RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
The bo tree at the entrance to Foster Botanical Garden frames Kamehameha Schools seniors Ka'iulani Neff, left, Jordan Takekawa and Hannah Thomas. The three, wearing period garb, will help host Sunday's event commemorating Mary Foster's birthday.
Mysterious Mary Foster
Foster Garden celebrates its developer's birthday this weekend
Mary Mikahala Robinson Foster was the daughter of a shipwrecked sailor. Her mother was the daughter of Kamakana, a Maui chiefess. Although Foster was a close friend of Queen Liliuokalani, much of her life is shrouded in mystery.
Mary Foster's Birthday Bash
When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday
Place: Foster Botanical Garden
Admission: Free. Pre-purchase box lunches and brunch for $20, to benefit the garden
"Mary Foster is a piece of history that is overlooked," said Grace Dixon, a volunteer at Foster Botanical Garden. "Her story is the stuff of novels."
Her full name might not be familiar, but her legacy certainly is. When she died in 1930, she left Foster Botanical Garden to the city. "This first garden bloomed into five distinct gardens," Dixon said. "It became the keystone of Honolulu Botanical Gardens."
The garden celebrates Foster's birthday on Sunday with music, hula, historic exhibits, a Sunday brunch and more. As a co-organizer, Dixon hopes the event will make the community more familiar with Foster.
Wednesday, Foster's actual birthday, was proclaimed "Mary Foster Day" by Mayor Mufi Hannemann. Her birthday present -- besides the party -- is a new variety of hibiscus, developed by local landscape artist and native propagator Dennis Kim and named for Foster. The new hibiscus, with reddish-pink flowers, will be sold at Sunday's event.
Foster grew up in royal social circles. Her parents, Rebecca Prever and John James Robinson, were married in the 1800s, and Robinson founded a shipyard that became the basis of the family fortune. Her younger sister was Victoria Ward, and her brother was Mark Robinson, a founder of First National Bank and American Savings Bank.
Foster was born in 1884, and at age 16 married Thomas Foster, one of Hawaii's most influential businessmen. They had no children.
A forerunner in crossing cultural boundaries, Foster maintained a great interest in Buddhism.
"She followed a different path than other people of that time period," said Karen Miyano, a Friends of the Botanical Garden board member. "She looked for different ways of spiritualism, instead of what was imposed upon her."
Pat Masters, who is writing a novel, "In Search of Mary Foster," to be published in 2007, said Foster was instrumental in establishing Japanese Buddhism in Hawaii.
She helped establish the Honpa Hongwanji Mission and School on Pali Highway, said Masters, a professor at Loyola Marymount University in California. "The book by Ruth Tabrah, 'The History of the Hongwanji Temple,' includes pages and pages about Mary Foster."
Her interest in Buddhism developed after a chance meeting with Ceylonese hero Anagarika Dharmapala, when his ship stopped in Honolulu on the way back from the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
The tree was propagated from one planted in Ceylon in 288 B.C., at the temple in Anuradhapura. It was brought to Honolulu in honor of Foster, above.
After hearing about Dharmapala's schools and orphanages, Foster donated funds to the Ceylonese Bodhi Society to promote Buddhism's spiritual and charitable causes, and funded the Foster-Robinson Hospital for the Poor -- a free ayurvedic hospital that remains part of Colombo General Hospital in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon).
A prayer service is held every month at the hospital in Foster's honor, Masters said. "In Sri Lanka she is like a saint."
She also gave money during the 1890s to restore the temple at Bodh Gaya in India, after the statues were destroyed and monks and nuns were killed during a Muslim invasion in the 12th century.
"Bodh Gaya is the most holy site for Buddhists around the world. It's like Mecca for the Muslims and Jerusalem for the Christians," said Masters.
It's not clear if Foster actually traveled to these places or just sent money from Hawaii, explained Masters.
But her contributions to the region are memorialized with a plaque at the Ghandi Peace Garden in India, and with the planting of a bo tree in Honolulu. In 1913, Dharmapala brought the tree, propagated from an ancient tree planted in 288 B.C. at the temple in Anuradhapura, Ceylon. Today, the tree stands tall at the entrance of Foster Botanical Garden.
In 1884, Foster purchased the land that became Foster Botanical Garden from William Hillebrand, a German physician and botanist. Hillebrand's garden contained a valuable collection of rare trees and plants which he had imported and collected over 30 years. Those trees are now more than 150 years old. Hillebrand returned to Germany, leaving Foster to nurture and renovate the garden.
When Foster purchased additional adjoining land, she consulted botanist Joseph Rock, who provided a preliminary list of plants growing on the grounds. When she leased some land to the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association for an experiment station in 1919, Harold Lyon assisted in the cleanup and further classification of plants and trees in the garden.
"Animals were (also) a part of the garden," Miyano said. "There were monkeys in the trees, and a Galapagos tortoise roamed around the garden."
"Children would visit and ride around on its back," added Dixon.
Sunday's party is meant to reflect Foster's garden parties of the past. "The Royal Hawaiian Band will be playing Hawaiian waltzes, and there will be a dance floor under the trees," Dixon said. Trained dancers will hold demonstrations and encourage others to join them. "We want people to feel like they are participating."
A historical tent will feature exhibits about the original Foster home, and author Masters will speak.
Kamehameha Schools students will act as hostesses. "Mary Foster funded native Hawaiian students attending Kamehameha," Masters said.
Masters' interest in Foster was piqued when she visited a temple in northern India. "I was walking up the steps and encountered a huge brass plaque," she said. The inscription noted that the temple was built due to the generosity of Mary Foster of Honolulu.
Masters, who had lived in Hawaii for 28 years, became determined to learn more about this women who is venerated in Asia.
Masters spent years gathering information, both locally and in Sri Lanka. "I became more and more fascinated. She is revered in Asia, but no one in Hawaii knows who she is."
When Masters learns something new about Foster, more questions arise. "All kinds of mysteries still remain."