Pope Francis offers condolences after 55 die in Hawaii wildfires

Hawaii wildfires An aerial image taken on Aug. 10, 2023, shows destroyed homes and buildings burned to the ground in Lahaina along the Pacific Ocean in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui, Hawaii. | Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis offered his condolences after at least 55 people died in wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

The pope sent a condolence telegram on Friday expressing his sadness and solidarity with all who are suffering due to the destruction caused by the wildfires, which have destroyed hundreds of buildings and left scores missing or homeless.

The four ongoing fires started on Aug. 8 during a dry summer, with strong winds from nearby Hurricane Dora strengthening the inferno, the Associated Press reported. Many residents were surprised by the fast-moving flames and had to flee on foot, while thousands of tourists were evacuated.

Maui is the second-largest island in Hawaii by area, and the third most populous with more than 164,000 residents, according to 2022 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The western Maui town of Lahaina, with fewer than 13,000 residents, was a major victim of the fire, with entire blocks burned to the ground.

“It’s an unprecedented disaster,” Patrick Downes, editor of the Diocese of Honolulu’s Hawaii Catholic Herald, told CNA on Aug. 10. “There are a lot of people instantly homeless.”

The telegram sent on the pope’s behalf by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said that Pope Francis was “deeply saddened to learn of the loss of life and the destruction caused by the wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui.”

The pope expressed “his solidarity with all those suffering from this tragedy, especially those whose loved ones have died or are missing,” and offered “the assurance of prayers for the dead, injured, and displaced, as well as for the first responders and emergency personnel.”

“As a sign of his spiritual closeness, the Holy Father willingly invokes upon all the people of Maui Almighty God’s blessings of strength and peace,” the telegram said.

Robert van Tassell, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities Hawaii, told CNA that the effect of the disastrous fire on the Hawaiian community has been “very dramatic.”

“Right now we’re establishing shelters and food relief and those kinds of things,” Van Tassell said.

He emphasized the need for cash donations and referred to the donation form for Maui relief at the Catholic Charities website, www.CatholicCharitiesHawaii.org.

“We’re going to have to rebuild and we expect over 1,200 families right now are without homes,” he said.

The town of Lahaina was hard hit, and the damage appears severe. The town served as the capital of the Hawaiian monarchy for 25 years in the 19th century before the capital moved to Honolulu. In addition to its importance for indigenous Hawaiians, the western town also hosted whalers and religious missionaries. It is a major tourist destination.

Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu was returning to Hawaii from World Youth Day, Downes told CNA. During a layover in California on Wednesday night, the bishop led prayers on a Zoom video conference call. Though the call was organized at the last minute, about 300 people joined.

“He did a Zoom rosary for all the people, all the victims who lost their homes, all those who lost their lives, and all the first responders, the firefighters, and the police,” Downes said.

Van Tassell told CNA that prayers from others show that “people are supporting us on the mainland.”

“The rest of Hawaii is still open and safe,” he added. “Here on Oahu, we’re all very safe, although we are going to be taking evacuees here and working with the Red Cross to provide shelter and food for all of them.”

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