HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - An excavation team has found nearly 600 sets of remains in the very spot where the historic Kawaiahao Church plans to build a multi-purpose center, and Hawaiian activists say it's one of the largest burial discoveries in state history.
Hawaii News Now has obtained an email from the church's consultants that shows that they have unearthed as many as 579 remains at the site of the church's proposed $17.5 million center.
Moses Haia, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., said he believes that many are ancient Hawaiian burials.
"Given the information you have, it's alarming, troubling. It's hard to comprehend," Haia said.
Church officials told the state that most of the burials were found in coffins and are not of pre-contact Hawaiians. In a statement released today, William Haole, chairman of the church's board of trustees had this to say:
"Kawaiahao Church is following the procedures set forth by the Department of Health and the State Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources and in accordance with the direction of the court."
A church spokesman says all those remains are being stored on the property. Descendants of those that can be identified have been contacted, the spokesman said.
Dana Naone Hall, former chair of the Maui-Lanai Island Burial Council, unsuccessfully sued Kawaiahao Church over its handling of the remains.
Hall, who is appealing the decision, says the Kawaiahao discovery is the largest since the burials discovered at Honokahua on Maui back in the late 1980s.
About 2,000 ancient Hawaiian remains were discovered at the Maui site and the protests over the handling of the iwi later resulted in the passage of the state's landmark burial law.
"It's quite shocking that it continues on and I believe the governor should step in and do something about prevent the further desecration of burials," said Hall.
Known as the "Westminster Abbey of Hawaii," Kawaiahao is one the state's oldest and most recognized churches.
The church is listed on the national and state registers of historic places and is the final resting place of King William Charles Lunalilo.
The planned two-story construction project replaces Likeke Hall, which was torn down in 2008.
The 30,000-square-foot building -- which will include classrooms, conference rooms, a $1 million kitchen and space for wedding receptions -- was originally scheduled for completion in June 2010.
The discoveries at Kawaiahao Church will be closely watched by the local development community.
With a dozen new projects underway or on the drawing board in Kakaako, most experts believe more remains will be unearthed in the area.
The city's rail route goes through Kakaako. And the project is facing months of construction delays after the state Supreme Court ruled against the city's fragmented effort to find Hawaiian remains.
To view the email from the church's consultants regarding their findings, click here.