Photos offer peek into past
By Lee Cataluna
The package arrived during the school's Christmas break. Nobody knew it was coming.
Inside were treasures — two accordion-style albums filled with photographs taken in Hawai'i between 1885 and 1905 by Brother Bertram Gabriel Bellinghausen, the first director of Saint Louis College.
Ray Abregano had been hunting for this sort of thing for years. Abregano, dean of faculty at Saint Louis School, also serves as the school's registrar and archivist. He is always on the lookout for artwork by the Marianist brothers who founded the school, and for photos taken by the school's first principal, Brother Bertram.
"I'm always searching eBay," Abregano said. A few years ago, he found an album of Brother Bertram's prints for sale online, made a winning bid and "lived on Spam and pork and beans for months to pay for it," he joked. The two albums that arrived as a gift to the school a few weeks ago were a wonderful surprise.
The photographs belonged to a woman in Maryland, Elaine Weger, who sent a note explaining their provenance. Her great-uncle was a Marianist brother who taught at Saint Louis College, the precursor to Saint Louis School and Chaminade University . Brother Bertram had given him prints from his photographs.
"These photo albums, long in the possession of my family, are being given to St. Louis School in memory of my mother, Mildred G. Fangmann," Weger wrote. "I had often heard her speak fondly of her uncle and her regret that he was not to return to Baltimore for her wedding in 1935. It was her wish that the albums someday be returned to Hawai'i."
There are several hundred images of Hawai'i contained in the two albums Weger donated. Brother Bertram would take his bulky camera, glass plates and other photographic equipment on carriages, on horseback, or even hiking on foot with other brothers. He visited all the Neighbor Islands and took photographs of families, churches, even homes on Kalaupapa. The collection is varied, from an image of the old 'Ewa sugar mill with the train tracks curling into the building, to an old Japanese village on Maui, and a Hawaiian family gathered around a grass hale. It's clear that Brother Bertram had a keen eye, but also, that he was very fond of his subject.
One of the most dramatic series of photographs was taken during the Chinatown fire of 1900. The Saint Louis campus was Downtown back then, on River Street. When the fires were set in an effort to control disease in the Chinatown district, Brother Bertram documented the progression.
"When he saw the fire — this is in his diary — he ran out with his camera," Abregano said. One image shows 'A'ala Park completely burned out and two men sitting there as if lost in the newly barren landscape.
LOOK AT HISTORY
Brother Bertram appears in some of the photographs as well. He devised a way to operate his camera remotely, and is pictured among his fellow Marianist brothers, usually all dressed in long black coats among the tropical foliage. There are images of Saint Louis students and the school band, which was known to play for King Kaläkaua, whom Brother Bertram counted as a friend.
"My siblings and I all remember the hours spent in the parlor of our Grandmother's home looking into the faces and at the amazing, exotic scenes contained in these albums," Weger wrote. "It is my hope that they will serve to preserve the history and culture of St. Louis and the missions for the students and staff and all who will have access to them."
Hundreds of glass plates that served as the negatives for Brother Bertram's pictures are kept in the Marianist archives in Ohio. These plates were famously saved from a trash bin in 1964 by Brother James Roberts, who recognized their value. Some of Brother Bertram's plates were also given to the Hawai'i State Archives, and there have been public displays of his photographs in recent years. However, it's possible that the glass plates for some of the prints in this recent acquisition no longer exist and thus the images are unique.
When the school's new Learning Center is completed in 2012, it will include a place for the Saint Louis archives. Brother Bertram's photos will be shared in display then. Said Saint Louis Dean of Academics Tim Los Banos, "These photographs really show how the school, the community and the monarchy at that time were really intertwined, and we're so grateful to have them."