O ke kea hemolele ko‘u malamalama
Hele oe pela i Satana
He poino kou mea i ninini mai ai
Aole o Satana ko’u alakai
Ua oki oe me kou mea pau wale
Nau no e inu kou poino
The Holy Cross be my light
You have poured forth trouble
Satan is not my guide
Stop with your perishable things
Drink your own misfortune
Mottoes of St Benedict’s medal in Hawaiian, painted on the ‘Painted Church’.
“He held the brush almost to the end of his life, until the day when his poor eyes refused their service. When he realized that, even with the strongest glasses, he could no longer command the brush as he wished …”
“… he understood that God demanded of him a huge sacrifice which he dreaded.” (Father John, Congregation of the Sacred Hearts at Rome; NPS)
This is a story about a Belgian Priest Father John Berchmans Velghe and a church he built, and painted, in Honaunau, South Kona on the Island of Hawai‘i.
The history of the Church began early in 1842. At that time, Father Joachim Marechal, SS.CC. was assigned to care for both South Kona and Ka‘u Districts.
He set his residence and first chapel on the border of the two Districts. Within a short time, due to Father Joachim’s zeal and zealous work and teaching of several lay catechists, the Church was firmly established in South Kona.
The first Catholic school in the area opened at Honaunau beach village under the care of Serapia, a catechist, and Clement Hoki, a school teacher, the missionary priests lived in South Kona only intermittently until about 1859.
The original chapel, located on the shore of Honaunau Bay near the Puʻuhonua o Honaunau (City of Refuge) was known as St Francis Regis Chapel.
Father Joachim died unexpectedly April 12, 1859. Father Aloys Lorteau, SS.CC., his successor, took up residence in Honaunau and served there for 37 years until 1898, when he died aboard the vessel, Maunaloa, on Easter Monday on his way to Honolulu for medical and hospital attention.
By the mid-1880s most of the Honaunau people had moved away from the beach area to more fertile soil about two miles up the slopes. Father John became resident priest who replaced Father Aloys in December, 1899.
Father John was born in Courtrai, Belgium, July 14, 1857. His baptismal name was Joseph Velghe. He attended the academy at Sarzeau in Brittany and became a novice at Mitanda de Ebro in Spain.
He studied at the Sacred Hearts’ Scholasticate in Louvain, where on June 29, 1888, he was ordained a priest. Velghe was a member of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Society, familiarly known as the Picpus Fathers; Father Damien was a member of this Society.
At the ordination Joseph Velghe took the name of Father Jean Berchmans Velghe after a sixteenth century Belgian who had been canonized a Saint.
Father John was sent to the Marquesas and remained there until a tropical fever forced him to leave in 1899. He was then instructed to go to South America.
However, a yellow fever epidemic blocked the sea lanes and he was re-assigned to the district of South Kona and put in charge of the Catholic Churches and parishes from Honaunau to Hoʻopuloa.
Then he began the task of building a new church; he moved what he could of St. Francis Regis Chapel to upper Honaunau. Saint Benedict’s Church was built between 1899 and 1902. It is a small rectangular structure with a vaulted interior ceiling.
Although the structure he built does not present anything innovative architecturally, its interior space is both artistically and architecturally important, for the artwork serves as an extension of the architecture. (NPS)
The structure is “a little masterpiece of imaginative functionalism, of unity between structure, adornment, and architectural purpose.”
The columns within the structure are the trunks of painted coconut palm trees, and the altar wall, with carefully illusionistic perspective, transfers the soaring reaches of the Burgos Cathedral in Europe to Honaunau. (NPS)
Father John had no formal training as an artist, natural talent shines through his work. It is even more remarkable that his materials were ordinary building wood and regular house paint. Even that was not easy to come by at the time of construction.
Designed, constructed and painted as a miniature European Gothic Cathedral by Father John, St. Benedict Church is now considered to be rather unique in the annals of American Art.
An excellent teacher and self-taught artist, Father John painted the interior walls of the church with some striking scenes of the Bible which depict various important religious truths. His biblical murals soon became famous, and St. Benedict Church came to be known as “The Painted Church.”
It has become a major tourist attraction of the Kona coast, and thousands of visitors come to see it every year. It is listed in the Hawaii State Register of Historical Places and the National Register of Historical Places.
Father John’s health deteriorated and he had to return to Belgium in 1904, he was never able to finish the church. He went to the scholasticate in his place of birth, Courtrai, for two years.
Then he lived for short periods in the monasteries of the Sacred Hearts, residing in a number of their establishments in the Low Countries.
Even throughout his last years he continued to paint. A few of his works are still preserved in Europe – such as his “Seven Sorrows of Mary”, copied from the like-named series of pictures by the noted Belgian painter Joseph Janssens, in the Church of Saint Anthony in Louvain. (NPS)
As a teacher, while teaching at the Sacred Hearts’ Apostolic School at Aarschot, Belgium, in around 1924 or 1926, he met the young student Matthias Gielen, who was to become Father Evarist of Hawai‘i, the artist who did the churches at Mountain View and Kalapana on the Island of Hawai‘i.
With advancing age, and unable to care for himself, Father John was placed in a Sanitarium at Lierre, Belgium in 1935; he died there on January 20, 1939, at the age of eighty-one. (Lots of information here is from NPS and Painted Church.)
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