Central Union Church dates back to the days of the Seaman’s Bethel Church in 1828. It was formally founded in 1887 and it moved into its present location in 1924.
In addition to developing new institutions within the church, the congregation made great strides in the field of missionary work in the city of Honolulu, including the beginning of the present Pālama Settlement.
Pālama, then a sleepy neighborhood of neat little cottages and taro patches, was chosen by philanthropist and Central Union members Mr. and Mrs. PC Jones as the site for a new chapel.
On the makai side of King street, opposite Liliha Street, the chapel was dedicated on June 1, 1896, and presented to Central Union by the Joneses, on the condition that the church …
… “maintain public preaching there on Sundays, a weekly prayer meeting, sustain a Sabbath school and also an occasional social for the residents of Pālama, the services to be conducted in the English language.”
Located west of Nuʻuanu Stream, near Downtown Honolulu, Pālama was home to mostly working-class Hawaiian families.
Walter F. Dillingham, long active in philanthropic endeavors in Honolulu, once observed of Pālama: “One must picture Honolulu at the end of the century with its mixture of races, their variety of foods, dress, cultures, customs and living habits. All this gave Honolulu a character and personality not duplicated in any American city.”
“The business section was composed mainly of low framed buildings with corrugated iron roofs near the water front. Streets were unpaved, horse-drawn vehicles, with the ox-cart was a common sight. Taro patches, duck ponds and even sugar cane grew in the section of Palama. It was in such a section that Palama Chapel was built and which grew to be Palama Settlement.” (HJH)
In 1900, as Honolulu health officials attempted to rid the nearby Chinatown area of bubonic plague, fire destroyed a four-block section. Displaced residents took up residence in newly built tenements in Pālama, changing the physical, social and economic make-up of the community.
The chapel’s staff located housing for many of the displaced and took care of the injured and children. It also ministered to the needs of immigrants who moved into the Pālama area soon after arriving in the Islands.
Social worker James Arthur Rath, Sr. and his wife, Ragna Helsher Rath, turned Pālama Chapel into Pālama Settlement (in September 1906,) a chartered, independent, non-sectarian organization receiving contributions from the islands’ elite.
“… they called them ‘settlement houses,’ the philosophy being that the head worker, as they called them, settled in the community. Instead of going in to spend the day working and coming out, they settled in, raised their families there and in that way learned …”
“… one, what the people needed; two, gained their confidence so that they could help them fulfill their needs; and then, three, went ahead and designed programs for exactly what the people needed.”
“So they were settlers and therefore they called them settlement houses. Which is what the origin of Pālama Settlement was because my father and my mother settled there and all five of us children were born and raised in our home in the settlement.” (Robert H. Rath, Sr)
The Raths established the territory’s first public nursing department, a day-camp for children with tuberculosis, a pure milk depot, a day nursery, a night school, and low-rent housing.
In 1908, an indoor swimming pool was opened, and a year later, a gymnasium and bowling alley were built above it. Later, outdoors, a playground, tennis court, and basketball court were added.
Also that year, a new Parish House was erected on an adjacent property at Richards Street, to be used for Sunday School classes and midweek meetings
After a territory-wide fund-raising effort, in 1925 Pālama Settlement moved to its present location with nine buildings spread over eight acres of land on Vineyard and Pālama streets.
Over the years, a medical clinic, an outpatient clinic and the Strong-Carter Dental Clinic were established along with annual circuses, athletic competitions, social and community-service clubs, boardinghouses for women and a preschool. Classes and events relating to music, arts, vocations, and athletics were also offered.
World War II and the postwar era brought about widespread changes in Hawai‘i’s social, economic, and political environment. These developments, in turn, led to changes in the way social agencies such as Pālama Settlement addressed community needs.
Observers noted that Pālama Settlement was departing from its original settlement house philosophy by offering programs for fees and catering to a broad cross section of people regardless of where they lived.
The 1960s and 1970s were periods of re-evaluation, adjustment, and growth, with the settlement’s programs becoming more people-centered rather than activity-centered, stressing human and community needs as opposed to uncoordinated, departmentalized activities, following the large-scale social and economic programs being implemented nationally.
Civil rights and anti-poverty legislation brought large amounts of federal monies to Pālama Settlement for local programs geared to at-risk youth and community development.
Pālama Settlement – a smaller one due to the widening of Vineyard Boulevard and the construction of the H-1 Freeway – continues to exist as a nonprofit, nongovernmental agency dedicated to helping needy families and at-risk youths.