Belgian Priest Father John Berchmans Velghe came to the Islands in 1899; he served in South Kona and built, and painted, what is known as the ‘Painted Church’ in Honaunau.
Father John’s health deteriorated and he had to return to Belgium in 1904, he was never able to finish the church. Even throughout his last years he continued to paint and teach.
While teaching at the Sacred Hearts’ Apostolic School at Aarschot, Belgium, in around 1924 or 1926, he met the young student Matthias Gielen, who was to become Father Evarist of Hawai‘i.
Father Evarist was born in Vlytingen, Belgium in 1897; was trained at the Sacred Hearts’ Scholasticate in Father John’s birthplace, Courtrai, and was ordained at Liege in 1925.
He next studied at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and consequently sent to Hawai‘i. From 1927 to 1941, he served in the Puna district of the Big Island. He built Catholic churches at Pahoa, Mountain View and Kalapana.
Father Damien Joseph DeVeuster (now Saint Damien) preceded Father John and Father Evarist to the Island of Hawai‘i (he came in 1857.) He is credited with building the first Catholic place of worship for the Puna district.
It was a small ‘house’ of bamboo poles coconut fronds and pili grass probably in Kapa‘ahu, about three miles southwest of Kalapana. Although Damien stayed only one year, it is believed he left behind a plan for the building of a more permanent church, a stone church at Kapa‘ahu called St. Joseph’s.
Sometime in the early 1900s, Father Ulrich Taube, abandoned the stone church and built a wooden church in Kalapana, closer to the villagers and Father Evarist replaced that church, close to the beach and villagers.
The church was blessed on April 19, 1931 and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of Star of the Sea, the patroness of Catholic missions to sailors and seafarers. Stella Maris is a name for the “North Star,” Polaris, which provided navigational direction in antiquity.
The name was applied to Mary in the early centuries of the Christian Church as a sign of hope, a guiding star for Christians pointing toward her son Jesus. The Marian prayer, Ave Maris Stella, became a popular devotion during the Middle Ages. (Ohana1827)
Father Evarist painted stories of the Bible on the walls, columns and ceiling of the Star of the Sea Church; he painted to instruct his parishioners (many could not read.)
The architecture of Star of the Sea is typical of Catholic mission churches throughout the Islands, it’s a simple, rectangular building approximately 22 feet by 36 feet, clapboard sided with a steep corrugated metal gable roof, a small gable extension to the rear of the church, and a square tower to the right side capped by a hipped roof.
But, it is the relationship of the paintings to the building that enhance the architecture that makes Star of the Sea Painted Church an outstanding example.
The artwork expands the interior space, provides architectural detailing (through Corinthian columns and ribbed vaults) while also serving the crucial function of educating the congregation.
“All the windows are double and take the traditional form of the tablets of the Ten Commandments; this form is echoed, somewhat larger, by the six paintings on the barrel-vaulted ceiling.”
“The windows and the door of the confessional are framed with painted vine, leaf and jewel motifs in gold and brown over blue, and this painting likewise finds an echo in the leafy adornment of the broad, black, wooden ribs which divide the ceiling into three large sections.”
“Between each of the double windows stands a pair of Corinthian columns painted flat on the wall and seeming to support the thin moulding from which the barrel vault springs. Running the entire length of the wall is a red painted canopy from which hang five small scallops of drapery over each window and two large puffs behind the capital of each column.”
“Each of the three grand sections of the ceiling is subdivided by a pair of narrow painted ribs which start from their corners and proceed diagonally to cross at the apex of the barrel vault, leaving a large triangular area on each side; within these triangular areas appear the six large pictures”.
“All the pictures on the ceiling were painted on a light blue ground, which shows through the crackle and flake and has much to do with their generally cool tone.”
“Starting at the right near the door, these pictures are: ‘The Death of Ahab,’… ‘St. Cecilia,’… ‘The Mocking of Christ.’ Starting at the door on the left-hand side of the church, the pictures appear in the following order: ‘The Death of a Sinner,’ … ‘The Guardian Angel’… ‘Christ the King.’”
“On the arch over the recess containing the altar are four very lively angels bearing a ribbon inscribed ‘Maria ka koku O ke kai epale oe makou.’ This is translated into English along the lower edge of the arch: ‘Star of the Sea, pray for us.’”
“At the apex of the arch stands Mary holding the infant Jesus,… A large gold star appears behind this figure, and behind that is blue sea…”
“The barrel-vaulted ceiling over the altar is painted with crossed ribs and graceful leaf forms like those used elsewhere in the church, and in its free spaces appear four angels whose large wings, flowing drapery and extended gestures are the very essence of wind-whipped flight.” (Frankenstein)
Father Evarist eventually retired to Maui, and over time other artists contributed to the artwork. In 1964, at the invitation of then pastor Father Joseph McGinn, a hitchhiker artist from Athens, Georgia named George Heidler added koa wood Stations of the Cross and brightly colored paintings to the lower walls of the church.
However, in 1975, when parishioners invited the retired Father Evarist to visit in celebration of his 50th priestly anniversary, the historian Father Louis Yim relates that …
“A shocking incident took place. Without a word to anyone, the old priest went into the church with a can of light blue paint and covered over Heidler’s painted scenes on the church walls.” Father Evarist spent three months repainting and restoring his 45 year-old murals.
In 1978-79, Father Joseph E. Avery commissioned the Hilo artist George Lorch to paint a series of miniaturist murals over Gielen’s light blue paint and blank spaces.
Lorch’s work portrays figures and events of Catholic history and devotion including: Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary in the Hawaiian language, the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, and two priests of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts. (Ohana1827)
On January 3, 1983 the Pu‘u ‘O‘o eruption on the east rift zone of Kilauea Volcano began. It has the distinction of being the longest-lived historical rift zone eruption at Kilauea.
In 1990, the eruption entered its most destructive phase when flows flooded the village of Kalapana. Over 100 homes were destroyed in a 9-month period. Eventually, new lava tubes formed, diverting lava away from Kalapana early in 1991. (SOEST)
Almost lost was Star of the Sea. As the lava approached, church parishioners decided to move the building to safety. The wooden Roman Catholic Church slowly made its way on a trailer down Beach Road, which crews had cleared of utility poles and overhanging tree branches. It was trucked about a mile out of town. (LA Times)
It is now situated on higher ground outside of Kalapana. Star of the Sea is owned today by the Kalapana ʻOhana Association. It was “decommissioned” by the diocese. (Hawai‘i Catholic Herald) It is now typically open to the public during the day.