Monday, July 21, 2003

Henry Opukaha'ia: He inspired New Englanders to send missionaries to Hawaii

Missionary’s grave
to get historical ornament

NAPOOPOO, Hawaii >> Henry Opukaha'ia has been home on the Big Island for 10 years now. It's what he wanted.

On Aug. 16, the man who changed Hawaiian history by inspiring early 19th-century New Englanders to send missionaries to Hawaii will be given renewed recognition by the placement of a historical plaque at his grave near Kealakekua Bay in South Kona.

The plaque quotes Opukaha'ia's words when found weeping on the steps of Yale University at age 17 in 1809: "No one gives me learning." The president of Yale, Dr. Timothy Dwight, took Opukaha'ia into his home and tutored him.

During his nine years in New England, Opukaha'ia became a Christian and began preparing to return to Hawaii as a missionary. But typhus ended his life at the age of 26 in 1818, and he was buried in Cornwall, Conn. After his death, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent New Englanders as missionaries to Hawaii.

When family members from Hawaii came to bring him home in 1993, Connecticut people were reluctant to let him go, said seventh generation cousin Deborah Lee.

The young man from Hawaii had long been praised to Connecticut schoolchildren as a person eager for knowledge.

But Lee had awoken one night with a powerful spiritual experience. Her mind on Opukaha'ia, she felt the words, "He wants to come home."

On his deathbed, Opukaha'ia had said: "Oh, how I want to see Hawaii. But I think I never shall. God will do right. He knows what is best."

On Aug. 15, 1993, Opukaha'ia's remains were laid in a vault facing the sea at Kahikolu Church near Napoopoo. It was the third church established in Hawaii by missionaries inspired by Opukaha'ia.

The current church building, erected in 1852, stands a half-mile from Hikiau Heiau at Kealakekua Bay where young Opukaha'ia had trained to be a kahuna after being orphaned in Kamehameha's wars of unification. He later went to sea, eventually reaching New England.

Kahikolu pastor Wendell Davis says the church's steeple now draws visitors to discover Opukaha'ia's resting place. Schools send groups of children to visit the grave.

When Opukaha'ia was returned to Hawaii 10 years ago, 700 people attended the event, Lee said.

Davis expects 300 to 400 to come on Aug. 16. "I think the word is out: 'Let's go to the Big Island. Let's go see Henry's grave,'" he said.


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