'Topside' loses Catholic church to fire
By Diana Leone
Although a Wednesday night fire at St. Sophia's Catholic Church on Moloka'i was the last thing parishioners wanted, it may result in a new church for the community sooner than they had planned.
The Blessed Damien Catholic Parish had planned to raze the church to make way for the construction of a new, larger church later this year.
Still, parishioners and other Kaunakakai residents were mourning its unexpected loss yesterday morning as Maui Fire Department investigators sifted through the ashes, looking for clues as to how the fire started.
No cause or official damage estimate had been released yesterday afternoon. The building and contents were insured for $300,000.
"There's quite a bit of disbelief. It seems like it was just a nightmare," said Rose Brito, who is parish secretary. "I've been a member of this parish since 1952. All of my children were baptized here. ... There are a lot of memories."
After seeing the unusable building yesterday, parish priest Clyde Guerreiro said he would not be surprised if authorities require it to be taken down as soon as possible for safety reasons.
Church officials were planning to have Christmas Eve Mass in the new church in 2011.
Following Wednesday's fire, Guerreiro said, "It might even advance our schedule."
Although the church is old, it's not considered historic. Brito said she was surprised the termite-ridden church's roof had not fallen in.
All three of Moloka'i's fire engines and 12 firefighters responded to the blaze at 10:40 p.m. Wednesday and had it under control by 11:15 p.m., said Battalion Chief James Kino, who is on Maui.
"The fire itself was amazingly surgical in the best sense of the word," Guerreiro said. "The body of the church was completely charred."
But the Sacristy and vessels for Mass and the books were in an area that wasn't burned.
The church office, rectory building and a carportlike teaching area next to the church were not burned and can continue to be used, Guerreiro said.
Guerreiro called an emergency pastoral council meeting last night to decide where to hold Saturday and Sunday Mass this weekend. He said there have been several "generous offers" from other churches and a nonprofit organization in Kaunakakai to provide space for St. Sophia activities.
St. Sophia is the largest of four Catholic churches on Moloka'i's "topside," the local term for the rest of the island outside the remote Kalaupapa Peninsula.
About 300 families are members of the topside parish and no one church will hold them all, Guerreiro said. St. Sophia had a capacity of 125. The new church, when completed at an estimated cost of $3 million, will seat 350. Half of the cost of the church has been raised and Maui architect Francis "Frank" Skowronski has completed its design.
Building permits are being processed, but a contractor for the job hasn't been chosen, Guerreiro said.
The new church is to be named the Blessed Damien Church, in honor of St. Damien de Veuster, the Belgian priest who ministered to Hansen's disease patients on Kalaupapa Peninsula 120 years ago and was canonized as a saint in October.
Parishioners also hope their new church will help provide historical information to pilgrims and tourists following in St. Damien's footsteps when they visit Moloka'i.
"I see the new St. Damien Church as the primary venue on the topside that will tell Father Damien's story," said Maria Sullivan, a parishioner who has led fundraising efforts.
"He did minister to the parish on the topside (as well as in Kalaupapa)."
Patrick Downes, spokesman for the Hawai'i Catholic Diocese, said he doesn't know the value of the church's contents, but that the relic of St. Damien that toured the Hawaiian Islands after his canonization is safe at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu.