History of the Painted Church


St. Benedict Parish is located on the leeward slopes of the 13,680 feet volcano mountain called Mauna Loa {Long Mountain) in the District of South Kona, Island of Hawaii. The parish is 38 miles in length and goes from the sea up the sparsely populated slopes to the top of the mountain. Originally its population was all Hawaiian living in fourteen villages in South Kona, but now at this writing the predominant Catholic population is part-Hawaiian and Filipino living in five villages.

The history of the Church in the District began early in 1842 (1). Father Joachim Marechal, SS.CC., at that time was assigned to care for both South Kona and Ka’u Districts. He set his residence and first chapel in the village of Kapalelua, situated on the border of the two Districts. Within a short time, due to Father Joachim’s zeal and zealous work and teaching of several lay catechists, the Church was firmly established in South Kona. The first Catholic school in the area opened at Honaunau beach village under the care of Serapia, a catechist, and Clement Hoki, a school teacher, the missionary priests lived in South Kona only intermittently until about 1859. The original chapel, located on the shore of Honaunau Bay Dear the City of Refuge in the National Historical Park, was known as St. Francis Regis Chapel.

Father Joachim died unexpectedly April 12, 1859. Father Aloys Lorteau, SS.CC., his successor, took up residence in Honaunau and served there for 37 years until 1898, when he died aboard the vessel, Maunaloa, on Easter Monday on his way to Honolulu for medical and hospital attention.

By the mid-1880’s most of the Honaunau people had moved away from the beach area to more fertile soil about two miles up the slopes. Father John Berchmans Velge, SS.CC., resident priest who replaced Father Aloys in December, 1899, moved what he could of St. Francis Regis Chapel to upper Honaunau. With additional repairs and additions the old church looked like new. It was blessed in August, 1902, by Bishop Gulstan Ropert, SS.CC., who dedicated it in honor of St. Benedict.

Father John, an excellent teacher and self-taught artist, painted the interior walls of the church with some striking scenes of the Bible which depict various important religious truths. His biblical murals soon became famous, and St. Benedict Church came to be known as “The Painted Church.” Designed, constructed and painted as a miniature
European Gothic Cathedral by Father John, St. Benedict Church is now considered to be rather unique in the annals of American Art. It has become a major tourist attraction of the Kona coast, and thousands of visitors come to see it every year. It is listed in the Hawaii State Register of Historical Places and th.e National Register of Historical Places.

Father John’s health required him to return to Belgium in 1904. Father Victor Poirer, SS.CC., served from August, 1904 to July 1905; Father Charles Louis, SS.CC., from January, 1906 to September, 1907; and Father Gerard Benetren, SS.CC., from September, 1907 to December, 1913. Sometime in 1906, St John the Baptist Church was built in Kealakekna. It was dedicated in 1907.

Father Eugene Oehman, SS.CC., became pastor of St. Benedict Church on December 7, 1913, and served there for 37 years. During his pastorate, he witnessed four major volcano eruptions of Magna Loa in 1916, 1919, 1926, and 1950. In the 1926 eruption and lava flow, Father Eugene saw St. Peter’s Chapel in Hoopuloa destroyed by lava; and in the 1950 eruption, Sacred Heart of Mary Chapel at Pahoehoe was totally destroyed by the red hot lava. Father Eugene built a new St. Peter Chapel at Milolii beach which is no longer in use today. The earthquake of 1950, which accompanied a major lava flow, destroyed Maria Lanakila Church in Kealia, built in 1860. At the time of Father Eugene’s death on June 14,1951, only two of the 14 churches and chapels that had been built in the District remained in use, namely: St Benedict Church, Honaunau, and St. John the Baptist Church, Kealakekna.


Father Eugene Oehman faithfully served the South Kona parish for 37 years, 1913-1951. He brought it through the transition from the Vicariate status to the Diocesan period. His only request as he grew older was that he be permitted to remain there with his people until the Lord would call him. He died on June 14, 1951.


Bishop James J. Sweeney assigned St. Benedict Parish to the Maryknoll Fathers in August, 1951, and appointed Father Francis G. Kelliher, M.M., first Maryknoll pastor. He served in that capacity until July, 1959, when he was transferred to St. Pigs X Parish, Honolulu. Father Kelliher enjoyed working with the children and improved the religious education program in the parish. He welcomed the Holy Family Sisters to take charge of the religious education program. He also had the distinction of having as assistant pastors three young diocesan priests, namely, Father Bernard J. Eikmeier, September, 1952 to July, 1953; Father Francis A. Marzen, September, 1953 to June, 1954.;
and Father Joseph Silva, September, 1954 to October, 1954 (1 month).

Father William F. Desmond, M.M., filled in temporarily until Father Charles T . Wilcox, M.M., came as assistant pastor in February, 1955. He served as Administrator of the parish for one year, July, 1955 to July 1956, when Father Kelliher enjoyed a one year furlough on the U.S. Mainland. Father Kelliher returned to St. Benedict Parish in July, 1956, assisted by Father Charles J. Schmidt, M.M. Father Wilcox was transferred to St. Joseph Church, Hilo. Father Kelliher worked closely with a group of people interested in repairing and preserving the works of art in The Painted Church of St. Benedict Church.

In 1961, Mr. Alfred Frankenstein, art and music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, and Mr. Norman Carlson, his photographer, through the University of Hawaii Press, published a book entitled ANGELS OVER THE ALTAR. The book portrays the story of Christian Folk Art in Hawaii and the South Seas Marquesas Islands. It has color photos of all the religious murals of St. Benedict Church, Honaunau, and Star of the Sea Church, Kalapana. The following article about the book appeared in the Hawaii Catholic Herald in October, 1961. It is worth preserving in this Chronicle of St. Benedict Parish.


“To enter the Painted Church at Upper Honaunau,” said Alfred Frankenstein, who is art and music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, “is to step back 500 years into the world of Francois Villon’s mother, who could not read the words in the holy book but knew the promise of heaven and the threat of hell through the vivid pictures she had seen on the walls of her chapel.

” The paintings in the church at Honaunau are reproduced in the book ANGELS OVER THE ALTAR, recently published by the University of Hawaii Press. Frankenstein edits the text. ” Here on a hillside in Hawaii,” he wrote after visiting the church, “we beheld a little corner of medieval Europe, not approached through artifice or sophistication, but surviving in a direct, incredible line of descent.


” On the one side was a boiling, painted hell precisely such as Villon’s mother saw, and on the other panels were Cain killing Abel, St Francis receiving the Stigmata, and Christ rejecting the Devil. Above our heads was a long Gothic vault, built ofwood and defining the nave of the church. Six columns supported it, and where these wooden posts joined the vault a breathtaking trick of naive painter-craft made them burst into huge majestic palm leaves outlined against a pale sky. Most astonishing of all was the wall behind the altar, which the painter’s untrained inventiveness had transformed into the apse of a vast cathedral; piers and arches went on and on, with true Gothic majesty, to end in a burst of light.


“What counted most was the indescribable spirit of the church, which no architect had designed and no artist had painted. It was all brought to being by a Catholic missionary from Belgium, Father John Berchmans Velge, who had rediscovered the medieval uses of the painted image and had created this masterpiece sometime between 1899 and 1904. ” Delving into the lives of the two priests, their ideas, and the sources of their images, Frankenstein has uncovered a network of Christian folk art in the I islands of the Pacific. It began with the work of a French lay brother, Michel Blanc, a carpenter turned sculptor and architect, who went to the Marquesas in the 1860s with his head full of memories of the rigorous folk art of his native country. Father John was a disciple of Brother Michel, and Father Evarist was a disciple of Father John.


” The story has numerous additional complexities. For example, Frankenstein has identified the Gothic cathedral-a very famous one-which Father John saw in a country far from his own, carried in memory all his life, and reproduced with remarkable illusionistic fidelity to the little church on the hillside of Honaunau. ANGELS OVER THE ALTAR is an important piece of Hawaiiana. But it is also an artbook which traces in words and pictures the entire sweep of Christian folk art in the Pacific from the Marquesas to Hawaii and from its start in the middle of the nineteenth i’ century to its close some seventy years ago.”

Father Thomas B. Killackey, M.M. was appointed pastor of St. Benedict Parish in January, 1964 (12). He was assisted first by Father Francis J. Daubert, M.M., April, 1954 – October, 1955, and Father Ralph W. Sylva, M.M., November, 1965-August, 1970 (13). In 1964, Father Killackey closed St. Joseph Church, Napoopoo, because of a lack of parishioners in that area. While pastor, Father Killackey also made the following evaluation of the Maryknoll Fathers’ work in St. Benedict Parish. The copy was found among some parish papers in the parish files.

“Despite wide-spread ignorance of the faith and a spirit of indifference nurtured by an influx of many races and creeds, there has been steady progress recorded over the years. The faith that was so arduously planted by the Sacred Heart Fatl~ers over 100 years is gradually being strengthened.

“The annual report of the parish in 1951 records an average Sunday Mass attendance of 65. Without any appreciable increase in the Catholic population over the years, Sunday Mass attendance now averages over 300.

“This steady gain is to be attributed principally to constant cathechetical instruction both in CCD classes and in individual homes.

“No doubt too, the sincere interests of the priests in the human needs of the people and the material improvement of their churched has done much to secure the confidence and interest of the people. The present pastor owes much to his apostolic and talented predecessors.

Father Daniel F. Lenahan, M.M. (15), served as pastor of St. Benedict Parish from I October, 1968, to April, 1973, when he moved to St. Philomena Parish, Honolulu. Father Thomas J Prendergast, M.M., served as the Administrator of the parish from April, 1973, until October 1973 (16), when he was transferred to Annunciation Parish, Waimea, South Kohala, Hawaii, as pastor.

Father Ralph W. Sylva, M.M., formerly an assistant pastor of St. Benedict Parish, became its pastor in October, 1973. He remained as pastor for twelve years until June, 1985, when he retired. During his pastorate, two major events took place.

The first major event of Father Sylva’s pastorate was his personal guidance of the parishioners in the construction of a large multi-purpose parish social center next to the rectory in Honaunau. The hall was constructed ofwolminized (termite-treated) wood. It was long needed, required many sacrifices and now serves the people in all kinds of religious and social activities.

The second major event during Father Sylva’s pastorate was the total reconstruction of St. Benedict Church, with its priceless, historical religious murals. In July of 1981, a small group of parishioners and community people gathered together to lay plans to restore the eighty-two year old St. Benedict’s Church which showed signs of structural weaknesses and deterioration. The following account of the event was written by Clara Fujimoto, historian of the project and printed on an invitation to a thanksgiving Luau on Saturday, February 9,1985 in St. Benedict Parish Hall.

“An organization was formed with Jerry Y. Shimoda as Chairman, Henry Cho, Sr ., as Vice-Chairman and Fund-Raising Chairman, Pamela Sakamoto as Secretary, Barbara Navas as Treasurer, Stanley Sakamoto as Assistant Treasurer and Lynne McCarthy as Historian. The officers were elected for a two year period. Also at the first meeting were: Edward Navas, Eugene Gaspar, Madeline Leslie, and Clara Shimoda. This original group put money out of their own pockets to buy supplies and to rent a mail box to get the Restoration Committee started.

“The first donation from outside came in on September 1981 following a news release by the committee on plans to restore St. Benedict’s Church. Then, form letters were sent out with personal notes to friends and relatives of people on the committee. Release and letters continued through the life of the project.

“Many other fund raising activities followed -bazaars, laulau sales, Christmas wreath sales, mango pickle sales, chocolate bar sales, historical handbook sale, cookbook sale, pledges by parishioners, etc.

“Then in December of 1983, an election of officers was held, and it was decided by those present not to change horses in the middle of the stream if the old officers were willing to serve. Therefore, the only changes that occurred were the Secretary’s and Historian’s positions. Beatrice Cho replaced Pamela Sakamoto who was about to have a baby, as Secretary, and Clara Fujimori replaced Lynne McCarthy who had moved out of the area, as Historian. Architect James R Beimborn of James Beimborn and Associates, agreed to be the project architect and William McCarthy to be legal counselor .

“Restoration work on the church began in December, 1983. Project Supervisor was Frank Glockner, ably assisted by Henry Cho, Sr., and William Kaluna on the construction, and James and Mary Kalili in the kitchen. ” The contractor for restoration of the artwork was the Pacific Regional Conservation Center, a part of the Bishop Museum. Their project supervisor was Laura Word, Objects Conservator.

“The Restoration Committee was also assisted by a grant of $35,088 from the 1 ” Federal Government through the State Historic Preservation Office~ This assisted the major portion of the restoration project which covered the outside walls, the building footings and the rood work. This portion of the project amounted to $79,692.48. The total costs of the restoration project, including donated supplies and material donations and volunteer time is estimated to be over $200,000.

“The Restoration Committee and Father Sylva thank the community and the people ofSt. Benedict’s and St. John’s Churches, and all who contributed toward our project from the community and allover the country. (Source: Parish Files)


Parishioners of St. Benedict Church in Honaunau recently celebrated the completion of $200,000 worth of restoration work on their famous painted church. Festivities began February 9 with a Mass of thanksgiving at which the pastor, Maryknoll Father Ralph Sylva, presided and concluded with a luau at the church hall. Father Ralph Sylva formally resigned as pastor of St. Benedict Parish in May, 1985, just prior to celebrating his 40th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood at Maryknoll Seminary, New York, on June 29,1985. He had served those forty years in Mexico, Bolivia and various parishes in Hawaii, and planned to retire to Maryknoll Residence at Los Altos, California.

Father Alfred E. Smith, M.M., was appointed pastor of St. Benedict Parish in June, 1985, and he assumed responsibility for the parish on August 1. He said his first job was the immediate restoration of the 45 year old St. Benedict Rectory in Honaunau. He accomplished this task in two months and held a formal housewarming for all the priests of the Island on Monday, December 9,1985.

It was Father Smith’s ambition to build a new church, or better, a multipurpose building, to replace the 80 year old St. John the Baptist Church in Kealakekua. He organized his committees and fund raising programs were launched. His architect designed a multi-purpose structure that could serve as a church, parish hall and religious education center for the Catholic children who attended the Konawaena Elementary and High Schools in Kealakekua. The cost estimate $300,000.00 ran close to a figure unheard of in parish circles of the Island. The parishioners may well succeed in constructing the building, but it would mean many years of sacrifice and effort to pay for it. Their faith in the Lord was strong! The construction of the proposed structure never began.

Father Smith due to health reasons resigned his pastorate and Father Ralph F. Christman, M.M., replaced him on September 1, 1988. Maryknoll Report 1990.

A Catholic School was maintained at Honaunau under the direction of the woman catechist, Seraphia and the schoolteacher, Clement Hoki. In Kealia, David Kauha managed the local Catholic school.

Priests were in South Kona intermittently. It has only been since 1872 that South Kona had its own baptismal record The first permanent pastor was Fr. Aloys Lorteau, SS.CC. He relieved Fr. Poirier, SS.CC. who then devoted his labors exclusively to North Kona. Fr. AIoys Lorteau lived in a cottage next to St. Regis Chapel on Honaunau beach. Fr. Aloys died in 1898 of influenza. He died aboard the vessel, Maunaloa, on Easter Monday on his way to Honolulu for medical attention.

Fr. John Berchmans Velghe, SS.CC. succeeded Fr. AIoys in 1899. Under his administration the local church was changed from the beach to a plot of land about a mile mauka of Honaunau. The new church was named St. Benedict and was blessed by Bishop Ropert in August 1902. Fr. John at first sketched his painting on wrapping paper and hung them on the walls of St. Benedict. Between 1902 and 1904 he painted the present murals. These murals plus the remaining colorful decorations by Fr. John have caused the church to become known as “The Painted Church.”

Fr. John formed a league of catechist. When they proved themselves as efficient and well instructed catechist, they were permitted to wear a distinctive garb of black tunic to the knees, a red cincture, a black cape with white fringe, a white cross embroidered on the cape. This garb first appeared on Easter Sunday, 1901. Fr. John labored only five years before returning to Belgium. He returned in the summer of 1904 (according to the baptismal records of the church. )

Nine years after Fr. John’s departure, Fr. Eugene Oehmen, SS.CC. arrived in 1913 and served the Catholic people of South Kona for the next 38 years.

April 18,1926, St. Peter at Hoopuloa was destroyed by lava. In 1932 Fr. Steffan erected the present monument. St. Peter was rebuilt between 1926 and 1927 in village of Milolii.

In 1950 lava buried Sacred Heart of Mary chapel at Pahoehoe and accompanying earthquake greatly damaged Maria Lanakila Church at Kealia-kai. This later church had been built in 1860. Fr. Eugene died June 14, 1951.

St. Benedict’s medal inscription on the posts of the church reads: Gospel side: Epistle (Kau) side:

O ke kea hemolele kou malamalama. Aole o Satana kou alakai.
Crux sacra sit mihi lux. Ne draco sit mihi dux.
May the holy cross be my light. Let not the dragon be my guide.

Hele oe pela e Satana Uaokioe me kou mea pau wale.
Vade retro Satana. Sunt mala quae libas.
Get behind me, Satan. Evil are the things thou offers.

He poine kou mea ininini mai ai. Nau no e inu kou poino.
Numquam suade mihi vana. Ipse venema bibas.
Never suggest to me thy vanities. May you drink your own poison.


We are happy to welcome visitors to our church and our parish. We are continually upgrading our facilities to provide safety and comfort for all who visit. If you would like to help us to maintain this historic landmark, and to help with the many outreach ministries of our parish, you can place a donation in the box in the church or send it to us at:

St. Benedict’s Church
84-5140 Painted Church Rd.
Captain Cook, HI 96704

Mahalo nui loa! Thank You very much!
Please enjoy your trip to our special islands.