The history of Christianity in Hawaii begins with the vision of a young Native Hawaiian, Henry Opukaha`ia, who yearned to return to his homeland of Hawaii as a Christian missionary. In 1809 Opukaha`ia was found crying on the steps of Yale College by Edwin W. Dwight, a senior at Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut. Opukaha`ia had left the islands on a clipper ship, the Triumph, after he lost his parents and young brother to the tribal wars of the island of Hawaii. While on board the ship, he was tutored by a Yale graduate. Now he was in New Haven and longed to be schooled. He wept, “Nobody give me learning.” Edwin Dwight was moved by Opukaha`ia’s determination to learn and offered to teach him.
He brought Opukaha`ia to the home of the President of Yale College, Dr. Timothy Dwight. The president took him into his home while Henry was tutored in Christianity and secular subjects. Opukaha`ia’s life in New England was greatly influenced by many young men with proven veracity and religious fervor who were active in the Second Great Awakening and the establishment of the missionary movement. These men had a major impact on Opukaha`ia’s enlightment in Christianity and his vision to return to Hawaii as a Christian missionary. Opukaha`ia died suddenly of typhus fever in 1818. There is no doubt that Opukaha`ia was loved by many people in New England. He left an indelible mark on their lives. Many clergymen of New England were interested in his vision.
In September 1819 the American Board of Commisoners of Foreign Mission made a public decision to establish a mission in the Sandwich Islands and organized the first mission in a meeting in the Park Street Church in Boston. The mission consisted of twenty-five persons which included four Hawaiian youth. The Reverend Hiram Bingham was responsible for this first company of missionaries. They embarked from Boston on October 23, 1819 on the ship the Thaddeus. One hundred sixty-three days later on April 14, 1820, the ship arrived in Kealakekua Bay off the coast of the island of Hawaii. From that point in time, the gospel spread out across the chain of Hawaiian islands.
Mission Station of Koloa during the 1800s
In 1834, the Reverend Peter Gulick was sent out from the first mission station at Waimea on the island of Kauai to establish the second mission station in Koloa. The congregation was organized in April 1835 with twelve members. They held services in native grass houses. Later in 1837 a new large meeting house with glass windows was constructed. The membership then increased to 125. The Rev. Gulick helped to organize the Protestant mission schools in 1841 when children for the first time began to attend daily classes. There were four schools with five teachers and an attendance of 225 children. After eight years at Koloa, the Gulick family was transferred, in 1843, to the mission station at Kaluaaha on Molokai.
Missionaries were interested in the economic condition of the people of Koloa. The first sugar plantation was established in Koloa about 1835. As a result, the Hawaiians poured into Koloa to work in plantations from all over the island.
In 1837 the Rev. Thomas Lafton, M.D., joined the mission station. He was the first physician on Kaua`i. Dr. Lafton was succeeded in 1842 by Dr. J.W. Smith, who with his equally devoted wife, gave the rest of their lives to the service of Koloa and the island of Kaua`i. The work of Dr. Smith was reinforced by the coming of Rev. John F. Pogue in 1844. He was an active, eager young associate who remained three years at the Koloa station. In 1854 Dr. Smith was ordained as a Christian minister and formally installed in the Hawaiian Church. His ordination to the Christian ministry was the first on Kaua`i.
A devastating storm in 1858 destroyed the Koloa Meeting House. Immediately, materials and funds were collected to reconstruct the church. The church was completed at a cost of $3700. The service of dedication was held in 1859. This was followed by an increase in attendance and deeper commitment by the members. The Missionary Herald of 1860 recorded this new church as “standing on high ground and seen far out at sea, forming a landmark for ships approaching the port.” The parish during the time of Dr. Smith included not only Koloa but also Nawiliwili and Wailua. This building served the congregation for over 70 years.
In 1862, the church sent one of its members, David Kealahula, a graduate of Lahainaluna Seminary, to help establish new mission work in Micronesia. Kealahula was fully supported by the church as he did his work overseas.
Koloa Union Church in the 1900s
In 1907 the Rev. Solomon Kaulili held morning services in the Hawaiian language and in the afternoon, the Rev. John M. Lydgate from Lihue held services in English. The English Sunday School was held in the morning followed by the Hawaiian Sunday School in the afternoon.
During the course of the years the Hawaiian population of Koloa diminished fast and was no longer predominant. In the meantime, other ethnic groups migrated to the island of Kaua`i. Through the years arrangements were made to bring in people from Puerto Rico, China, Japan and the Philippines to work in the sugar and pineapple fields.
The Koloa Union Church was formally organized in October 1923 with twenty-four charter members. A constitution was drawn and accepted. The church became affiliated with the Kauai Evangelical Association on October 22, 1923 and the Rev. Royal G. Hall served as the pastor until 1924
In 1928 the church was remodeled through the generous donation of Mr. G.N. Wilcox, one of Kaua`i’s leading citizens. A lease for the land was made by the Hawaiian congregation to the Koloa Union Church for 25 years. A separate church and a parsonage was built by Mr. Wilcox for the Hawaiian congregation who wanted to conduct their own language ministry. The architecture of the Hawaiian congregational church was designed after the New England churches.
The Kaua`i Larger Parish Plan was adopted by the Koloa Union Church on March 27, 1931. Three pastors, Rev. John Hedley, Rev. Douglas Magers, and Rev. Frederick Withington, all pastors of Lihue Union Church, served as supply pastors for Koloa Union Church. Worship services were held in the evenings. A centennial service, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Koloa Mission was held on July 28, 1935. Koloa Union Church, Koloa Hawaiian Church, Koloa Japanese Church and the Koloa Filipino Church united together in this celebration.
Koloa Union Church experienced much difficulties after World War II. Men were called into the armed forces and within a few years several families moved to Oahu to be more gainfully employed. Many of them had been active members of the church. In 1948 the church lost its most devoted leader and benefactor, Dr. Herbert Waterhouse, who had constantly guided and supported the church. A descendent of Dr. J. W. Smith, he was a physician and surgeon in Koloa since 1907. He was a generous and kind doctor who ministered to the people physically as well as spiritually. The church depended heavily on his leadership. The twenty-five year lease of 1928 for the land from the Hawaiian congregation to Koloa Union Church expired in 1953. Koloa Union Church moved next door to the fellowship hall where meetings were held.
In 1959, the church council approved plans to build a new sanctuary with an adjacent multi-purpose building. The cost would be in the neighborhood of $40,000. Under the leadership of the Rev. Susumu Yamane, the members made a three year pledge towards the project. In January 1960, the appropriation for the building fund was changed to $50,000. Mr. Frost of Honolulu was the architect and the contract was awarded to Mr. Takeshi Kure, a member of Koloa Union Church. The members of the church all labored with cheerful industry to prepare the land and then to haul lava with which a substantial portion of this lovely sanctuary is built.
On January 29, 1961, the members of this congregational church voted to be unified with the United Church of Christ. This was during the early period of the great national merger of the Evangelical and Reformed and the Congregational churches. On July 16, 1961, the new sanctuary and educational building were dedicated. The total cost amounted to $56,909.55. The church sanctuary was named in memory of Dr. Alfred H. Waterhouse, a grandson of Dr. James W. Smith. Dr. Waterhouse had devoted many years in service to his community and Koloa Union Church. The educational building was named in memory of Mr. Walter C. Moore a layman in Christian education work who spent many years working with the youth of Koloa and the island of Kaua`i.
The steep lava rock walls that stand at the front and back of the sanctuary of Koloa Union Church symbolizes how stalwart the church has been in its mission through its difficult period and through its period of reconstruction and growth. The church has always risen to its new calling by God to go forth into the community.
The passion and commitment of the members and the gifts they brought to their church community were pooled together to undergo the changes in the life of the church. The members were proactive in seeking full-time pastors for their church and in carrying out their goal of building a new sanctuary in the early 1960s.
As God’s outreaching servant, Koloa Union Church initiated the organization of the Koloa Union Week Day Nursery School in November 1961. The program met the needs of the community as many young children had their first learning experience in the early education program. As the profile of the Koloa community changed, so did the preschool program. Since 1997, the Good Beginnings Hawaii program has established Koloa Union Church as a site for their organized playgroup. The playgroup meets once a week with organized activities for young children and connects families with health, nutrition, education, and mental health support services.
Koloa Union Church has provided leadership and a meeting place for several community groups throughout the years. These groups have included the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Gra-Y Teen program, Pilgrim Fellowship, and Alcoholics Anonymous.
A strong youth ministry was implemented during the spiritual leadership of Rev. James Smith. It continued under the guidance of Mr. Walter C. Moore during the years of 1931-1941. Periodically, the youth ministry has been very active.
Much change has taken place in the Koloa community and the surrounding Poipu area. The Koloa-Poipu area is now considered the “gold coast” of the island as it has become a major tourist destination area. The area will see an increase in the construction of hotel rooms, condominiums and housing. The church has seen the changes in the profile of our membership as it becomes quite diverse with people from the local community, tourists and seasonal residents.
Many ministers and laymen have served Koloa Union Church. Each minister has left a legacy of their ministry that has contributed to the shaping of the church.