Episcopal congregation resumes worship services months after Maui wildfires destroyed church

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Dec 13, 2023

Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Lahaina, Hawaiʻi, burned down after wildfires swept through the island of Maui. Photo: Bruce DeGooyer

[Episcopal News Service] Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaiʻi, held its first worship service at a United Methodist Church in nearby Napili nearly four months after a series of deadly wildfires killed 100 people and destroyed the historic church along with hundreds of other buildings.

“Parishioners were happy to be together, to see each other and to give hugs,” the Rev. Sandy Graham, canon to Hawaiʻi Bishop Robert Fitzpatrick, told Episcopal News Service. “There’s a lot to be woeful about … . Some have more tragedy and more heavy hearts than others.”

Between Aug. 8 and 11, separate wildfires across Maui prompted the evacuation of more than 32,000 residents and tourists. The worst of the damage was experienced by Maui’s western community of Lahaina, population 12,700, where Holy Innocents had stood since 1927. One of the victims who died in the wildfires was a parishioner of Holy Innocents, Graham said. 

The church had 30 active parishioners before the fire, but more than double the number of people attended Sunday worship service thanks to tourists, according to Graham. 

The parish’s first service since fires was held on Dec. 3, the first Sunday of Advent.

“Some of the older members [of Holy Innocents] are not able to inhabit their own homes again, and some of them lamented the fact that they may not worship in their own space again because of how long it might take to rebuild,” Graham said.

The Maui wildfires are the deadliest in U.S. history since the 1918 Cloquet fire that killed 453 people in northern Minnesota and the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaiʻi since the 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150 people.

The fires were impelled by strong winds brushing through dry vegetation as Hurricane Dora, a Category 4 cyclone, passed near Hawaiʻi without making landfall. The islands of Hawaiʻi and Oahu also experienced wildfires, albeit to much lesser extents than Maui. Hurricane Dora became a typhoon on Aug. 12. Researchers say human-induced climate change, desertification and non-native grass species contributed to the severity of the Maui wildfires.

The County of Maui has divided Lahaina into separate zones for re-entry. Holy Innocents is in zone 12A, which opened Dec. 8. Graham, wearing a Tyvek suit, visited the site two days later, where he and other volunteers sifted ash to find any parts of the church that could be worth saving and remembering. The altar cross was eventually found, but many items crumbled into ash when touched.

“It was heartbreaking and fascinating,” Graham said. “Driving through the town was very hard, because places you’re familiar with are just not there anymore, or they’re only partly there.”

Later this week, two staff members of Episcopal Relief & Development will visit Maui to join Graham and meet with local organizations and Federal Emergency Management Agency staff. One of Episcopal Relief & Development staff members will assist A Cup of Cold Water, the Diocese of Hawaiʻi’s Maui-based community outreach program, to drive around the island to distribute toiletries, food and pet food, bottled water, clothing and other necessities to displaced people.

A Cup of Cold Water is a volunteer collaboration between Maui’s four Episcopal churches: Church of the Good Shepherd in WailukuSt. John’s Episcopal Church in KulaTrinity Episcopal Church By-the-Sea in Kihei and Holy Innocents.

On Dec. 16, Episcopalians in Maui will participate in an island-wide gathering to discuss how they’ve been holding up since the wildfires and how they can most effectively continue relief efforts in the future.

For now, Holy Innocents will continue holding its worship services at Honolua United Methodist Church. This year, Methodists and Episcopalians will hold joint Christmas services for their congregations.

“We’re very thankful for Honolua United Methodist Church for providing us a spot to worship,” Graham said. “Parishioners of Holy Innocents are doing the best they can and they’re hopeful and they’re lifting each other up.”

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.