Explore Hawaii’s Rich Faith History

Walk the paths Trod by Sts. Damien and Marianne Cope

Immaculate Conception parish interior bears a quote from 1 Samuel.
Immaculate Conception parish interior bears a quote from 1 Samuel. (photo: Courtesy of the parish)

Vacationers and honeymooners alike can explore and experience both the sites of Hawaiian Catholic history, where a spirit of hospitality was formed, and the many adventures on the Hawaiian Islands.

This warm hospitality of Hawaiian Catholics is arguably rooted in the fusion of Hawaii’s rich cultural and Catholic spiritual history.

“Our visit to Immaculate Conception in Kauai was so amazing and beautiful. The community was so close that they knew who was a visitor. They welcomed us with smiles and shell leis. It was such a great community and experience!” said honeymooners Janelle and Taylor Engel, of Yorba Linda, California, who went to Mass on Kauai during their recent stay.

Mary Arkfeld of San Clemente, California, who vacationed on Oahu, said, “St. Augustine by the Sea felt like my home church away from home. There was so much life in the community, and you could feel the Spirit moving throughout Mass. I absolutely loved how they incorporated Hawaiian traditions into the liturgy, which made my experience so special.”

An obvious major tourist destination, the Hawaiian Islands offer an array of activities and sites to see, including luaus, hiking, whale watching, surfing, snorkeling and beautiful beaches. Oahu boasts the state capital, Honolulu, the United States Air Force Base, Waikiki Beach, Pearl Harbor Memorial and a beach-city life.

Maui is home of the awe-inspiring Haleakala Crater and the famous Road to Hana. Kauai, the site of much of Jurassic Park’s scenery, offers the Na Pali Coast, Waimea Canyon and other outdoor adventures. The Big Island features the active volcanoes of Maunaloa and Kilauea, the latter of which erupts continually and can be explored in person.

Understanding the history of Hawaiian Catholicism sheds light on the hospitality culture that continues to inspire locals and visitors to this day. Although officially founded in 1941, the Diocese of Honolulu, which ministers to all of the Hawaiian Islands, began in the late 1820s, when the Picpus Fathers landed in Honolulu Harbor.

The Picpus Fathers, members of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, began evangelizing on the Kingdom of Hawaii and the Pacific Islands as the very first Catholic missionaries.

Despite initially facing harsh persecution from non-Catholic Christians on the islands, Catholic natives and the Picpus Fathers persevered and founded the Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in 1940, the oldest Catholic cathedral in continuous use in the United States.

St. Damien of Molokai, a famous member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, was ordained a priest in Honolulu in 1864 and is known for ministering to the lepers on Molokai for the last 16 years of his life. Belgian by birth, St. Damien became a missionary to Hawaii after taking the place of his brother who had fallen ill and could no longer make the voyage. At a time when few Westerners had much knowledge regarding leprosy, known as Hansen’s disease, St. Damien brought worldwide awareness to the condition that aided in reforms in caring with those afflicted. He eventually contracted the disease himself and later died from it.

His positive impact on Hawaii was so great that, when Hawaii became a state, Hawaiians chose Damien as one of two representatives to be portrayed in Statutory Hall at the U.S. Capitol. Even the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson witnessed St. Damien’s impact firsthand when he visited Molokai shortly after Damien’s death, and he penned a letter in vigorous support of Damien.

St. Marianne Cope, a German-born nun who joined the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, New York, after immigrating to the United States, also made a positive impact among the Hawaiian natives.

In 1883, when the Kingdom of Hawaii asked religious orders worldwide for aid in opening a hospital in Oahu to minister to those afflicted with Hansen’s disease, only St. Marianne and six other nuns responded to the call. When the Hawaiian government also asked for aid in founding a home for women and girls in Molokai, St. Marianne volunteered. The Church celebrates her feast day Jan. 23. 

Vacationers on the island of Oahu have the opportunity to attend Mass at St. Augustine by the Sea in Honolulu and learn more about Sts. Damien and Marianne’s work with the native Hawaiians at their visitor center. 

“St. Augustine is an absolutely beautiful church right across the street from the beach. The local parishioners welcomed us warmly when we walked in, and it was fun to see other tourists who were coming to Mass while on vacation. The church is gorgeous and within walking distance from most Waikiki beach hotels/attractions,” said vacationer Jennifer Fletcher of Orange County, California.

St. Elizabeth, on the island of Oahu, boasts a spectacular choir. Vacationer Maria Tam Pham said of her visit, “It’s comforting to know Catholicism is present and well in Hawaii. Even though it shouldn’t have been a surprise, St. Elizabeth’s had an amazing choir. They used their Polynesian ethnicity, culture and voices to really add to the musical component of Mass. Listening to them gave me the chills about the power of faith through song. It’s one of the best and most memorable things about my time on Oahu.”

The island of Kauai, though smaller, offers St. Raphael, founded in 1841 and the oldest Catholic church in Kauai, on the south side. The original structure is old and tiny, but beautiful. The white chapel welcomes visitors to tour it. It has a newer church to accommodate the large parish, just a few hundred feet away. 

Immaculate Conception is near the airport, in Lihue, on the east side. Janelle Engel enjoyed the personable experience she had at Immaculate Conception, which is a typical experience at Kauai Catholic churches.

“The priest also did a blessing over all the children (which they do monthly) and stressed the importance of raising them in the Church. He also wished ‘happy birthday’ to all parishioners with a birthday by name,” Engel said.

St. Catherine, founded in the 1850s, along with her mission churches of St. William and St. Sylvester, ministers to locals and vacationers on the north side. Honeymooners Mariel Lising and Steven Nguyen of Yorba Linda and Lawndale, California, also enjoyed the Masses they attended on Kauai. “We went to St. William’s on the north side [of Kauai] and St. Raphael on the south side. Both were lovely Masses and were so welcoming to tourists.”  

The other islands, including Maui and the Big Island, offer very similar experiences at their Catholic churches. Churches in Maui include the Mary Lankily, inspired by Mary, Our Lady of Victory, on the northwest side, and Holy Rosary Church, an old Gothic-style church on Baldwin Avenue in Paia, which is the first stop on the Road to Hana and features beautiful stained-glass windows and a marble sculpture of St. Damien.

On the Big Island, there are many parishes spread out all over the island. St. Michael the Archangel, on the west side, was founded in 1840 after King Kamehameha III issued an edict declaring religious freedom. The first Masses said there were in a small grass hut. St. Michael’s has mission churches nearby: St. Peter by the Sea, the “Little Blue Church” overlooking Kahala’u Bay, St. Paul, and Holy Rosary. 

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a regular, Hawaii has a vibrant and welcoming Catholic community to offer travelers — in the spirit of St. Marianne, who said: “Let us make the very best use of precious moments and do all in our power for His dear sake and for His greater honor and glory.”

Emily Kearney writes from Orange, California.