Monday, July 6, 1998

By Thomas Quinlan, Special to the Star-Bulletin
The Kauaha'ao Church was demolished in April -- a decision
that split the congregation and continues to have an impact.
Above, the 118-year-old church as it appeared in February.

demolition splits

A restoration disagreement
leaves its congregation
worshipping separately
while a new one is built

By Rod Thompson


WAIOHINU, Hawaii -- Albert Ledergerber of Kau is saddened by the demolition of the 118-year-old Kauaha'ao Church in Waiohinu following a decision by the congregation.

"It's painful. It's past. It's forgive-and-forget," he says. Then he adds, "You can't forget."

Named ka-ua-Ha'ao, "the rain of Ha'ao," for a nearby spring, the church became a wellspring of controversy which demolition in April did not end.

The Rev. Harold H.P. Teves says dry rot and termites left the congregation no choice.

"It was just rotten. You can stick your finger through the four-by-fours," he said.

"I was up in the pulpit, and there wasn't anything there to hold me up except the carpet."

Some experts agreed; some didn't.

Two experts from United Church of Christ Hawaii Conference, of which Kauaha'ao is a member, put the cost of restoration at around $750,000, the same amount a new church will cost, Teves said.

Tom Quinlan, a historic preservation expert, put the cost at $80,000.

An expert from the Smithsonian Institution estimated $150,000 to $250,000, Ledergerber said. "We smuggled him in," he said.

Teves said these people didn't look thoroughly.

Don Hibbard of the state Historic Preservation Division tried to arrange an assessment. "Our phone calls weren't returned," he said.

All of Waiohinu was on the State Register of Historic Places in the 1970s, then removed when a procedural error was discovered, Hibbard said.

Even if the church had been on the register, the most the law would have permitted is delay of demolition during a 90-day comment period, he said.

By Thomas Quinlan, Special to the Star-Bulletin
The interior of Kauaha'ao Church, which was demolished in April.

"Who are they (the various critics) to dictate to us on how we should run our church?" Teves asked.

Because the church belongs to the Congregational denomination, the congregation has complete control over its affairs.

But questions arose as to who the congregation is.

Teves, a former Special Forces sergeant, was chosen by the congregation when its pastor retired two years ago.

Ledergerber voted for him. "I never doubted this guy. He was my man," Ledergerber said.

But Teves brought with him new members from Kona who didn't mix with Kau members.

Mabel Kaipo, like Ledergerber a former moderator of the church -- meaning she presided over its business meetings -- said the Kau people became so uncomfortable that they went home after services, leaving the Kona people to conduct business.

When Teves proposed demolishing the church, her quiet voice couldn't match his powerful speaking style.

"He went through it so fast, like a bulldozer. I would end up crying," she said.

The church came down, and most of the Kau people went away.

Recent services at the Kauaha'ao meeting hall next to the church site have been attended by 14 to 18 people.

Meanwhile, 35 former members held services at a tiny chapel at Punaluu that can hold only about eight people, Kaipo said. The remainder sat in chairs outside the building.

In the end, reconciliation may still be possible.

Present church moderator Cora Walsh says a new church very similar to the old one will be built, with a structure of concrete block covered by wooden interior and exterior walls.

Teves says the decorative woodwork that gave the old church its special appearance was preserved and will be used on the new one.

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