Kawaiahaʻo Church is a historic Congregational church located in Downtown Honolulu on the Hawaiian Island of Oʻahu. The church, along with the Mission Houses, comprise the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site, which was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark (NHL) in 1962. In 1966 it and all other NHLs were included in the first issuance of the National Register of Historic Places.
At one time the national church of the Hawaiian Kingdom and chapel of the royal family, the church is popularly known as Hawaiʻi's Westminster Abbey. The name comes from the Hawaiian noun phrase Ka wai a Haʻo (the water of Haʻo), because its location was that of a spring and freshwater pool in the care of a High Chieftess Haʻo.
Today, Kawaiahaʻo continues to use the Hawaiian language for parts of the service. It is one of the oldest standing Christian places of worship in Hawaiʻi, although four thatched churches stood at or near the present site before construction of the coral church. The oldest standing church is Mokuaikaua Church on the Big Island. Denominationally, It is a member of the United Church of Christ.
Kawaiahaʻo Church was commissioned by the regency of Kaʻahumanu, during the reigns of Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III. Designed by Rev. Hiram Bingham in the New England style of the Hawaiian missionaries, it was constructed between 1836 and 1842 of some 14,000 thousand-pound slabs of coral rock quarried from an offshore reef on the southern coast of Oʻahu. Hawaiian divers dove three to six metres below sea-level to chisel out each coral block with hand tools, and the blocks then were transported from the reef onto the shore.
The churchhouse rivaled the concurrent construction of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace by the Roman Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of the Hawaiian Islands. Construction began on that churchhouse in 1840 and was substantially completed in 1843, one year after the completion of Kawaiahaʻo Church.
The name Kawaiahaʻo was not applied to the site until 1853.
Kawaiahaʻo Church was frequented by the chiefs of the Hawaiian Islands as well as the members of the reigning Kamehameha Dynasty and Kalākaua Dynasty. The upper gallery of the sanctuary is adorned with 21 portraits of Hawaiian royalty (Aliʻi). The body of King Lunalilo, who preferred burial in a church cemetery to burial in the Royal Mausoleum, is buried in a crypt along with his father near the front courtyard.
But Kawaiahaʻo Church was not the only site of royal worship in the Islands. Kamehameha IV and his wife Emma were devout members of the Church of England and established the Anglican Church of Hawaiʻi, which evolved into the present-day Episcopal Diocese of Hawaiʻi after the islands were annexed by the United States and later gained statehood. The royal couple commissioned the construction of the Cathedral Church of Saint Andrew, which replaced Kawaiahaʻo Church as the principal centre of royal worship. Kamehameha V, Kalākaua, and Liliʻuokalani (after the rebellion which overthrew the kingdom) preferred to use the cathedral – even though, before her reign, then Princess Liliʻuokalani had directed the choir of Kawaiahaʻo Church. When Liliʻuokalani died in 1917, she lay in state in the church for a week before her funeral at Iolani Palace.
Other well-known persons associated with the church include Miss Agnes Baldwin Alexander, born in Honolulu in 1875 to William De Witt Alexander and Abigail Charlotte née Baldwin Alexander. The Alexanders were a scion of two of Hawaii’s most illustrious Christian missionary families — the Alexanders and the Baldwins. Agnes' father was one of Hawaii’s most famous men as President of Oahu College, author of "A Brief History of the Hawaiian People," and first Surveyor-General of the Hawaiian Islands. In 1900 Agnes discovered the Bahá’í Faith while in Rome on a tour of the United States and Europe, which she had undertaken after a severe illness. In 1901 she returned to Hawaii as its first Bahá’í. `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the Faith's Prophet-Founder Bahá'u'lláh and His authorized Interpreter, praised her efforts by saying, “I declare by the Lord of Hosts that had this respected daughter founded an empire, that empire would not have been so great! For this sovereignty is eternal sovereignty and this glory is everlasting glory.” Miss Agnes passed on to the spiritual Kingdom January 1, 1971 at age 95 and is buried in the family plot behind the church.
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