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Kaumakapili marks 100 years

Church members will also honor those who helped rebuild after the 1900 Chinatown fire

By Pat Gee


Kaumakapili Church's 172-year history is distinguished by the perseverance of a congregation that has had to move and rebuild its sanctuary three times in the Kalihi-Palama area.

They never gave up, even after their second church with the famed twin steeples burned down in the 1900 Chinatown fire. The 100th anniversary of the current sanctuary on North King Street will be celebrated tomorrow in conjunction with Kaumakapili's Founders Day to pay special tribute to those who kept the church alive after the fire.

"This building tells a remarkable faith story ... a faith ingrained in us by the founding kahu (ministers)," said Kahu Emeritus David Kauweloa.

The celebration theme is "E Pauahi, 'A'ole Paulele," which means, "The fire is pau! The faith journey continues."

The event starts at 8:30 a.m. at the Dillingham graveside at Oahu Cemetery. It moves to the church's Hale Kamika at 9:30, followed by the main worship service at 10:30 and light refreshments.

The church was organized in 1938 by the "maka'ainana," or the common, working people in the area, who wanted to be treated as equals. They didn't feel comfortable at Kawaiaha'o Church, alongside the alii, or royalty, Kaupu said.

"They started with no land, no money and no pastor. ... What inspires me is the people never gave up," said Beadie Dawson, grandniece of Kahu William N. Lono, who aided in the 1900 rebuilding effort. Their first church was made of adobe, with a thatched roof, at Smith and Beretania streets, she said.

"One of the things that held this congregation together for 172 years is they reached out to the rest of the community, and they still do," she said. In the 1970s the church opened a medical center, and later a dental and social services center, added Dawson, a former state deputy attorney general.

"We were called the Free Church," because people in need could shop for household items and clothes at its "Free Store" and the food pantry, and these services are still offered today, she said.

"It is so typical of the Hawaiian outlook, that you give and share; it's truly a real aloha. Everyone is welcome."

It was a remarkable accomplishment that the construction of three churches was financed largely by the enterprise of the members and by community fundraising, said Dawson and Andrew K. Poepoe, Kaumakapili's financial adviser. Because the church is on the national and state Registers of Historic Places, Kaumakapili qualified for federal funds to restore its sanctuary several years ago, added Poepoe, a retired state Small Business Administration director.

He is a grandson of Henry K. Poepoe, who started as an assistant kahu in 1903 and was kahu until he died in 1950. His father, Abraham, was also a kahu, Poepoe added.

Most of Kaumakapili's members are descendants of those who laid the groundwork, and feel responsible to carry on their legacy, several members said.

Sybil Kahaunani Ahana Schoenstein, an award-winning director of music and organist at Kaumakapili since 1996, composed the anthem to be sung for the first time on Founders Day, while Kaupu wrote the Hawaiian lyrics. Its name, "Ka Pohaku Paulele," means "a strong foundation," she said.

Schoenstein acknowledged how much of a challenge it was to follow in the footsteps of the late Martha Popoe Hohu, who served the prior 67 years. Hohu was playing instruments and conducting the choir until she was in her late 80s, she said.

"I grew up under her. She was my mentor. I was only 10, 12. She'd say, 'Here, play this.' That's how I learned. She was quite a taskmaster but well worth it," Schoenstein said.

Tymmie Keala Ah Chong was absent from Kaumakapili for a while, but with her husband, Laeula Kahu Kordel Kekoa, and their children, "we were privileged to come back to where (our) roots are. ... It felt like being at home."

Ah Chong credits her love of music, singing and things Hawaiian to her grandfather Kahu Samuel Keala, who succeeded Henry Poepoe. She grew up hearing stories about her grandfather, and "I've passed the stories on to our children."

"He was a very prominent man who was known as a speaker," a Hawaiian-language authority and a singer with a strong voice, she said. But "he was paid in chickens" because no one had any money, she recalled, laughing.

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