Saturday, February 5, 2011

Ground broken for Kaunakakai’s long-awaited church

St. Damien parishioners throw flowers into the ditch holding sacred objects from the old St. Sophia Church.

About 300 people gathered beneath a cloudless blue sky at the grass-covered empty lot at 115 Ala Malama Street in Kaunakakai to watch a long-held dream emerge into reality.  The Molokai parish of St. Damien officially broke ground for its new church, also to be called St. Damien when it is completed near the end of this year.  After more than 15 years of wishing and planning and fundraising and designing and negotiating, the black fabric construction fence screens were up, the heavy equipment parked in the back and the building permit prominently posted.  The contractor was there, and the architect, the pastor, the parish building committee, civic leaders, the bishop, and an assortment of happy parishioners, neighbors and friends.

At 9:29 a.m. the old church bell tolled and Stephen Petro, chairman of the parish building committee, introduced the formalities and Bishop Larry Silva.  “It is a joy and a privilege to be here with you,” said the bishop who had arrived that morning on the 8:15 flight. “Let us pray that God will bring this construction to successful completion and keep the workers safe from injury.”  “We plant a seed today that will grow not just a building, but a living church to be touched by Christ’s love for generations to come,” he said.

Sister Helene Wood, speaking on behalf of her Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, said it was “a historic day, because of the spirit and long standing faith of the people.”  Maui County councilman Danny Mateo, who represents Molokai, made reference to the fire that destroyed the old church, St. Sophia, that the new one is replacing.  “From the ashes came dreams, from the ashes came hope, from the ashes came life, a new determination to build,” he said.

It was then the architect’s turn to speak.  “What a great day!” said Frank Skowronski of Haiku, Maui. “We celebrate the transition from designing, dreaming and hoping to building.”  “Things will move quickly now,” he said.  Glen Kaneshige, executive vice president of Nordic PCL, the Oahu construction company that will build the church, thanked the “island of Molokai … for making us feel welcome.”  “It’s been 40 years since we’ve been back here,” he said. “Every project is special to us.”

Assisted by Sacred Hearts congregational candidate Jeremy Sabugo, Bishop Silva then walked around the 16,000 foot lot, his red cope catching the breeze, sprinkling a blessing of holy water.  Roughly near the center of the plot was a trough about eight-feet long, three-feet wide and three-feet deep, dug out earlier by a backhoe.  The pastor Father Clyde Guerreiro explained that the hole, located where the future altar will stand, would be the burial site for sacred objects from St. Sophia, burned beyond use in the fire 12 months earlier.

The first item to be laid on the dirt was the old church’s charred five-foot high crucifix, followed by the Stations of the Cross, carried to the opening in the ground by a slow procession of parishioners.  Parish representatives and construction personnel then grabbed 10 red-handled, gold-bladed shovels and sent spade-loads of dirt into the ditch.  Finally, everyone was invited to grab handfuls of flowers to throw into the hole and the ceremonies were over. The event wrapped up with bento lunches for everyone.

Rose Brito, St. Damien Parish’s administrative assistant who moved to the island in 1945, said the groundbreaking made her feel “very, very jubilant.”  “We worked so hard and for so long for this day,” she said. “I am very excited. I can’t wait.”

The new church is being built where St. Sophia had stood for 73 years, near the beginning of Kaunakakai town’s main drag, between the C. Pascua Store and the Molokai Community Credit Union, across from the U.S. Post Office and the G&M Variety Store and the Friendly Market Center. On the church site is the Damien Center, the former Stanley’s Coffee Shop, now used as the parish office and daily Mass chapel.

Skowronski, of Territorial Architects, said the new church will be made of concrete, which is available on the island, is low maintenance and will make the building cooler.  The construction style will be “tilt up concrete,” where the walls are poured horizontally on location and pulled up to their vertical positions. According to Nordic Construction project manager John Baranski, the process saves a significant amount of time and money.  Skowronski said the church’s interior will be “semi in the round,” “intimate,” “not a basilica.”  The inside has been designed so that sound will carry naturally, he said. No seat will be more than seven rows from the altar.  It will hold 240 people, about 100 more than the church it is replacing. A series of doors in the back can open up to accommodate an overflow of 100 people under cover.  Large windows and louvers will take advantage of the trade winds, Skowronski said, eliminating the need for air conditioning.

When complete, the church will not have ornamentation or stained glass windows, the architect said. “It will be a shell, functioning, legal, in still skeletal form, a very utilitarian building.”  But it will have built-in the potential for artistic enhancement and adornment as the parish grows, he said.  The design “reflects the new liturgy, not replicating the past,” said Skowronski, a Catholic who helped with the design of St. Theresa Church in Kihei, Maui. The ideas for the Molokai church come from the parish building committee, he said.  “The design is mostly theirs,” he said. “We were here to make it work, to make it stand up, to adhere to the budget, to make it happen.”

The church will cost more than $3 million to build. Nordic is an Oahu-based 70-year-old local company. The on-site project engineer is Danyelle Kahanaoi who is from Molokai. Baranski said the company will use as many Molokai workers as possible, though some specialized expertise will have to come in from Oahu and Maui.

The Kaunakakai Church will be the main church of the St. Damien Parish, which encompasses all of topside Molokai. The parish has three other churches — St. Vincent Ferrer in Maunaloa on the west side, and on the east side, Our Lady of Seven Sorrows in Kaluaaha and St. Joseph in Kamalo. Masses are no longer celebrated in the tiny Kamalo church.
By Patrick Downes | Hawaii Catholic Herald
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