Fire spares cemetery of 200-year-old Waiola Church

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Sep. 25—A sacred cemetery and tomb of Hawaiian royalty at Waiola Church, which just celebrated its 200th anniversary, has survived the devastating Lahaina wildfire.

A sacred cemetery and tomb of Hawaiian royalty at Waiola Church, which just celebrated its 200th anniversary, has survived the devastating Lahaina wildfire.

The church's pastor, Anela Rosa, can't explain how the oldest Christian cemetery in Hawaii managed to escape destruction while the rest of its buildings burned, but she felt supreme relief and gratitude—"The wonders of life and ke Akua (God )!"

The cemetery is the embodiment of the congregation's spiritual essence : "I see the graveyard as more of a kahua (foundation ) of Waiola—the past that keeps reminding us of who we were, who we are and who we should be."

She would look out the window every Sunday for divine support before stepping up to the pulpit—"it is everlasting and will never stop, the graveyard is our constant reminder, " said Rosa, lay minister for the past 13 years and a 40-year member.

Buried in the tomb with other members of the royal family is the church's founder, Queen Keopuolani, Kamehameha's most esteemed wife and one of the highest-ranking women in the islands. The cemetery also holds the remains of beloved adviser and missionary, the Rev. William Richards, and the oldest Hawaiian Christian gravestone of a Maui resident who died in 1829, according to the church's website.

Waiola was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962. The church was named Ebenezer Church when it was founded in 1832 but became known as Waine 'e Church ("moving water "). When it was last rebuilt in 1953, it was renamed Waiola, which means "living water."

Local families who are no longer regular members and have ancestors buried there still regard Waiola as their family church, and they often return to hold reunions or gatherings and attend Sunday services, she said.

There's no doubt in her mind that Waiola will rise from the ashes again, as it did when destroyed twice by fire and twice by severe winds. Until it is rebuilt, Rosa continues to preach every Sunday on Facebook.

"It's so tough because of all the emotions of the fire, and the kids are not in school, not all of them, so I gotta be very gentle and tender ... I just gotta keep it as basic and as supportive and as kakou ("community ")—we're all in this together, absolutely no one is alone."

Most of her parishioners are in their 70s and 80s, and no one lost their lives. Twenty families lost their homes, yet no one sounds discouraged, she said.

"They're making do with what they have, " she said, and have shown the resilience of people who live on an island and have survived so many crises.

"This Lahaina community is so incredibly strong. My heart is just filled when I see the people and how they're moving about trying to get things together, " she said. "There's no finger-pointing, there's no blaming."

Rosa said a nearby church, which belongs to the same United Church of Christ denomination as Waiola, offered the use of its sanctuary for a Sunday service, but there was a time conflict and other issues. Most of her members are now widely scattered and it would be too hard for them to travel, she said.

So for now, online serv ­ices are working for everyone, just as they did during the COVID-19 shutdown, she said. Even her board of directors, most of whom lost their homes, now meets on Zoom.

Rosa's home, on the edge of the fire zone, was spared, and she plans to take in relatives. Like the church's cemetery, it was as if God put a "fire lei around our entire subdivision—two houses burned, 102 saved. Go figure !"

Danny Tengan, UCC's conference disaster ministries coordinator, is helping Waiola collect the necessary documents for insurance claims and an application for Federal Emergency Management Agency grants to rebuild. He's hoping not all of them have been destroyed in the fire. Tengan is a longtime Red Cross volunteer and member of the Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters.

Donations directly to the church can be made at The 2023 Wildfires Relief Fund will help 23 UCC churches on Maui at

Tengan said much of his work has been focused on the many UCC members who have lost their jobs or have reduced hours and are in danger of being unable to pay their rent and becoming homeless. Contact him for assistance at dstengan