‘Miraculous’ survival of Maui Catholic church seen as sign of hope amid wildfire destruction

The ruins of business and homes are pictured in the ravaged town of Lahaina, Hawaii, on the island of Maui Aug.15, 2023. Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva is urging the faithful of the diocese to “come together and provide unwavering support” to those who have lost everything in the Maui wildfires that destroyed Lahaina and damaged other communities Aug. 8 and 9. (OSV News photo/Mike Blake, Reuters)

By Patrick Downes

HONOLULU (OSV News) — “For us, it’s like a miracle,” Msgr. Terrence Watanabe, the Honolulu Diocese’s vicar of Maui and Lanai, said about Maria Lanakila Catholic Church in the town of Lahaina being seemingly untouched by the fierce Maui wildfires Aug. 8-9.

The blaze burned Lahaina to the ground in the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii’s history and the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

“When we saw the news and saw the church steeple rise above the town, it was a great sight to see,” the priest said in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser daily newspaper Aug. 10.

There were conflicting news reports on the fate of the church — whose name translates as “Our Lady of Victory” — and its parish school, Sacred Hearts School, which had lost half of its roof to heavy winds Aug. 7. The parish’s priests, women religious and staff were safe and accounted for.

The Star-Advertiser had reported that the church had burned down, while another news source reported the church was still standing. The Star-Advertiser corrected its report Aug. 11 with a story that the church had indeed survived. Before that some photos and video footage posted on a parishioner’s Facebook page clearly showed the church was standing.

The church is a block or two from Front Street, the famous waterfront stretch of visitors’ shops and restaurants which the Lahaina fire reduced to a smoldering pile of ashes. Pictures showed charred trees across the street from the church.

Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva echoed the vicar in saying Maria Lanakila Church “was miraculously spared, as was the rectory.” He said the adjacent convent, school and hall were “burned, along with neighboring homes.”

In comments Aug. 14 to the Hawaii Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper, he also reported that the pastor, Father Kuriakose Nadooparambil, a priest of the Missionaries of Faith congregation, “was allowed to go in (to the church) with a police escort, and he reported that not even the flowers in the church were wilted or singed. There was only a covering of ash on the pews.”

“We thank God for this blessing! Of course the church cannot be used until the area around it is cleared and deemed suitable for passage,” Bishop Silva added.

Early Aug. 16 Maui County officials confirmed they have recovered the bodies of 106 people, but the death toll was expected to keep rising “as crews scour the ruins.” About 1,300 people remained missing. About 11,000 others evacuated.

U.S. census data from 2020 shows that Lahaina had a population of about 12,700 out of an overall population on Maui of about 165,000.

As many as 3,000 homes may have been destroyed. Other Maui communities affected by fires include Kihei and Kula, with more than 500 acres burned. According to research done by Moody’s Analytics, the economic cost to Maui from the wildfires could reach $7 billion.

The White House press secretary announced Aug. 16 that President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden will travel to Maui Aug. 21 to meet with first responders and survivors, as well as federal, state and local officials. On Aug. 10 Biden issued a federal disaster declaration for Maui and the Big Island (Hawaii island), ordering “all available federal assets on the Islands to help with response.”

In the days since the fires, Msgr. Watanabe has been fielding hundreds of calls and emails “from all over the world.” The outpouring of concern is “overwhelming,” he told the Hawaii Catholic Herald. “It’s unbelievable.”

The church where Msgr. Watanabe is pastor, St. Anthony in Wailuku, held an ecumenical prayer service for victims the evening of Aug. 15, hosted by Bishop Silva.

“We should do what we do best — pray,” the monsignor said.

Prayer has been a watchword for Bishop Silva, too, as well as calling for the faithful to give “unwavering support” to the fire victims.

“As a community of faith, we are called to come together and provide unwavering support to those who are suffering,” he said in an Aug. 11 message to Hawaii Catholics,. “It is in times like these that our collective love, faith and compassion can make a tremendous difference.”

“This is an opportunity for us to show our solidarity as a Catholic faith community and lend a helping hand to those who have lost so much,” Bishop Silva said.

“Let us also remember the power of prayer,” he said. “In our collective prayers, we ask for strength, resilience, and healing for the fire victims and their families. May we find the grace to rebuild our families, their livelihoods, and the physical structures that were lost. Let our faith guide us as we navigate the challenges ahead, knowing that with the grace of God, all things are possible.” Bishop Silva said.

The diocese’s Hawai’i Catholic Community Foundation was established to support Hawaii’s parishes and schools. It has a dedicated webpage for donations to Maui wildfire relief efforts: https://tinyurl.com/MauiCatholic. Catholic Charities Hawai’i also is collecting donations for wildfire victims at catholiccharitieshawaii.org/maui-relief.

“Many people have been offering prayers, donations, and their own time to help with this crisis. The outpouring of love and care has also been remarkable!” Bishop Silva said.

The bishop flew to Maui late Aug. 12, touring the Lahaina area Aug. 13 and celebrated Mass that Sunday for 200 people about nine miles away in Kapalua at Sacred Heart, the other church that belongs to Maria Lanakila Parish.

“To arrive in Kapalua, we had to drive on the upper road above Lahaina town. At several places along the road we saw spots that were destroyed by the fire, whether homes or businesses, it was hard to tell. We could also overlook Lahaina town, which was shockingly devastated,” he said.

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.

While at the church in Kapalua, “I heard stories of people who lost one or more of their loved ones or neighbors, whose houses burned down, or who lost their livelihood,” Bishop Silva told the Hawaii Catholic Herald. “One of my friends, who often serves as my liturgical master of ceremonies when I am on Maui, told me that his uncle, uncle’s wife, their daughter and their grandson all were burned to death in their car, while they were trying to escape.

“My friend and his wife opened their home to other relatives who lost their home and suspects they will be living there for a couple of years.”

Bishop Silva also noted that because cell towers had burned down and the internet was down, most people “were not aware that Pope Francis had sent a letter expressing his concern, prayers, and support — even though I had published the letter on our diocesan media platforms. I read the letter to them, and they were very grateful.”

The pope’s prayers and support for the people of Maui were in an Aug. 10 telegram sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state. On Aug. 13, after he led the recitation of the Angelus prayer, the pope again assured the people of Hawaii of his prayers.

Bishop Silva noted that Maria Lanakila’s pastor and the parish school’s principal “are looking into using some nearby hotel conference rooms to set up a temporary school,” because one of their priorities “is to get the children back to school, so that they can continue their learning, have the support of teachers and peers, and allow time for their parents to fill out insurance forms, FEMA applications, finding new employment, etc.”

The Maui blaze 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.

When the fire struck, Bishop Larry Silva was taking a few vacation days in California on his way back from World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal. 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,” he said, introducing the virtual prayer session that was attended by about 300 people, “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.”

“And so we pray to our Blessed Mother for victory over all these tragedies,” he said.

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