Star-Bulletin Features

Bill Thibadeau of the Haili Church Restoration and Preservation Force stood recently in front of 143-year-old Haili Church, which needs $270,000 in repairs.

Historic Hilo church
seeks more donors
to fund restoration

KTA Stores kicked in $25,000,
but more is needed to reinforce
the rock foundation

By Rod Thompson

HILO >> The rock wall foundation under the back of historic Haili Church is slowly rolling out from under the building, says restoration architect Boone Morrison.

Despite minimal support at the back of the 143-year-old building, the church is sound at present, Morrison said.

"It's not going to fall down. We're going to stop it," he said.

A committee called the Restoration and Preservation Force is trying to raise $270,000 for a range of repairs needed by the church, said Bill Thibadeau, a director of the committee. So far, they have about $35,000.

"We'd better tell people to stay in the front part of the church," Thibadeau joked. But more seriously, he added, "It's really pretty well built."

Three grass-thatched churches and a wooden one preceded the current building, erected in 1857-59, according to a church history.

Bill Thibadeau of the Haili Church restoration committee recently inspected a spot on the church foundation where a floor joist has separated from a supporting beam. Plans call for removing the rock foundation, installing steel supports and replacing the rocks.

The 50-foot-by-75-foot foundation was made of stones set with mortar.

"It's a pile of rocks stuck together with an imperfect glue," Morrison said.

The building was constructed with ohia and koa wood from an area southwest of Hilo called Haili, meaning "loving memory," hence the name of the church.

The church history says, "This was the first all-wood building constructed in Hilo." The wooden Lyman House missionary home was erected in Hilo in 1836 after being prefabricated in New England, so its fabrication can be contrasted to the on-the-spot construction of the church in the 1850s.

Decades of activity -- weddings, bereavements, baptisms, solace in time of trouble -- have made the church a "wahi pana," a place of renown, Morrison said. The church was placed last year on the state Register of Historic Places.

Even before the church was built, it faced danger. Plans for the 1850s construction called for a stone church, but a series of severe earthquakes convinced members that a wooden building would be more flexible under stress.

In 1979 a fire damaged the steeple and belfry.

But a far more subtle danger started back in 1929. The ground just three feet behind the church was excavated for a gymnasium-community hall, then shored up with a retaining wall.

In the seven decades since, the back foundation has subsided just enough to pull beams free from the joists they are supposed to support.

The plan is to remove the rocks with the "imperfect glue," install steel supports and replace the rocks with good mortar, Morrison said.

The building also needs termite treatment, new paint, refinishing of its unusual curving pews and other repairs, Thibadeau said.

Among funds collected, KTA Super Stores has donated $25,000 for renovation, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation gave $2,500 for architectural work. But most foundations have a policy of not giving to churches, Thibadeau said.

"I lie awake at night thinking, 'I wonder if I can get so and so to give a couple of bucks,'" he said.

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