Share this story

 | By Kevin J. Jones, Catholic News Agency

'For Us, It's Like a Miracle': Catholic Church Appears to Survive Devastating Maui Fire

August 13, 2023 | The devastating Maui fires appear to have spared Maria Lanakila Catholic Church in Lahaina, providing a symbol of hope amid catastrophic destruction.

At least 93 deaths had been reported as of Sunday, Aug. 13, making the disaster the deadliest wildfire event in the U.S. since 1918. Authorities expect the death toll to rise.

Multiple fast-moving fires, fanned by strong winds and fueled by dry vegetation, swept across the Hawaiian island. The western town of Lahaina, with fewer than 13,000 residents, was particularly devastated.

Maria Lanakila Catholic Church, named for Our Lady of Victory, appears to have escaped destruction.

Monsignor Terrence Watanabe, vicar forane of Maui and Lanai, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the church building appears to have survived in post-fire photographs. The neighboring rectory also appears intact.

“For us, it’s like a miracle,” he said Thursday. “When we saw the news and saw the church steeple rise above the town, it was a great sight to see.”

At the same time, the church’s wooden roof appears to have suffered some damage. It is difficult to determine how much the building was damaged. It’s possible unseen structural damage could be extensive.

“We won’t know until we get in there and make an assessment,” said Watanabe, who is also pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Wailuku.

Maria Lanakila Catholic Church serves 700 to 800 families and celebrates six Sunday Masses every weekend. It hosts many weddings from visitors from around the world.

Father Kuriakose Nadooparambil, pastor of Maria Lanakila, and the parish staff all escaped the fire. The parish was founded in 1846 by Father Aubert Bouillon of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Its stone church was finished in 1873, though improvements and renovations have been made to the structure, according to the parish website.

Damage is likely to be extensive at Sacred Heart Schools, whose building is not far from the Catholic church. The school building had already suffered “significant damage” from strong winds, an Aug. 8 letter from principal Tonata Lolesio said on the school’s Facebook page. The school year began last week. It serves grades K-8 and recently opened a virtual high school.

Another historic place of worship in Lahaina — a Protestant church founded by Hawaiian royalty — was not so fortunate.

Waiola Church celebrated its 200th anniversary in May. It burned to the ground in the fires, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

"It's gone, the social hall, the sanctuary, the annex, all of it," longtime church member and lay minister Anela Rosa told USA Today. "It is totally unimaginable."

The church, which until the fires was the home of a United Church of Christ congregation, stood on the site of Wainee Church, established in 1823 by Queen Keopuolani, the first Hawaiian baptized as a Protestant Christian. Hawaii’s kings and queens are buried in the church graveyard, the first Christian cemetery in Hawaii. Many missionaries’ children are also buried there. The latest church building dates back to 1953.

The town of Lahaina served as the capital of the Hawaiian monarchy for 25 years in the 19th century before the capital moved to Honolulu. The western town also has a history of whaling and religious missionaries. It is a major tourist destination, though most of the town corridor and its historic buildings have been destroyed along with people’s homes and even boats, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports.

Gov. Josh Green toured the ruins of the town on Thursday morning.

“Without a doubt, it feels like a bomb was dropped on Lahaina,” Green said, according to the Associated Press.

Robert Van Tassell, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Hawaii, told CNA that the effect of the disastrous fire on the Hawaiian community is “very dramatic.” Though his 300-employee agency is spread across multiple Hawaiian islands, not one employee is unaffected by the fires on Maui.

“All of them have family there,” he said. “Everybody in Hawaii is related. Everybody calls everyone auntie, cousin, uncle, friend, family. It's a very connected, very family-oriented community.”

“The great thing about that is the community outpouring from people here in Hawaii already is overwhelming,” he added. “But a lot of us are still dealing with the initial shock of the first photographs that we're seeing, pretty much at the same time the rest of the world is. We know this is going to be a long haul, so we're preparing ourselves for a long recovery period.”

Catholic Charities of Hawaii is establishing shelters and providing food relief. Van Tassell emphasized the need for cash donations. He referred those who wish to give to the donation form for Maui relief at the Catholic Charities website,