This is a story with more than one beginning
Separate threads to be fashioned into a whole. One thread is the questing spirit of man that led to the discovery of the Hawaiian Archipelago: another is the dedication and perseverance of the early Catholics in Hawaii, who fought long and hard to nurture their faith and spread the word of God. A third is the coming of the Portuguese from the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde Islands, and Portugal itself, to pledge their hearts to a new and uncommon home, and to help keep burning the lamp of faith. With these threads we can weave a tapestry, and a small but important part of it is Makawao, and St. Joseph Church.
On July 7, 1827, the French vessel La Comete arrived in Honolulu harbor, and on board were Sacred Hearts Fathers who had accepted a new and dangerous assignment. Led by French Father Alexis Bachelot, they were to establish a mission in the Islands. Already in Hawaii were a number of Protestant missionaries, who had arrived in 1820 and showed a remarkable vigor in promoting their faith; the presence of these missionaries added to the palpable tension that now surrounded the newly- arrived priests. Many of the alli, the powerful Island nobility, were suspicious and resentful of the Catholics, and agitated for their expulsion. The Governor of Oahu, Boki, was an early champion, and apparently had been baptized in 1819 aboard the French ship L'Uranie by the Abbe de Quelan.
When Boki was lost at sea the anti-Catholic forces in Hawaii moved against the mission. In 1831 Fathers Bachelot and Patrick Short were expelled, leaving behind the Brothers of the Sacred Hearts, and it was feared the mission was at an end. There was another attempt by Father Bachelot to return to the Island permanently from his base in California, but it came to grief; he died in 1837 aboard a schooner off the coast of Oahu, and ultimately was buried on the Island of Na, off Ponape in the Caroline Islands.
On December 18, 1837, Kind Kamehameha III, caught in the early friction surrounding the Catholics, issued at Lahaina "An Ordinance Rejecting the Catholic Religion." It not only forbade the teachings of the Catholic Church but prohibited "all vessels whatsoever from bringing any teacher of that religion into this kingdom." The King had not reckoned with the anger of the French. On July 9, 1839, the French frigate L'Artemise sailed into Honolulu under the command of the no-nonsense Captain C.P.T. LaPlace. He was fresh from a similar mission in Tahiti, and LaPlace lost no time in sending the king a message that was tough, at times insulting, and into even couched in the elaborate diplomatic language of the day. It demanded that Catholics be free to worship, that all Catholics imprisoned for their fatih be released immediately, that the government provide a site for a Catholic church, that the King turn over S20,000 as a sign of his future good conduct, and finally, LaPlace added, Hawaii would fire a 21-gun salute to the presence of his ship. The alternative was war. The King capitulated.
Within a year the Catholic faith was flourishing; new priests were having an impact on Islanders, and soon the Catholic faith was the fastest growing religion in Hawaii. The old guard Protestant missionaries were retiring, and a newer generation was aware of the ecumenical nature of American society.
Still there were setbacks, and at least on tragedy: the vigorious Bishop Rouchouze was being accompanied from France by seven priests, seven Brothers and ten sisters of the Sacred Hearts late in 1842 aboard the brig Marie-Joseph. The ship never reached Hawaii. The next Bishop and Vicar Apostolic appointed by Rome was Louis Desire Maigret, who recognized immediately the importance of Catholic education in the Islands, and helped usher the Church into a new era of maturity and stability. Bishop Maigret also was beloved by the lepers in their isolated peninsula on Molokai, for he was not afraid to visit them. He also ordained a young Damien de Veuster and accompanied Father Damien when he landed on Molokai to become the settlement's pastor. Father Damien would spend his life among the lepers, and die there, a victim of the disease, but a victor over fears and prejudices, a Catholic whose faith and courage would reach all nations and inspire all men who knew of him.
Throughout these turbulent years — indeed, almost from the "discovery" of Hawaii by the \Vest -- there had been Portuguese in Hawaii. Many, if not most, arrived as sailors on ships of various nations, for the Portuguese had been seafarers for centuries. Now and then a Portuguese sailor would elect to stay in the Island and come ashore to do ranching or farming. The Islands' leadership would mark these men, for they were industrious and smart. They went into agriculture, or became masons and carpenters. A few of them settled on Maui.
Maui was a thriving place in the 1840s and 1850s; Lahaina was the capital of the kingdom until 1850, and long remained an important seaport town. But most of the focus was on West Maui, and the great Eastern side, with towering, 10,000-foot Haleakala, was still the outback. Wailuku was the center of the East Maui countryside, and the sprawling district of Makawao was sparsely settled and the town itself relatively unknown. The more important places seemed to be Ulumalu and Haliimaile, the latter a sugar plantation. In Ulumalu, the Catholic schools had an enrollment of 234 pupils in 1847, and the following year the Catholics in Haliimaile were building a church. A tragedy in 1850-51 caused the Upcountry towns to diminish -- an epidemic of smallpox raged through the countryside and took the lives of about one-third of the native population. Survivors fled to other places, anxious to be away from the scene of the calamity, and what remained of the Catholic population were ministered to by the resident priest in Wailuku, who made regular calls throughout the large Makawao District. Records show baptisms at this time in Hamakuapoko, Haliimaile, Kailua, Halehaku, Ulumalu, Kula, Waiakoa, Keokea, Ulupalakua and others.
Hawaii was on the threshold of great changes, however, changes that would bring a variety of new peoples into the Islands and create a social mix that was at times strange and at other times wonderful. Laborers were needed for the burgeoning plantations, and mechanics and supervisors and managers. Immigrants poured into Hawaii from China, Japan, The Philippines, and a myriad other places. Among them, form 1878 to 1899, were 12,000 Portuguese.
The first arrivals came on the bark Priscilla, 120 of them, and of their arrival the Pacific Commercial Advertiser said in part: "...They are a cleanly looking, well-behaved set, with the old-fashioned polite manners the Portuguese and Spanish races. The more we have of this sort of immigration the better. They are, as a race -- as we have frequently had occasion to remark before -- temperate, painstaking, thrifty and law abiding people."
Portuguese who settled on Maui moved easily into the ebb and flow of life on the Island. They became plantation supervisors, or went into ranching, or other outdoor work. They built homes in Makawao or Kaupakalua, and in time the resident priest in Wailuku could not meet all the needs of a growing flock. A newly-arrived priest, Father James Beissel, was appointed to the Makawao District.
Father Beissel was born in 1854 in Burthsheid, Germany, and made his religious profession in Louvain, in Belgium. He ws ordained a priest in 1878 and arrived in Honolulu the following year. After a short stay on Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii, Father Beissel arrived in Kuau¬Makawao in 1882 and quite likely was awed by the size of the District and the needs of a Catholic population largely from Madeira and the Azores. Not daunted for long, he recruited young men of robust frame, and robust faith, and began building a series of small, frame churches -- at least a half-dozen of them, diminutive but handsome and well-constructed.
Makawao probably had not had a permanent church until Father Beissel's energetic program swept into town. Under his guidance the Portuguese men built a small frame church on a site above the present Catholic cemetery, located on the Kokomo side of today's church. The builders constructed a framework on a stone wall, six to seven feet high; there was no rectory and it was scarcely missed by Father Beissel, who was more or less constantly moving throughout the district. Attached to the sacristy was a standard-sized room divided into two areas, an office and a bedroom, which the itinerant priest could use when necessary. The stone wall grew in importance to become a place for meetings, for wedding parties, and a workshop to prepare for he Holy Ghost celebration; the latter centered around an annual carnival with the usual booths and displays and something extra as befitting a town surrounded by ranches; the auctioning of many cattle.
As the new century dawned it became apparent that another priest would be needed to serve a growing population. Between 1906 and 1913 another 6,000 Portuguese arrived in Hawaii, adding to the growing number of Christians.
In that same year, Father Beissel was called to other duties, and the Makawao District was divided. Flemish Father Charles Windels, SS.CC., and Dutch Father Justin Van Schayk, SS.CC., were assigned to Maui, having arrived in Honolulu three years earlier, with Father Windels given Kuau, Pauwela, Hamakuapoko and Haiku as his areas of responsibility, and Father Justin given Makawao, Huelo and Kula. As a signal that the church was a vital part of the community, Father Justin built a cottage near the church, and with his customary zeal, welcomed all of the Portuguese newcomers personally.
The newcomers were encountering other races and other customs. If they sometimes felt they were a long way from the heart of their culture, they tried to keep up their spirits, and the little church in Makawao became very important to them. In Father Justin they found a devout man of God with unflagging energy and a talent that he hid from them until one electrifying morning when he began addressing them from the pulpit in fluent Portuguese. In two months he had learned the language. With a background in Latin and French he mastered the Portuguese tongue until he was recognized as an authority on the language. And it was not only the Portuguese: Father Justin became proficient in Hawaiian as well.
The popularity of the little church in Makawao increased to the point where it was apparent something larger was needed. Father Justin had, for some time, been eyeing a nearby site, larger and more open. It was part of the plantation and currently housed a blacksmith shop, and one day the priest went over and talked with the plantation owner, a conversation that was cordial but unproductive. It was obvious that plantation was not anxious to part with the site.
On a dark evening in the rainy season, Father Justin, reading by a ,kerosene lamp, heard noises outside that he easily identified: a man trying to get a Ford out of a mudhole. The priest went out and confirmed what his ears had told him, and speaking to the driver, went away and came back with two planks. He inserted the planks under each rear wheel and told the driver to try again while he pushed. Quickly, the car was free.
Father Justin invited the driver inside to wash up, and by the light of the kerosene lantern saw the plantation executive he had engaged in fruitless negotiations earlier. After a few minutes of friendly talk, the plantation executive smilingly shook the Father's hand and invited him around the next day to talk about "unfinished business."
Soon Father Justin was announcing the good news from the pulpit, and almost as quickly plantation labor was clearing the site for the new church. Knowing he could use some expert help, Father Justin consulted with Bishop Libert Boeynaems in Honolulu, a well-known builder and a man who loved Gothic architecture. The bishop rose to the occasion: he not only gave written instructions to Father Justin, but sent him an expert to oversee the construction. Father John Couturiaux came to Makawao from Lihue, Kauai, and took charge of Father Justin's volunteers as well as the contractor who had been hired in Wailuku. Father Couturiaux drew the blueprints and specifications as well. As the construction proceeded, he kept a close eye on the quality of the work.
The church was finished at the end of 1911, the pride of the Makawao Catholic community and the object of admiration for many visitors. A small bell tower was built on the roof above the main entrance, waiting for the funds to build the massive bell tower at a later date. Except for the tower, the church of 1911 looked the same as the church of today.
A succession of priests served the Makawao community, and St. Joseph Church continued to be the center of Catholic life in the Makawao area. Father Justin, however, did not enjoy his new church for long; in 1912 he was transferred to St. Anthony's in Wailuku.
Today the sound of the bells of St. Joseph Church echoes gently across the land, calling the faithful to worship. The sounds of the Mass reach all corners of the Gothic structure, and the congregation kneels where count-less others have knelt in supplication and gratitude. The soaring interior of the church, the magnificent stained-glass windows and the aura of warmth and peace that pervade the structure are all testaments to the love and care that brought about the reality of St. Joseph Church, truly God's house.
The present tower was built in 1927 financed by the family of Fr. James Beynes.