A Brief History of Palapala Ho'omau Church
In 1786, French Naval officer and explorer Jean-Francois de la Perouse sailed along the southeast coast of Maui, searching for a place to drop anchor. Passing Kipahulu, he wrote:
“We could see waterfalls tumbling down the mountainside and running in streams into the sea, after having watered the habitations of the natives, which are numerous…. The trees crowning the mountains, the verdure of the banana trees around the houses, all this gave rise to a feeling of inexpressible delight. But the sea beat upon the coast with the utmost violence, and kept us… desiring and devouring with our eyes what it was impossible for us to attain.”
In 1864, Christian missionaries from New England did reach Kipahulu, traveling by land from Lahaina. On a point of the shore overlooking the crashing Pacific, they built a church out of limestone coral and lava rock in the simple, elegant style of the country churches and meeting houses they knew at home: thick, white walls, peaked roof, and a bell tower. Named Palapala Ho’omau Church, meaning roughly “Church of Enduring Scriptures,” the little church became Kipahulu’s place of worship and community gatherings. Its graveyard became the resting place for generations of local Hawaiian families and Chinese workers from the nearby sugar plantation.
Over the next 100 years as residents moved to Hana, Lahaina, and beyond to work in the growing sugar and tourism industries of Hawaii, Kipahulu transformed from a center of activity to the tranquil district of pastures, forests, and scattered homes it is today. Palapala Ho’omau was abandoned. Gradually tropical rain and wind wore down the structure, insects and plants moved in, and the church became a ruin.
In 1964, Sam Pryor, a winter resident from Connecticut, took a walk a mile or so down the road from his second home in Kipahulu. Looking for a path to a view over the ocean, he found the church in the jungle, exposed to the weather and the encroaching roots of a large banyan. An energetic man who loved a good project, Sam set about restoring the church and graveyard beside it, removing trees and vines and setting headstones upright again. As the Kipahulu community learned that Palapala Ho’omau was being restored, the original pews and organ were returned from the local homes that had kept them safe for decades. In Connecticut, from where the original candle-lit chandeliers and brass church bell had come, Sam found replicas and brought them to Maui. He added a stained glass window depicting a Polynesian Christ draped in the red-and-yellow feather capes reserved for Hawaii’s highest chiefs. On Thanksgiving Day 1965, worshippers came to the first service at Palapala Ho’omau since the 1940s.