From its first thatched-roof adobe structure erected in 1839 on the corner of Smith and Beretania Streets, to its present day structure built in 1910, the people of Kaumakapili have survived Hawaiʻi’s most turbulent times.
Starting in 1837, “the common Hawaiian folk of Honolulu” started petitioning Rev. Hiram Bingham, head of the Hawaiian Mission, to establish a second church or mission in Honolulu (Kawaiahaʻo being the first).
Governor Kekuanaoa “begged to express his manao that it should be in the village” (Honolulu); specifically, in the district of Kaumakapili where 12,000 to 13,000 people lived. (The Friend)
They requested that the Rev. Lowell Smith be their pastor. The 1837 annual ʻAha Paeʻaina (the annual meeting and gathering of the churches and ministers) granted their request.
The Reverend Lowell Smith and wife, Abigail Tenny Smith, arrived in Honolulu in 1833, as members of the Sixth Company. (Reverend Smith served as the first minister of Kaumakapili Church until his retirement in 1869.)
Chief Abner Pākī and wife, Konia, granted the lot on the corner of Smith and Beretania Streets for this mission – the area then known as Kaumakapili. Pākī and Konia were parents of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, founder of the Kamehameha Schools.
On April 1, 1838, the first Sabbath of the month, the Rev. Hiram Bingham assisted Rev. Lowell Smith in organizing the church, “twenty-two persons were received by letter from Kawaiahao church two from Ewa and one from Kauai and forty-nine were received on profession of faith.” (Smith) This was the commencement of Kaumakapili Church.
“In early days the church was spoken of as “Smith’s Church.” Moreover it was long thought of as the church of the common people, as distinguished from Kawaiahaʻo, known as the Chiefs’ Church.” (The Friend)
The first Church building was constructed of adobe with a thatched pili roof and was large enough to accommodate 2,500 people. On August 29, 1839 the church building was dedicated.
In 1865, as King Kamehameha V was nearing death, he asked High Chiefess Bernice Pauahi to be his successor, but she refused. According to law, an election was held and Kaumakapili was used as Honolulu’s town hall during this and many future political crises.
The adobe building was torn down in 1881 to make way for a new brick edifice.
King Kalākaua took great interest in the church and wanted an imposing church structure with two steeples. His argument was, “…that as a man has two arms, two eyes, two ears, two legs, therefore, a church ought to have two steeples.”
The cornerstone for the new church was laid on September 2, 1881 by Princess Liliʻuokalani (on her birthday.) Seven years later the new building was completed.
It was an imposing landmark, first of its kind, and visible to arriving vessels and land travelers. It was dedicated on Sunday, June 10, 1888.
This church played an ironic role during Kalākaua’s reign.
The Honolulu citizens held a meeting in this building protesting Kalākaua’s capriciousness and appointment of an Italian-American adventurer named Moreno as his Minister of Foreign Affairs and the appointment of a new cabinet, whose “grotesque unfitness” caused the people to be up in arms. The result was the dismissal of Moreno four days after his appointment.
In January, 1900, disaster struck. The presence of bubonic plague in the Chinatown area caused the health authorities to take drastic measures by burning sections of Chinatown. Sparks fell on the wooden steeples and fire engulfed the entire building leaving only the brick walls standing.
Honolulu’s landscape was changing, so the old site at Smith and Beretania Streets was sold and a new one bought at the corner of King and the then Simerson (now Pālama) Streets in Pālama. Services were held in a temporary small wooden chapel on Austin Lane, behind the old Palama Fire Station.
Here, for the next 10 years, the church developed its ministry with a strong emphasis on Sunday School ministering; particularly to the girls from the old Reform School that was situated on the site of the present Kaʻiulani Elementary School.
During these years and the years to follow Rev. Poepoe fostered the idea of enlisting young Hawaiian men into the Christian ministry. This time of Kaumakapili’s history enjoyed a very active Sunday School under several outstanding superintendents – among whom were Augustus Smith, only son of Founders Rev. Lowell and Abigail Smith, and one of their daughters, Mrs. Benjamin F. Dillingham.
On May 7, 1910, Master Harold R. Erdman, great grandson of the Rev. Lowell Smith, broke ground for the third church building. It was dedicated on June 25, 1911, the same day in which the 89th Annual Conference of the Hawaiian Evangelical Association (ʻAha Paeʻaina) was hosted by the church.
On the day of dedication of the original two stained glass windows, the great grandson of Rev. Lowell Smith, Lowell S. Dillingham, was baptized on September 13, 1912.
The Gothic Revival-style church is the most prominent feature of the urban Kalihi-Palama neighborhood. The bell tower steeple stands 96 feet above the surrounding properties. The campus features an expanse of grass lawn at the front of the building bordered by two paved parking lots and is surrounded by a low dressed-basalt wall with piers at the walk and driveway openings.
In the late twenties and early fifties, Kaumakapili was known as the “Queen of the Hawaiian Churches for she had begun missions and sister churches’ relationships as her witness to the community.” The inspiration and information on this post came primarily from kaumakapili-org and The Friend.