Three years after the arrival American Protestant missionaries of the Pioneer Company in 1820, Asa Thurston, Artemis Bishop, Joseph Goodrich and William Ellis toured the island of Hawaii to identify appropriate Mission Stations there.
The reported on six locations, with the priority given to Kailua in the Kona District and Waiakea in the Hilo District. At Waiakea, the missionaries erected two houses and a church within two months after their arrival.
The first church was of traditional pole and thatch construction. The dedication of the Waiakea Mission Station was on May 19,1824.
From 1820 until 1850, further development of Hilo proper was focused in this area around the mission. In addition to the church, there was the eventual Hilo Boarding School, as well as the missionary homes and government buildings including the royal cottages.
During the late 1830s, Reverend Titus Coan increased the size of his congregation scattered along the east coast of the Big Island to 7,000 people. Churches were constructed throughout the Hilo and Puna Districts to meet the needs of the people in those locations.
The needs of the home congregation also increased. A larger building was required as well as one that could weather the climate for a longer period of time. The first churches for the Waiakea Mission Station were of Hawaiian thatch construction and were replaced, as they deteriorated.
“When our first framed church building became old and dilapidated, we decided on replacing it with an edifice of stone and mortar. But after a years hard toil in bringing stones on men’s shoulders and after having dug a trench some six feet deep for the foundations without coming to bed-rock, we by amicable agreement dismissed our mason ….” (Coan, Life in Hawaii)
Haili, the name of the church, was derived from the forest, Haili Kulamanu (Paradise of the Birds) from which most of the ‘ōhi‘a wood was cut, located 6 to 8 miles southwest of the church. The Hawaiians hewed the wood in the forest, then hauled it to the mission with drag ropes. (NPS)
“When the materials were brought together, we employed a Chinese carpenter at a reasonable price, to frame and raise the building, all his pay to be in trade, for ‘the golden age’ had not yet dawned on Hawaii.”
“The natives, men and women, soon covered the rough frame with thatching. There was no floor but the earth, and the only windows were holes about three feet square left in the thatching on the sides and ends.”
“This was the first framed church edifice built in Hilo, and in this building, capable of seating about 2,000 people, we first welcomed Commodore Ap Catesby Jones, of the frigate United States, with his officers and brass band.”
“The courteous commodore and his chaplain consented to deliver each an address of congratulation and encouragement to the people for their ready acceptance of the Gospel, and for their progress in Christian civilization.”
“He alluded to a former visit of his to Honolulu by order of the United States Government, to investigate certain complaints made by a class of foreign residents against the American missionaries, stating that on a patient and careful hearing of the parties, the missionaries came out triumphantly, and their abusers were put to shame.”
“The cornerstone was laid November 14, 1857, and the building was dedicated on the 8th, of April, 1859. The material was good and the workmanship faithful and satisfactory. The whole cost was $13,000.00.” (Coan, Life in Hawaii)
Prior to this, the Hawaiian community development had centered one and one-half miles to the east, southeast in the Waiakea section of Hilo. Because of the missionary improvements, commercial and governmental in the district of Hilo located closer to Haili Church.
“In 1868, an awful earthquake tore in pieces stone walls and stone houses and rent the earth in various parts of Hilo, Puna and Kau. Had we built according to our original plan and agreement with the mason, ‘our holy and beautiful house’ would have become a heap of rubbish …”
“… and our hearts would have sunk within us with sorrow. How true that ‘a man’s heart deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps.’” (Coan, Life in Hawaii)
On July 15, 1979, fire destroyed the church tower, ceiling and some of the interior of the building. The restored church was rededicated on June 1, 1980. The church continues today. A notable modern recognition was the 2001 induction of the Haili Choir into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame.
The Haili Church Choir is one of the oldest and most widely acclaimed Hawaiian church choirs. Since the beginning of the 1900s, it has been the ‘training school’ for some of Hawai‘i’s foremost names in traditional Hawaiian music, both sacred and secular.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, church choirs were instrumental in the development of Hawaiian music. While they are not the oldest, nor was the choir officially named until 1909, the Haili Choir, because of its performance out reach, became the most prominent
The choir began in 1902 under Harry K. Naope, Sr., at the Kalepolepo Chapel, one of the seven branches of the Haili Church. Naope was a music teacher in the public schools, and received his training in music at Lahainaluna Seminary on the island of Maui. (HMHOF)