Some would suggest that Catholicism started in Hawaiʻi with the arrival of Don Francisco de Paula Marin (Manini) to the Hawaiian Islands in 1793 or 1794 (at about the age of 20.)
In 1819, Kalanimōku was the first Hawaiian Chief to be formally baptized a Catholic, aboard the French ship Uranie. Shortly thereafter, Boki, Kalanimōku’s brother (and Governor of Oʻahu) was baptized.
“The captain and the clergyman asked Young what Kalanimōku’s rank was, and upon being told that he was the chief counselor (kuhina nui) and a wise, kind, and careful man, they baptized him into the Catholic Church.” (Kamakau)
It wasn’t until July 7, 1827, however, when the pioneer French Catholic mission arrived in Honolulu. It consisted of three priests of the Order of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary; Father Alexis Bachelot, Abraham Armand and Patrick Short. They were supported by a half dozen other Frenchmen.
Their first mass was celebrated a week later on Bastille Day, July 14, and a baptism was given on November 30, to a child of Marin.
On April 17, 1837, two other Catholic priests arrived. However, the Hawaiian government forced them back onto a ship on April 30. American, British and French officials in Hawaii intervened and persuaded the king to allow the priests to return to shore.
Catholic Christian worship in Hilo was as early as 1839. The first chapel located on bay front was made from pili grass and was called Saint Martin de Tours. Father Charles Pouzot, SCC became the first pastor of the parish in 1845.
By 1848 the small grass chapel was replaced by a new wooden structure. The Tabernacle to preserve the Eucharist was placed in the sanctuary in 1849.
Gradually the worship space was adorned with statues and stations of the cross. A bell donated in 1850, was a gift from sailors serving on the American man-of-war Independence.
In 1852 the chapel was enlarged due to the generosity of sailors from another American warship whose spiritual needs had also been served in Hilo.
In 1862 the parish of St. Martin de Tours had once again outgrown its place of worship. A new larger church was built in the area of Kalākaua Park on Keawe and Waiānuenue Avenue.
On July 9, 1862 Bishop Louis Maigret, Bishop of Honolulu dedicated the new church to Saint Joseph. That same day 30 more people were baptized and about 300 more were confirmed to become full members of the Saint Joseph Catholic Community.
In the 1880s an increase in the number of Portuguese immigrants from the Madeira Islands more than doubled the Catholic Christian population in Hilo.
Father Puozot already fluent in English, French and Hawaiian, learned Portuguese and began to preach his sermons in Portuguese as well as in English and Hawaiian.
Fr. James C. Bessell, SSCC was assigned as pastor at Saint Joseph in 1909. Father’s zealous effort to reach many families resulted in increasing devotional opportunities and an increase in the numbers of parishioners.
By 1911, Hawaiʻi had 85 priests, 30 churches and 55 chapels. The Catholic population was 35,000; there were 4 academies, a college and 9 parochial schools established by the mission, and the total number of pupils was 2,200.
A new, larger church was needed in Hilo. Father Beissell purchased the property on the corner of Kapiʻolani and Haili Streets from the First Hawaiian Company in 1915.
The large community of active faithful including, among others, Hawaiian and Portuguese families worked together to build their new church.
The cornerstone was laid in 1917 and the church was dedicated at its present location in February 1919. (St Joseph)