“The church is on fire.” The word spread quickly over Molokai by phone the night of Feb. 11, but not quick enough to save the 73-year-old St. Sophia Church in Kaunakakai.
A firefighter at the Maui County Fire Station, which is within eyesight of the church a few hundred yards away, told longtime parishioner Rose Brito they got the call at 10:42 p.m.
Brito, who lives “a stone’s throw” from the church, said she got the call herself a few minutes later from Sacred Hearts Sister Jessie Kai who also lives close by.
Brito got out of bed, alerted the ambulance driver next door, and then ran over to join the growing group of people gathered along Kaunakakai’s main street to watch the firefighters hose down the now-smoldering wooden structure.
Sister Jessie also called the pastor, Sacred Hearts Father Clyde Guerreiro, who lives 10 miles away in Kamalo. He jumped into his pickup and joined the crowd.
The church was going to be demolished later this year to make way for the building of a new one. Still, sad thoughts went through Brito’s mind as she looked at the charred structure illuminated in the dark night by the firefighters’ floodlamps.
“I was thinking, that is where my [six] kids were baptized and confirmed,” she said. “A lot of memories burned down with the church.”
The disaster also drew out a humorous sigh or two, Brito said.
“Now we have a lot of ashes for Ash Wednesday,” one parishioner told her.
Father Guerreiro’s first concern was the Blessed Sacrament still in the tabernacle. At first the firefighters only allowed the priest to enter the charred church for about “30 seconds” to look around, but later on Friday they let him retrieve the consecrated hosts.
Fire inspectors came over by ferry from Maui on Friday and worked on the site “all day,” said Father Guerreiro, but left without “a clear idea of what happened.”
They told the pastor that the fire’s cause could have been electrical, the votive candles that remain lit around the clock, or arson.
The insurance company was scheduled to make its own inspection on Tuesday, Feb. 16, Father Guerreiro said.
According to Marlene R. De Costa, diocesan director of real estate, the church and its contents were insured for $300,000.
Things could have been worse.
The fire gutted the church, but left its walls and steeple standing. Untouched were the rectory and the carport modified for children’s religious education classes, each standing a few feet from the church.
Father Guerreiro called the fire “surgical” in nature.
The flames even spared the sacristy, a room attached to the back of the church that stores the materials needed to celebrate Mass.
“It’s amazing how the sacristy is intact,” Father Guerreiro said on Feb. 12. “The liturgical books, holy oils are intact, the vestments are intact.”
Also unaffected was the building next door, the former Stanley’s coffee shop, which the parish bought recently for a possible gift shop and museum. It is now called the Damien Center.
Brito said the fire could have been disastrous for Kaunakakai.
Most of the buildings on the town’s main street are older wooden structures, she said, and everything could have gone up in flames. But there was no wind that night, she said, and the firefighters got there in time.
Molokai’s main church
St. Sophia Church is the main church of the St. Damien Parish, which encompasses all of topside Molokai. The parish has three other churches — St. Vincent Ferrer in Maunaloa on the west side, and on the east side, Our Lady of Seven Sorrows in Kaluaaha and St. Joseph in Kamalo. Masses are no longer celebrated in the tiny Kamalo church.
The parish has about 300 families. Four out of five Molokai parishioners went to Mass at St. Sophia. The 1,852-square-foot church held about 120 people, according to Father Guerreiro, but about 265 showed up on any given weekend, divided between two Masses. The overflow stood outside.
The church was not yet cool before the pastor received three offers from other places to use their facilities. At an emergency meeting of the pastoral council the evening after the fire, it was decided to use the Molokai Oceanside Health and Wellness Center (the former Pau Hana Inn).
Meanwhile, the rectory, which contains the parish offices but is not a residence, was still roped off by the fire inspectors and out of bounds.
“I am working out of my home and my truck,” said Father Guerreiro, who has some experience with destroyed churches as the vicar of Kauai following Hurricane Iniki in 1992. “Weekday liturgies will be at the Damien Center.”
The parish was planning to raze St. Sophia later this year to make way for the building of a new $3 million church and parish center. The parish has so far raised $1.4 million for the new structure which has been in the planning for more than a decade.
Father Guerreiro said the fire will probably speed up the process. It may also spur donations for the new church which will be named after St. Damien.
“A lady on the street, whom I didn’t know, slipped me $20,” the pastor said.
St. Sophia was built in 1937 on the site of an earlier smaller chapel. It was said to be named to honor Sophie Cooke, who donated $1,000 to build it, a large sum in those days.
Printed with permission from the Hawaii Catholic Herald.