Maui Kahu Wayne Higa holds on to faith in effort to restore 146-year-old Kaʻahumanu Church, an early symbol of women’s rights
November 12, 2022, 6:00 AM HST
Maui Now: A People Of Maui Interview
(Kahu Wayne Higa has gone from a state transportation employee guiding airplanes to passenger gates on Maui to shepherding a congregation at Kaʻahumanu Church in Wailuku and restoring Kaʻahumanu Church built in 1876. The church land was part of the compound of the last king of Maui, Kahekili, before King Kamehameha I conquered Maui Island. The restoration task seems daunting for a congregation of 30 members, but faith plays a prominent role in the family life of Higa, who has six children. His great-grandfather, buried in ʻUlupalakua, is the renowned paniolo Ikua Purdy who had enough faith to cross the ocean to compete in a rodeo thousands of miles away. Purdy stunned American Westerners by winning the 1908 World Roping Championship in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Higa himself prefers to turn the conversation to the task of restoring the church named after Queen Kaʻahumanu. He was interviewed by Maui Now writer Gary Kubota.)
KUBOTA: Why is it important to restore Kaʻahumanu Church?
HIGA: Before her death in 1832, Queen Regent Kaʻahumanu requested that this church be named after her. She was the favorite wife of Kamehameha I and a very strong, independent wahine. She used that power to move our people forward, in breaking the kapu system that prevented women from eating with men. So too did his sacred wife, queen consort, Keōpūolani. Both of them became Christians. The breaking of the kapu system was something that really, really, changed Hawaiian culture in a fairly drastic way. It raised women’s rights and the power they had.
KUBOTA: What about your mother?
HIGA: She was Bernice Kuemanu Higa-Wirtl. Her maiden name was Purdy. My grandfather William was senior deacon of this church. When my mom got involved with anything, she gave 120 percent, and part of that 120 percent was having all of her children involved in the church.
KUBOTA: It sounds like you yourself are giving 120 percent in trying to raise money for the restoration. I see where you’ve been involved in filling out forms in detail to receive grant money from the state for the restoration?
HIGA: I’ve received a lot of help from other people, including my wife Deborah as well as many other members of the church. They’ve supported and lifted me. Since my retirement from the state six years ago and even before that, I’ve been learning on the job. My wife and I reached a point where we felt we needed church. Before we got married, my wife and I were both single parents. The Lord was there when we needed things at home. So whenever, the aunties at church asked to fill in and read the scriptures and other requests, the answer has been always, “Yes. Mahalo.”
KUBOTA: How are the sermons done?
HIGA: Before the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893 when Hawaiian was the language of the realm, the sermons were done in Hawaiian. The sermons are now done in Hawaiian and English but the songs are still sung in Hawaiian.
The sermons were done in a thatched hale at the missionary station in Wailuku from 1832 to 1876. The current church, similar to churches built in New England, was designed by missionary Edward Bailey.
KUBOTA: What kind of things are needed in the current restoration?
HIGA: I believe the last restoration occurred in the 1980s and 1990s by a New England business.
Several years ago, there was a big wind storm and the wind storm damaged the steeple of the church and also the roof of a separate children’s school. The steeple, which leaks, needs to be re-roofed and painted, and the church’s second-floor gallery needs to be strengthened. The roof of the children’s school needs structural repairs as well. Both buildings are listed in state and federal registers as historic sites. Just about a year ago, architect Jim Niess of Maui Architectural Group took on the project pro bono and what Niess and others have done for us is basically come up with a set of drawings and contractor specifications for the repair of the church. The county and state have been generous. The restoration is estimated to cost about $2 million, and we’ve been awarded $125,000 from a state GIA/CIP grant and $150,000 from the county toward the work. We’re looking for a project manager. We’re also looking for help from the community to raise as much of the remainder as possible.
KUBOTA: Wow. Going from docking airplanes to raising money as a reverend? Is there a common thread in there?
HIGA: Everybody always knows about the TSA lines in the front of the airport. But sometimes, they forget about the gate lines on the other side… You get training in knowing that “I don’t have complete control around here.”
(Donations may be made by credit card by going to KaahumanuChurch.org or checks may made to Kaʻahumanu Church and mailed to Kaʻahumanu Church, PO Box 1403, Wailuku, Hawaiʻi 96793).
Chronology of Queen Kaʻahumanu and her Church
1768 — Kaʻahumanu is born In Hāna, Maui. At age 13, she marries Kamehameha I.
1819 — After the death of Kamehameha I, Kaʻahumanu shares governance with his son Liholiho and becomes co-regent or kuhina nui. She eventually conspires with Keōpūolani, another of her late husband’s wives, to eat at the same table as the young king, thereby breaking a major kapu forbidding native women to eat with men. The act eventually leads to the abolishment of the kapu system, improving women’s rights.
She later serves as co-regent or kuhina nui for Kauikeaouli or Kamehameha III.
1824 — Kaʻahumanu publicly shows her support of Protestant Christianity and encouraged her subjects to be baptized. She presents the Hawaiian Islands with a body of law based on Christian ethics, including the Ten Commandments.
1826 — Kaʻahumanu and King Kamehameha III negotiated a trade treaty between the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi and the United States, acknowledging the sovereignty of the Hawaiian Islands.
1832 — Kaʻahumanu visited Maui and the site of the Wailuku missionary station, where services are help in pili grass-roof structures. She asks that a church be built in her name. She died in Mānoa Valley on Oʻahu.
1864 — The Kaʻahumanu Society is established by Princess Victoria Kamamalu. The club celebrates the life of Queen Kaʻahumanu and the preservation of Hawaiian culture.
1876 — Missionary Edward Bailey constructed a New England-style church structure on the Wailuku mission site, naming it Kaʻahumanu Church.
Interviewer Gary Kubota has received several national awards in journalism and written a national touring play, Legend Of Koʻolau. His book “Hawaii Stories of Change: The Kokua Hawaii Oral History Project” is in the permanent collection at the University Of Hawaiʻi’s Department of Ethnic Studies’ Center for Oral History.