By Anna Weaver
Hawaii Catholic Herald
The deteriorating St. Gabriel Mission in Keanae, Maui, along the Hana Highway burned to the ground between Oct. 1-2.
In a phone interview on Oct. 4, Missionaries of Faith Father Chacko Muthoottil said authorities won’t be able to report back on the cause of the fire for two weeks.
The day after the fire, Father Muthoottil, who is the pastor of St. Rita Parish in Haiku under which St. Gabriel is a mission, made the hour drive along the Hana Highway from Haiku to the Wailuanui Road church to survey the damage.
Neither the empty rectory next door nor the Our Lady of Fatima Shrine nearby were damaged. An older cemetery is also on the property.
The church property sits near the Wailua overlook in a remote spot halfway to Hana. So it took some time for fire trucks responding from Paia, 1 hour and 10 minutes away, and Hana, 45 minutes away, to arrive.
Awapuhi Carmichael, 85, St. Gabriel’s former caretaker, said she had been told an electrical short caused the fire. But that didn’t make sense to her as the electricity to the church had been disconnected for some time.
She said she was the first person to be baptized in the church after it was built in 1937.
St. Gabriel’s roof collapsed a few years ago due to storm and rain damage, and the building continued to deteriorate. A 2011 Google Street View of the church showed an intact roof but damage to the wooden sides.
Commenters on the Maui 24/7 Facebook page expressed shock and sadness over the fire.
“Even though St. Gabriel’s has not been in use for several years due to unsafe conditions and deterioration, we as an ‘ohana there feel the ‘eha’ (hurt) of it being burnt down. It’s like you are burying one of your own ‘ohana,” wrote Opuu Kulus.
She said the church used to have weekend movie nights in the hall with 25-cent tickets and 5-cent refreshments. The Holy Name Society, Sacred Hearts Society, Sodality, Boy Scouts and other groups were once active there.
Kawai Kuluhiwa Hall wrote that she has “so many cherished memories I’ll forever hold close to me.”
“I’ll always hear my kupuna singing in this churech,” she said. “I was the first baby Father Gary [Colton] baptized when he became a priest, and he baptized me there.”
Dwayne Kekaimalie Kobatake also has fond memories.
“Every family gathering I can remember growing up has taken place here,” he wrote. “So many memories in this church. Father Gary Colton, my family singing to the heavens during worship, songs like ‘He Calls Us Each By Name,’ ‘He Nani No,’ ‘Kanaka Waiwai,’ the list goes on and on. The distinct smell and sound of the wood floors will forever remain in my mind.”
St. Gabriel became a parish in 1940 with two mission churches, St. Augustine in Kailua and St. Ann in Nahiku, both long closed. It became a mission of St. Rita in 1963.
The wooden church was built in 1937 to replace the older coral church now called Our Lady of Fatima Shrine. The shrine is used twice a month for 11 a.m. Sunday Mass, but attendance is usually fewer than 10 people, Father Muthoottil said.
The shrine has long been known as “The Coral Miracle Church” due to local lore saying the ocean delivered up needed coral for construction materials during a fierce storm, just as parishioners were ready to build a new church in 1860.
St. Rita Parish has been trying to raise funds for repairs to the Our Lady of Fatima Shrine, which has a leaking roof, blistering walls and termite-damaged rafters and floors. Donations can be made at stritahaiku.com or by mailing a check, payable to St. Gabriel’s Repair & Maintenance, to St. Rita Church, 655 Haiku Rd., Haiku, HI 96708.
Patrick Downes contributed reporting to this story.