It didn’t take long to walk up the road from our campsite on a macadamia nut farm to take in the sights of a hundred year old church.
In fact, our walk only lasted about five minutes, but by the time we arrived we were breathless. It wasn’t just that we had spent the entire day hiking miles down to the coast to snorkel along a coral reef and then had to hike back up again.
Though our bodies were bathed thick with a salty musk, and our legs were languid with a full day’s trek, it ultimately ended up being our hearts that were filled as they clasped down on the remaining air in our lungs. For we were experiencing one of those moments that simply feels too good to be true.
As we rounded the bend of a cluster of koa trees, there The Painted Church stood alone in a clearing. A big and beautiful rainbow adorned the crest of the steeple, delving deep into the parish as if the heavens were called in congregation.
Behind us a glowing sunset was drawing nearer to the ocean, signifying it was within the hour that nightfall would be cast over the island.
We excitedly proceeded up to the front steps of the church where the familiar melody of Auld Lang Syne sounded over concealed speakers.
Where the Name Comes From
Saint Benedict’s Catholic Church (aka The Painted Church) was built between 1899 and 1902 under the direction of the Belgian Catholic missionary, Father John Velghe.
As one of the most well-known churches on the Big Island of Hawai’i, The Painted Church has been attracting the pious and the curious-minded for over a century. But it’s not just the stunning view that the church has to offer on the slopes of Mauna Loa.
The majority of people visit the church for its stunning examples of biblical American folk art, painted by Fr. John Velghe himself. Some of his murals include Christ’s rejection of the Devil, depictions of Cain and Abel, the revelation of St. Francis of Assisi, and many more.
A Bit of History About the Church
Although The Painted Church sits high up in the hills overlooking the coast of Hōnaunau Bay, the original location for weekly services sat much closer to the water. In the mid-1840’s a much smaller chapel was opened on the shores of south Kona.
This beach-side chapel was named St. Regis on account of the priest who regularly gave sermons there.
It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that a new priest, Fr. John Velghe decided that the church should be moved up into the hills of Mauna Loa. Some of the earliest records from the church state that many of the congregants were moving uphill because the soil was much more fertile.
When The Painted Church was finished and finally blessed in 1902 it was renamed Saint Benedict’s Catholic Church. Shortly thereafter, Fr. Velghe, a self-taught artist, began to adorn the freshly constructed walls and ceiling with beautiful murals reminiscent of paintings usually found in gothic cathedrals.
Due to the apparent language barrier between the foreign-born priest and the native Hawaiian congregants, the murals were meant to convey the authenticity of certain biblical passages through visual transmission.
Allegedly, the murals have never been retouched with paint since Fr. Velghe initially painted them.
In addition, the Belgian priest and self-taught artist adorned the six pillars in the church with biblical passages translated from Latin to Hawaiian. At the very top of these pillars spilling out onto the ceiling are painted palm fronds to give the appearance of trees growing within the building. The ceiling itself is painted like a periwinkle blue sky with clouds, stars, and birds.
Golden Grounds for a Hawaiian Chapel
In comparative beauty, the grounds of The Painted Church similarly resemble a kind of idyllic beauty.
There are a number of charming statues on the grounds, including that of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and that of Saint Damien, another priest from Belgium who is renown for helping sufferers of leprosy on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i.
Alongside the exterior of The Painted Church, there is a small graveyard running the length of the chapel grounds. Certainly the act of watching a slow-going sunset from the steps of the chapel felt even more timeless with the recognition that the audience next to us had already entered the ever-after.
I’m honestly not sure that I can say I’ve ever observed a sunset while sitting next to some buried bodies. Nevertheless, they were all blessed to have such an amazing view every day.
A Few Additional Remarks
As we head deeper into this life of travel, our plan is to see many more sacred sites. There are literally thousands of them around the world, and we’ve only just begun.
Perhaps, if The Painted Church wasn’t it Hawai’i, and it didn’t overlook stunning sunsets every night, and there weren’t hundred year old murals inside of the building, it would have come off more simply as a congregation place for worship.
The chapel does still operate as an active Roman Catholic church, holding at least five masses every week, but there’s an undoubtedly greater presence surrounding the grounds there.
While the church does receive tens of thousands of visitors every year, especially when the cruise ships come into Kona, they run purely on donation.
If you plan to visit The Painted Church on your next trip to Hawai’i, consider purchasing a postcard or bracelet from the chapel’s store. Or you can even leave a small monetary donation as a way of giving your regards to the church and the people who maintain it.
After all, with original paintings that are over a hundred years old, and the constant risk of termite damage to the wooden structure, the people who preserve the church and the grounds surrounding it constantly have loads of work on their hands.
As always, thanks for reading.