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St. Benedict's Roman Catholic Church

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1902. 84-5140 Painted Church Rd., off Middle Keei Rd., Honaunau

This is a handsome Carpenter Gothic church with an ornate steeple and lattice portico. However, it is the interior of the “Painted Church” which draws visitors. From the chancel's trompe l'oeil paintings of an expanded cathedral interior to the red and white striped octagonal columns with their palm frond crowns spreading over the vaulted ceiling's sunset sky, the church is a treasure trove of folk art of the highest order. The painting on the rear wall used Burgos Cathedral's octagonal lantern as its model. Paintings on the side walls depict Christ rejecting Satan and his temptations, the appearance of the cross to St. Francis, and the handwriting on the wall at the court of Belshazzar, which proclaims, “Ua emi loa ‘oe, Ua pau kou aupuni, Make nō ka pono” (“Things are quickly waning, Your kingdom ends, All goodness shall die”). The opposite wall depicts Eve finding Abel after his murder by Cain, a good death, and the Devil presiding over the fires of hell. The Cain and Abel scene draws upon late-nineteenth-century German painter Karl Gebhardt's interpetation of the scene, and the appearance of the cross to St. Francis relies on a popular photograph of the tunneled road, the Axenstrasse, near Lucerne, for its setting.

This visual delight was the work of Father John Berchmans Velghe. Born in Belgium, Father John came to Hawaii in 1899 after serving for more than ten years in the Marquesas Islands and six months in Tahiti. Assigned to Honaunau, the forty-one-year-old priest undertook the construction of St. Benedict's church, replacing an 1870s-vintage church which was located at the coast near Puuhonua O Honaunau. Using house paint, he adorned the interior of the new church; however, in 1904, before completing the lunettes above the major scenes, he was called back to Belgium. He then served various monasteries in Europe associated with the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts until his death in 1939. In 1985, an exterior wall was applied to the church under the direction of preservation architect Jim Beimborn in an effort to better protect the interior paintings.

Two other painted churches may be found on the island of Hawaii: St. Theresa's at Mountain View (c. 1930; 181355 Volcano Highway) and Star of the Sea (1928), which was relocated to Highway 130 between mile markers 19 and 20 when a 1990 lava flow consumed Kalapana. These were the work of Father Evarist, who was a student of Father John's in the 1920s.

Writing Credits

Don J. Hibbard


What's Nearby


Don J. Hibbard, "St. Benedict's Roman Catholic Church", [Captain Cook, Hawaii], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Cover: Buildings of Hawaii

Buildings of Hawaii, Don J. Hibbard. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011, 257-258.

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