Thursday, November 4, 1999



By Rod Thompson, Star-Bulletin
In the parish hall of Malia Puka O Kalani Catholic Church
in Hilo, religious artist Waldemar Perez has hung a depiction
of Hawaiian people celebrating the seven sacraments. Everywhere
he goes, he said, he tells people about the little wooden church.

Artist captures
the special spirit
of Hilo church

Catholic parishioners see
themselves in a banner celebrating
the seven sacraments

By Rod Thompson


HILO -- High in the parish hall of Malia Puka O Kalani Catholic Church, religious artist Waldemar Perez has hung a large, circular, felt-and-nylon depiction of Hawaiian people celebrating the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.

Parishioners already are recognizing themselves, or an auntie, or some other relative among the nearly life-size figures.

The images were inspired by photos, but Perez won't confirm that any one figure represents someone in the parish.

He feels it's better if all viewers can see themselves among the figures.

This is the 15th trip Perez has made from his home in Colorado to "Malia," the little wooden church in the Keaukaha Hawaiian Homes area of Hilo.

Perez is one of 25 artists, musicians and religious thinkers conducting the four-day, 24th annual Liturgy and Arts Conference at the church, starting today.

The conference is drawing 400 people from as far away as Guam and Scotland.

It's also sending song and spirit thousands of miles away.

David Haas of Minnesota, a free-lance liturgical musician, has traveled to numerous countries, including Australia, Israel, Ireland and the Bahamas.

Everywhere he goes, he tells people about the little wooden church in Hawaii.

And he takes with him compact discs and tapes with hymns composed here, called the "Spirit of Malia."

For Haas and many visitors, that spirit is hospitality.

"Everybody is hugging and kissing, and talking, it's like it's organic. It's a real sense of connectedness," he said.

"Hospitality and liturgy are closely linked. If I don't feel connected to you, how can I pray with you?" he asked.

Perez was told about Malia in Colorado in 1985 by a friend. "She kept saying, you've got to go, you've got to go."

Born and raised in Cuba, Perez discovered in Hawaii an echo of the tropical feeling and bright colors he knew in his childhood.

"I'm not a pastel type," he said.

He brought with him some of the cloth banners used as church decorations, which a nun taught him to make in Colorado. "I thought they were old and dated," he confessed.

The people of Malia immediately adopted them. "I loved everything he did," said Sister Louise Bullis.

The banners brighten the church and tell stories, just as stained-glass windows did in the Middle Ages, she said.

Perez adapts his art to the local culture.

The Holy Spirit is usually symbolized in art by a dove. In his "Circle of Life" banner, Perez uses a nene goose. Instead of harps, his angels play ukuleles.

Malia's priest, Father George DeCosta, called this cultural adaptation "inculturation."

Parish secretary Kathy Baybayan credited DeCosta with creating the environment for fresh ideas.

Baybayan left the church when she was a teen-ager, then came back when she heard DeCosta speak at a funeral.

"It was a celebration. It wasn't morbid," she said. "He's always been a rebel because he challenges you. He doesn't want you to just sit in the pews."

Father Alapaki Kim of St. Rita's Church in Nanakuli will present challenging ideas in a conference workshop on Hawaiian rights. One topic will be the 1887 "Bayonet Constitution" forced onto King Kalakaua, Kim said.

That constitution removed the right to vote from Hawaiians who didn't have land and money in the bank, yet granted the vote to foreigners who did have land and money, he said.

One bit of controversy bypassed Malia last year. While one person complained all the way to the Vatican about the use of hula in a Maui church, hula quietly continued at Malia.

Baybayan said hula was not danced during the Mass at Malia, only afterward, and the Vatican eventually approved "sacred gestures" during the Mass.

Musician Haas said he has taken Father George and his assistant, Joe Camacho, as far as New Jersey, explaining Hawaiian culture.

Fellow musician Father Jim Bessert of Michigan said, "This tight little community of 300 people has touched thousands of people. This place is really living the Gospel."

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