OSV News – Providing abundant promise for the victims of wildfires on Maui has been the "miraculous" survival of Lahaina's Maria Lanakila Church, which was unscathed by the flames that destroyed the historic town.
For the time being, parishioners have settled in at Sacred Hearts Mission in Kapalua, nine miles north. Mass is celebrated every day.
"The aftermath of this fire is an unimaginable time of suffering and mourning," said Msgr. Terrence Watanabe, who is the Honolulu Diocese's vicar of the islands of Maui and Lanai as well as pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Wailuku on Maui. "Our faith is being tested as never before. Nevertheless, we draw inspiration from seeing that our beloved Maria Lanakila Church still stands tall. It's a miraculous symbol of God's mercy and of strength overcoming adversity."
Carmella Esser from Kapalua is currently volunteering at Sacred Hearts Mission to help those who lost loved ones and their homes. She is one of 15 volunteers who unloaded the first shipment of supplies sent by the Knights of Columbus from Oahu Aug. 15.
Maria Lanakila Catholic Church in Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui is pictured Aug. 16, 2023, untouched by the wildfire that destroyed the entire town of Lahaina Aug. 8-9. (OSV News photo/courtesy of Maria Lanakila Parish)
"You do what little you can to help, and everybody appreciates everything so much. We consider everything right now a blessing," Esser said by phone Aug. 15.
The volunteers had hoped to feed up to 100 people that evening, but spreading the word was not an easy task.
"We tried to tell as many parishioners as we could without cell service," she told the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Honolulu.
Esser says they were able to get power back Aug. 13. However, cell towers were still down, and Wi-Fi was scarce. The only internet service that folks were able to get was from local restaurants; these businesses are not only offering their internet access but also are giving away food.
"They are offering food and Wi-Fi service. Some are cooking food that they get from donations. Some are delivering food to people. It's a huge community effort," said Esser.
With no cell service, Esser said it was a surprise to the community when Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva arrived that first Sunday after the Aug. 8-9 fire.
"The bishop gave a very inspiring homily. Everyone was moved to tears. So many people were touched by this who lost not only their homes but their family members and friends. When you see someone (you know) it's like the first time again because you're so happy that they were spared," she said.
The bishop flew to Maui late Aug. 12, touring the Lahaina area Aug. 13 and celebrated Mass that Sunday for 200 people at Sacred Heart in Kapalua.
"Strong and heavy wind; earthshaking events; fire – these are all realities with which you are very familiar because of the devastating fire earlier this week," Bishop Silva said in his homily. "The voice of God was not in any of these things, because they were so destructive, destroying lives, homes, and livelihoods for thousands of people."
God "never abandons us" but "embraces us with his whispers of comfort, love and care," he said.
Bishop Silva noted the communication difficulties all were experiencing, but assured them "that God's hand is moving in thousands of people throughout Hawaii, the United States, and the world in reaching out to you in this greatest hour of need."
"Countless prayers have been offered for you, and donations and services for recovery and rebuilding are pouring in," he said.
Later in an Aug. 14 interview with the Hawaii Catholic Herald, Bishop Silva he had brought the congregation news of Pope Francis' solidarity with the people of Maui suffering from this tragedy and him invoking God's blessing of "strength and peace."
Because of communication difficulties, the Massgoers were unaware of an Aug. 10 telegram sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, to convey the Holy Father's prayers and concern.
In the same prayerful spirit, leaders of different faiths came together Aug. 15 at St. Anthony Church in Wailuku, to offer supplication for the fire victims. Bishop Silva presided.
Other participants included the Rev. John A.H. Tomoso, pastor of Trinity by the Sea Episcopal Church, Kihei; Bishop Robert Fitzpatrick of the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii; Maui County Council member and Pastor Tasha Kama; pastor of Lahaina United Methodist Church John Crewe; hospital chaplain at Maui Memorial Medical Center Jennifer Crouse; and many other clergy from Maui churches.
Lahaina, once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom and later a popular tourist destination, will now forever be known as the town that a horrific wildfire razed to the ground in the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii's history. It is the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.
As of Aug. 25 the death toll stood at least 115 and was expected to rise, as the search for the missing continues. At least 46 of the deceased have now been identified.
The Associated Press has reported that the tally of those still unaccounted for varies "widely." Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen has put the number at 850, while the FBI said Aug. 22 that figure was between 1,000 and 1,100. Twenty dogs trained to find human remains are working around the clock in search of those who are missing or unaccounted for.
About 11,000 others evacuated. U.S. census data from 2020 shows that Lahaina had a population of about 12,700 out of an overall population on Maui of about 165,000.
The Maui Fire Department has reported about 2,170 acres of Lahaina were scorched in the fire and more than 2,000 structures burned down.
West Maui and beyond has bonded through the tragedy, contributing aid, money, prayers and hope to the people of that historic town.
"Many people have been offering prayers, donations, and their own time to help with this crisis. The outpouring of love and care has been remarkable," said Bishop Larry Silva.
Father Robert Ni Ni, a Missionaries of Faith priest, was parochial vicar of Maria Lanakila when he was named pastor of St. Rita Parish in Haiku in July. He celebrated Sunday Mass alongside Bishop Silva Aug. 13. Returning to his former home was an experience he will never forget.
"It's so sad. I was here one month ago. When you come back here where I used to be, it's like a warzone," he said.
When the fire reached Lahaina Aug. 8, the pastor of Maria Lanakila, Father Kuriakose Nadooparambil, also a Missionaries of Faith priest, and the parish's three Missionaries of Faith sisters barely made it out alive. Father Ni Ni said they were all supposed to make it to his parish in Haiku, but not everyone did.
"One (of the sisters was) with the other pastor (Father Nadooparambil) because they couldn't make it. They had to turn around to the west side of the harbor," said Father Ni Ni.
He said two of the sisters were stuck in traffic for four hours before arriving at St. Rita.
"They just made it on time," the priest said.
As for Father Nadooparambil and the rest of the sisters, the clock was ticking. They left Lahaina a little later than the other sisters and ended up trapped. They had no choice but to go north.
Bishop Silva heard many stories of destruction and heartbreak.
"At the church in Kapalua, I heard stories of people who lost one or more of their loved ones or neighbors, whose houses burned down, or who lost their livelihood," said Bishop Silva.
Msgr. Watanabe said there's deep sorrow among the people.
"Many members of our parish community are displaced, seeking housing with friends, relatives, in hotels or in evacuation facilities. For those whose homes were destroyed, they are left with little more than the clothes on their backs. Others have lost or missing loved ones," he said.
The bishop shared a story that left a mark on his heart. "One of my friends, who often serves as my liturgical master of ceremonies when I am on Maui, told me that his uncle, his uncle's wife, their daughter and their grandson all were burned to death in their car, while they were trying to escape. My friend and his wife opened their home to other relatives who lost their homes and suspects they (the displaced) will be living there for a couple of years," said Bishop Silva.
Father Ni Ni said that while consoling victims, many times he was at a loss for words. "I don't know what to tell them except that they are in my prayers."
"Pray for us, pray for people who are here and not here,” said Esser. “Give us strength to continue because this is going to be a huge endeavor and it's something that's going to be ongoing for many months."
Many of those who survived are clinging to hope. Esser said when she's feeling drained, she looks at those around her and sees resilience.
"A eucharistic minister at our parish lost her home. She has nothing, not even clothes. She's so positive and I look at her with tears in my eyes and see she's so strong," said Esser.
Jennifer Rector is a reporter at the Hawaii Catholic Herald, news outlet of the Diocese of Honolulu.