We were at Keanae, looking at old churches, and I was thinking about miracles, large and small. In my world, where I was sitting qualified as one.
It was on a wooden pew outside the entrance to "The Miracle Church" at Wailua, that well-favored hamlet nestled at the verdant eastern edge of the peninsula.
The church sits on a rise affording a view across the valley of Wailua Falls, a white ribbon plummeting against the high backdrop of luxuriously green cliffs. To the east lay the mystery of Keanae Gap, brooding under the clouds. The garden was alive with ginger and heliconia. It was a brilliant blue day and in the thick air, a faint breeze stirred.
"Drink this in," I said to myself, "for I probably shall not pass this way again."
Sonny Gamponia, who leads photography classes of old churches through Kaunoa School, had kindly agreed to give two cars of history lovers a private trip. There we were, at the height of our journey, at the little chapel of Our Lady of Fatima, with its shrine to Mary brought from Portugal.
The Wailua Nui Church, as it was originally called, was built in 1865 by two Belgian priests with assistance from hundreds of Hawaiians, who did the hard labor of procuring the necessary material in a region with no beach. "Rocks abound, but the lime-boiled coral - as well as the sand, has to come from the . . . sea. One has to dive for it as deep as six to ten feet," wrote Father Leonor Kouesnel, the resident priest, in a letter dated July 31, 1865.
A day was chosen to begin the diving and hauling, but a fierce storm raged and did not calm for four days. "All of our people went down armed with iron bars to loosen the coral. What a surprise greeted them when, coming to the place . . . they found the shore heaped up with coral!"
The coral sufficed to put up the walls, but more was needed and sand as well to plaster them. Once again a time was set to dive. "On the following morning, once more huge waves rose, and took back the remainder of the coral, leaving behind, this time, a huge quantity of sand, unknown to that locality, for a distance of ten miles."
The people also went up into the mountains in procession, the priest leading, to cut and carry 'ohia for the beams. "What could not be gathered - boards and tile, bars, etc. - the Hawaiians bought with the little money they had managed to save or gathered by selling their animals."
I marveled at the devotion that went into that little church with its stuccoed walls, steepled cross now rakishly askew, twin sacred hearts painted at the front. It was a product of that winning formula, self-effort and grace, maker of miracles.
Another miracle occurred in the same area, this time in 1778. Kalaniopu'u was at Wailua fighting Kahekili, the chief of Maui, when Capt. James Cook's ship was sighted, first northeast of Mokuho'oniki with the prow turned a little to the southeast, then at Kahakuloa, then at Hamakua, and in the evening at Ko'olau.
Moho described the ship with its tall white masts to the Big Island chiefs and they were certain it was the beneficent god Lono, returned from Kahiki, the land of the ancestors. "Lono is a true god to us; he has come back. We descendants of his shall have life," they exclaimed.
The night passed, and the ship anchored the next day at Ha'alauea, just below Wailua. When they saw the strange object that exactly fit the description given by Moho, the people exclaimed, "The tower of Lono! Lono the god of our fathers." Then, said Samuel Kamakau in "Ruling Chiefs of Maui," "The men went out in such numbers to visit the ship that it was impossible for all to get on board."
Miracles occur, but they are also what you make of them.
We ended our tour with burgers on the terrace at the Hana Ranch Restaurant, a conservative choice considering we could have stopped along the way for fish tacos, pig tacos, Thai food, or vegan wraps at one of the innumerable stands that have proliferated along the highway.
It was a wonderful day. All it lacked, in my perspective, having seen signs for it at what seemed like every turn for the last 10 miles, was banana bread. "Here, take mine," said Sonny, handing me a loaf. "My wife doesn't want it."
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina"
column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at email@example.com.