In 1834, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) sent Reverend William P Alexander to scout the north coast of Kauai for a suitable location for a second station (the first started in 1820 at Waimea.)
A pole and thatch meetinghouse was constructed by Hawaiians on the Mission Hall site, in anticipation of the arrival of the missionaries.
Alexander chose the Hanalei area because of its harbor, fertile soil, and needs of the people. The site was called Waioli, ‘Singing Waters.’
Deborah Kapule, the dowager Queen of Kauai and earnest convert, assisted in establishing the Mission. Governor Kaikioewa of Kauai provided the land, and encouraged the Mission in many ways.
The first thatch church was destroyed by fire in 1834, just prior to the arrival of the Alexanders. He immediately built another similar structure.
Alexander and his wife and son began work immediately, preaching to hundreds of islanders in a huge thatched meeting house while living in a small grass hut. They began their secular teaching also, and could soon report that 1,232 of their students could read and 257 could write.
The Alexanders carried on alone with their work until 1837 when the Board of Commissioners sent a teaching couple, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Johnson, to the mission. In the meantime, the Alexanders built a frame house for their growing family.
The Johnson’s took over the bulk of the teaching duties and began to place more of an emphasis on educating the children rather than the adults. (Alexander had earlier noted a drop in enthusiasm for schooling among the older parishioners.)
To help make ends meet, the mission planted crops in land donated by the Governor of Kauai. The students helped cultivate the crops, and by so doing, learned agricultural techniques. Cotton was tried without much success. Sugar cane proved much more suitable.
In 1838, a frame house was built for the Johnsons, as their grass hut had fallen victim to the elements. Plans were also made for the construction of a frame church/meeting house. Materials were collected, and the sugar crop was earmarked to help pay construction costs. (NPS)
In 1841, Rev. Alexander dedicated the present old Waioli Hui‘ia Church. Shortly after the church was dedicated, a belfry was constructed behind the main structure. Its architecture is similar, and it stands twenty-four feet in height.
The old Church is an imposing structure, with a main interior space of 35 by 70 feet. An open lanai (porch) surrounds the building on three sides, with wood posts supporting the eaves of the tall, high-pitched roof.
The pitch is broken over the plate line with a lesser slope above the lanai. This type of roof is a modified copy of the type of roof used in early Hawaiian structures. The original roof was thatch, later replaced by shingles then galvanized iron, then back to shingles, which now cover it.
In 1843, the Alexanders were transferred to the Lahaina station due to illness, and Rev. and Mrs. George Rowell took their place. In the meantime, Mr. Johnson, concerned about the slowness of the Lahainaluna High School in turning out native teachers, began classes of his own to train them.
Additional land was cultivated to meet expenses. Shortly after this, the Hawaiian government began to take more control of education, and Wai‘oli Mission School became a ‘select school.’
One feature of this was that the most promising students were taught English. Wai‘oli sent several students to the Lahainaluna High School for advanced education, and many trained by Mr. Johnson took over teaching duties in the common schools on Kauai.
In 1846, Rowell and his wife were transferred to Waimea and Johnson was licensed to become the minister at Wai‘oli. Mr and Mrs Abner Wilcox and their four boys were sent from O‘ahu to take over the teaching duties.
Wilcox was to “raise up teachers for the common schools of the island and to prepare those who may go from our Island to the High School”.
While carrying out his teaching duties, he also managed the growing agricultural enterprises of the mission, which by now included taro, yams, potatoes, beans, corn, and bananas. The produce was sold to passing vessels to help the mission meet expenses.
By mid-century, most of the people in the Islands had received some sort of Christian instruction, and they were further advanced in the eyes of the missionaries than any other Pacific islanders.
Because of this, the ABCFM began to withdraw support of the Hawaiian Missions. In 1863, they transferred the Sandwich Islands Mission to the Hawaiian Evangelical Association. (NPS)
As the center of mission activities on the Hanalei side of Kauai, Wai‘oli Church and Mission House played an important role in the history of that part of the island.
Presently, the old Waioli Church is the oldest (1841) church on the Island of Kauai and the whole mission complex is retained in excellent, livable condition despite its age and the deteriorating effects of the weather on Kauai. It was later used as a social hall.
In 1912, a new Wai‘oli Church building was given by three sons of Abner Wilcox; Sam, George and Albert. This shingled church, built in the American Gothic architectural style, has a belfry tower which houses the old Mission Bell.
This bell was rung throughout the years, calling people to worship. In 1921 the Wilcox descendants restored the Mission House and the Mission Hall.
The Wai‘oli Church grew under the guidance of the Hawaiian ministers. By 1945, the Wanini Church and the Ha‘ena Church had joined the Wai‘oli Church to form the Wai`oli Hui‘ia Church. (Hanalei Church)