View from the Pew
Hui Aloha Church on Maui, which was built in 1859 as an outpost for traveling clergymen. Taken from "Glory by the Wayside: The Old Churches of Hawaii," a coffee table book by William and Susan Ecenbarger.
A beautiful new book presents Hawaii's old churches as "Glory by the Wayside"
Summertime heat is here, but it's not a hot season on the religion beat as school break begins, pastors take leave and there's a lull in many temple and church programs.
Along comes a new book that's a cool oasis from the steamy crush of weekend bon dances and from the angst of pastoral turnovers in several churches, and a respite before the political heat of the July Anglican gathering in England and other denominations' upcoming conventions.
Just paging through "Glory by the Wayside: The Old Churches of Hawaii" builds a daydream: I'm lolling on the shady porch of St. John's Church in Kula, Maui, gazing down on the deep blue sea. Hours pass, no crush of traffic to face, no deadlines and demands, the office noise fades. Nobody around me knows I've transported 100 miles away and 3,000 feet upslope.
It's a serene place to empty the mind and welcome the light into the void. It's a virtual religious experience of the Elijah in a mountain cave hearing God as a whisper variety.
Oh, no, that's just too Zen and new age and gushy, not the sort of stuff encouraged in the old Christian churches we're looking at here. Not, at least, when they were in their heyday and religion was a communal experience. But those stern old missionaries sure knew how to pick a spot that reflects the verses of "How Great Thou Art."
Travel writer William Ecenbarger and his wife, Susan, a photographer, created a beautiful picture book that displays the treasures of early Christianity in Hawaii, 37 handcrafted churches, most dating back to the mid-1800s. Published by Passage Press, the book will be available in Hawaii bookstores. More than a coffee table decoration, it's small enough to pack along as a guidebook on a neighbor-island trip.
Island residents are accustomed to occasionally passing a picturesque old church in a setting of spectacular scenery and tropical foliage.
Kaahumanu Church in Wailuku, Maui. Taken from "Glory by the Wayside: The Old Churches of Hawaii," a coffee table book by William and Susan Ecenbarger.
St. Peter's Catholic Church in Kahuluu, Hawaii. Taken from "Glory by the Wayside: The Old Churches of Hawaii," a coffee table book by William and Susan Ecenbarger.
To encounter them one after another through vivid photography is to appreciate what gems they are. These aren't cathedrals -- Kawaiaha'o is the only large urban church in the collection -- they are little rural sanctuaries that might be on the National or State Register of Historic Places but are still the gathering place for worshippers on Sunday mornings and for weddings and funerals.
Ecenbarger points out that these are "strikingly apart" from modern megachurches, auditoriums that fill with big sound and large crowds on Sundays and are closed the rest of the week. "In contrast, the churches of Hawaii keep their doors open and offer venues for solitary contemplation, or merely a place to oil a squeaky day. They straddle two worlds, linking the days that are with the days that were."
He weaves an anecdotal narrative about each church, information gathered from archives and historical sources as well as interviews with parishioners. He tells of the extraordinary task of constructing the buildings, people chopping underwater coral by hand and hauling trees from upper slopes by sheer manpower; he admires the carpentry and masonry talents of the New England missionaries and of Father Damien DeVeuster, who built six churches on Molokai.
Helani Congregational Church in Kahuluu. Taken from "Glory by the Wayside: The Old Churches of Hawaii," a coffee table book by William and Susan Ecenbarger.
St. John's Church in Kula, Maui. Taken from "Glory by the Wayside: The Old Churches of Hawaii," a coffee table book by William and Susan Ecenbarger.
The widespread mission of the Congregational denomination accounts for most of the clapboard or stone treasures. But there's also the octagonal Holy Ghost Church in Waiakoa, Maui, built for early Portuguese residents, and Lihue Lutheran Church on Kauai, a post-hurricane replica of the one built by German immigrants. And my place of imagined repose in Upcountry Maui, St. John's Episcopal Church, was built by a missionary to Chinese farmers.
My favorite based on looks alone is Helani Congregational Church, which is as red as the coffee beans in the fields that surround it in Kahaluu, Hawaii. I'm partial to rusty corrugated roofs and can just imagine that hymns are drowned out by the "rolling thunder" of rainfall.
Ecenbarger decries the fact that some old churches are neglected, collapsing into ruins, left behind when larger churches were built and congregations moved on. He thinks each is worth preserving no matter what cost. "Each of them imparts a blessing to the landscape. Each is an uplifting work of art, intended for all, including unbelievers. Their sanctity is tested and inviolate."
Travel writer William Ecenbarger and his wife, Susan, a photographer, created a picture book that displays the treasures of early Christianity in Hawaii: 37 handcrafted churches, most dating to the mid-1800s.
The Ecenbargers, who live in Maine, collected images and information on five trips to Hawaii between 2005 and 2007. The couple has traveled in 50 countries, collaborating on more than 300 articles for magazines and newspapers over the past 20 years.
Ecenbarger said Hawaii is one of their favorite places. He has written nearly 30 articles about the islands, most recently a story on the "Long, Happy Lives of Mom-and-Pop Stores" that appeared last year in Aloha Magazine. A former newsman, he was on a Philadelphia Inquirer team that won a 1979 Pulitzer prize for coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, and was named Lowell Thomas Travel Writer of the Year in 1996 by the Society of American Travel Writers.
Typical Hawaii resident, I looked for the mistakes and misinterpretations you anticipate when an outsider writes about the islands. I have to admire Ecenbarger's succinct sentence that covers so much political and social ground. "It is an incontrovertible fact of history that the Christian church was an important part of the system that disenfranchised the Hawaiian people. But it is the churches, not the Church, that we honor here." Elsewhere, he acknowledged that the New England missionaries played a role in perpetuating the Hawaiian language in printed Bibles and hymnals.
I found one error. Kawaiaha'o Church has seating for 1,500 people, not 4,500 as stated in the text.
If the book lacks anything, it's the presence of live humans. There's nary a one to be seen inside or outside of any church in the book.
Maybe that's what makes for such serene art. Probably that's why it's so easy to imagine yourself in the shade of an old steeple listening for God in the whispering wind.