Catholics appeal for help as Biden declares Maui’s deadly fires a federal emergency

An aerial view shows the community of Lahaina after wildfires driven by high winds burned across most of the town several days ago, in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, U.S. August 10, 2023. (OSV News photo/Marco Garcia, Reuters)

By Patrick Downes, Julie Asher

(OSV News) — Catholic Charities Hawai’i in the Honolulu Diocese has appealed for donations to help the agency meet housing, food and other needs of what could be thousands of victims from wildfires raging on the island of Maui that wiped out an entire town and drove people to seek refuge in the ocean.

More than 11,000 people were evacuated as wildfires burned the historic town of Lahaina “to the ground,” as numerous news outlets reported. Maui County officials confirmed Aug. 12 that at least 93 people have died, with two of them identified. Maui police have asked families of people still unaccounted for to submit DNA samples to aid in possible identification.

An assessment of the Lahaina fire by the Pacific Disaster Center and Federal Emergency Management Agency reported 2,170 acres burned and more than 2,200 structures were damaged or destroyed.

Other Maui communities affected by the fires include the Kihei area and inland communities known as Upcountry. Firefighting crews continued to extinguish flare-ups in Lahaina and Upcountry into the evening Aug. 12, and the Pulehu/Kihei area fire was declared 100% contained to avoid further spread of the flames.

News reports said that wildfires also were affecting the Big Island (officially named Hawaii), and crews were battling a total of six fires, with three simultaneously torching Maui.

Various news outlets have reported on survivors supporting one another and receiving aid from local volunteer relief efforts. The Hawai’i Emergency Management Agency website maintains a page listing where to find the latest updates online and via radio, along with various agencies and resources on the ground for supplies, shelter, services and finding missing loved ones. Hawai’i Governor Josh Green said Aug. 13 that a Temporary Housing Task Force has been formed to work with federal partners, and has already secured 1,000 rooms to house those displaced by the fire with longer-term housing plans in the works.

“We can only imagine the distress and heartache that many are currently experiencing from the destructive wildfires on Maui, and our thoughts and prayers are with everyone impacted,” said a statement posted on the website of Catholic Charities Hawai’i, which urged people to make a donation to the agency for Maui relief at

“As a community of hope we can help those in need to overcome this tragedy and rebuild their lives through recovery efforts. Thank you for your consideration and for your continued support as we navigate through this challenging time together,” the agency said.

As the fires continued to burn and as the death toll continued to rise, Pope Francis offered his prayers, his encouragement to firefighters and rescue workers, and invoked “upon all the people of Maui Almighty God’s blessings of strength and peace,” according to a telegram sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, to Cardinal-designate Christoph Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States.

The Maui blazes began the night of Aug. 8. The National Weather Service said strong winds from Hurricane Dora, passing hundreds of miles to the southwest of the Hawaiian Islands, were partly to blame for fueling the fires, though authorities had not yet identified what caused the fires.

During an Aug. 10 visit to a Veterans Affairs medical center in Salt Lake City, President Joe Biden issued a federal disaster declaration for Maui and the Big Island, ordering “all available federal assets on the Islands to help with response.” Green requested the declaration, which makes federal funds available to affected individuals by providing grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other assistance. The federal funds can help businesses as well as state and eligible county governments, and nonprofit organizations.

“This is a tragic day for everyone in Hawai’i and the nation. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims and the survivors suffering through the deadliest natural disaster the state has seen in generations,” Green said in an Aug. 10 statement.

“In the coming days — as more and more details emerge — I ask that we as a state provide all the emotional and financial support we can to the people of Lahaina and Maui,” he said, adding that as governor, “I pledge to spare no resources to combat the destructive wildfires, shelter the displaced, treat and bring comfort to the traumatized, support our first responders, restore communication lines and enlist the aid of our federal and county partners to confront this this once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe.”

Lahaina’s Maria Lanakila Catholic Church miraculously survived the blaze.

In the days immediately following the fire, the Diocese of Honolulu had been unable to verify the fate of the church and its nearby parish school, K-8 Sacred Hearts School. The day before the fire, Aug. 7, half of the school’s roof blew off from the heavy winds.

Father Robert Ni Ni, a Missionaries of Faith priest who is pastor of the neighboring parish of St. Rita in Haiku and recently had been assigned to Maria Lanakila as parochial vicar, said he had heard conflicting reports on the fate of the church. He said it would be a “miracle” if the church survived.

The daily Honolulu Star-Advertiser had reported that the church had burned down. Another news source reported the church was still standing, Father Ni Ni told the Hawaii Catholic Herald, Honolulu’s diocesan newspaper, by phone Aug. 10.

The Star-Advertiser corrected its report Aug. 11 with a story that the church was still standing.

The Lahaina fire ripped down Front Street, leaving the famous waterfront home to visitors’ shops and restaurants a smoldering pile of ashes. The church is a block from Front Street.

With all the power and cellphone service out, the fate of Maria Lanakila Church was for several days the subject of rumor. The day after the fire ripped through Lahaina town, the word going around was that the church was “gone.” However, diocesan vicar general Msgr. Gary Secor said that on Aug. 9 he had yet to talk with someone who had actually seen the destroyed church, much less shown him a photo of it.

By Aug. 10 the diocese had received enough ground and aerial photographic evidence to determine that the church and rectory survived intact, while the school was heavily damaged. However, no one from the church has been able to visit the site because the area is closed off indefinitely as the search for victims continues.

Father Ni Ni reported that the pastor, Father Kuriakose Nadooparambil, and a visiting priest are safe as are three sisters of the Missionaries of Faith who work for the parish, and all the school and parish lay employees. At least five lost their homes, however.

Father Ni Ni has been one source of information about Lahaina as communication lines are down all over.

When the fire struck, Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva was on vacation in California as he returned from World Youth Day. His office quickly organized a Zoom virtual rosary to pray for the victims.

“What is needed is prayer for those who have lost their homes and businesses, prayers for our firefighters and first responders and police, and all those you are trying to protect the community, prayer for our social service agencies which are gearing up to help those who are most in need in this time of crisis and trial,” he said, introducing the virtual prayer session that was attended by about 300 people.

“And so we pray to our Blessed Mother for victory over all these tragedies,” he said, noting that Maria Lanakila translates into “Our Lady of Victory.”

“We ask the Lord to quench those fires immediately, so that they will no longer do any damage, so that they will be a memory of the past so we can begin the work of recovery and rebuilding,” he said in closing.

According to the National Park Service, Lahaina holds deep cultural significance for Hawaiians as the district “was once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.” The Lahaina Historic District, which encompassed downtown Lahaina, Front Street and its vicinity, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962, according to the park service’s website.

The first Mass was celebrated in Lahaina in 1841 by Sacred Hearts Father Modestus Favens, in a grass structure belonging to the Spanish cowboy Joakini. A bronze plaque on Front Street marked the spot.

According to the parish website, Maria Lanakika Church was established in 1846.

On May 4, 1873, a stone church replaced the old adobe building and grass hut chapels that originally served the community of Maria Lanakila.

In 1918, Sacred Hearts Father Bruno Bens renovated the termite-eaten walls of the church.

According to the book “A Pilgrimage Through Time,” edited by Dominican Sister Malia Dominica Wong, that church was torn down in 1928 by Sacred Hearts Father Engelbert de Fries and rebuilt with red tile bricks.

The picture of the Ascension of Our Lord above the sanctuary, a copy of a painting in the Vatican Museum, came from France. The paintings of Sts. Joseph and Mary to the left and right of the altar were said to be donated by Hawaiian King Liholiho and Queen Emma.

In 1862, Sacred Hearts Father Aubert Bouillon opened Sacred Hearts School with two classrooms. The English-speaking school was run by laywomen until the Sisters of St. Francis took it over from 1928 to 2001.

A new school building and convent, built of donated second-hand lumber, were blessed in 1951 by Bishop James J. Sweeney.

An arsonist burned the school down in 1971. The sisters rebuilt it with donations and by selling sweetbread, pickled mango and other items.

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