire never happened.

“When Father Kuriakose went in two days after the fire and took some pictures, the flowers were not even withered. They were still fresh looking. It’s amazing! For us it was a miracle,” Father Watanabe said.

The sanctuary and altar, pews and paintings, flowers, and statues all escaped destruction.

But the Catholic church didn’t get away unscathed. Other structures on the grounds sustained significant damage, including the parish hall and convent, the church preschool, and two school buildings.

“That part burned,” Watanabe said. “So everything except the rectory and the church, everything behind the church was affected by the fire.”

Watanabe is the Vicar for Maui, the Bishop’s representative on the Valley Isle.

“I’m the point person for the recovery and helping people to come back, and helping the pastor there, Father Kuriakose, to deal with all the day to day stuff. He’s really busy trying to assist and help the people of his parish and the people of Lahaina,” he said.

Understandably, it will be a long time before Maria Lanakila re-opens for services in Lahaina. In the meantime, it’s holding services at Sacred Hearts Church in Kapalua.

“They’re having services out there. Father has his office out there. They’ve set that up as the new parish center for now,” Watanabe said.

And he said arrangements are being made to set up the church’s preschool through 8th grade campus at another site.

“We’re trying to set up a school in Kapalua on the Maui Land and Pineapple Company land. They have a couple of buildings there that they’re going to lease to us so that we might be able to at least help the parents with the children,” he said.

Catholic churches and organizations on Maui and elsewhere continue to provide assistance to Maria Lanakila and to survivors of the deadly blazes.

Donations can be made to the Hawaii Catholic Community Foundation.

“We’ve already collected over $50,000 just in our parish, not to mention all the other parishes on the island who are also going to help with whatever financial resources they have. It’s just been incredible response,” Watanabe said.

He sees Maria Lanikila Catholic Church as a beacon of hope for survivors of the Lahaiana fire, but he’s quick to add it’s just a building.

“We always have to remember the church really is the people of God, not the building, so we’re more concerned about people’s welfare and their well-being and their safety,” he said.