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The shells of burned cars are pictured amid the ruins of homes in the ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui Aug. 15.
The shells of burned cars are pictured amid the ruins of homes in the ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui Aug. 15.
Photo Credit: Mike Blake | Reuters

Survival of Maui Catholic church seen as sign of hope amid wildfire destruction

More than 100 people died in wildfires that burned much of the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui

HONOLULU — “For us, it’s like a miracle,” Msgr. Terrence Watanabe, the Honolulu Diocese’s vicar of Maui and Lanai, said about Maria Lanakila Catholic Church in the town of Lahaina being seemingly untouched by the fierce Maui wildfires Aug. 8-9.

The blaze burned Lahaina to the ground in the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii’s history and the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

“When we saw the news and saw the church steeple rise above the town, it was a great sight to see,” the priest said in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser daily newspaper Aug. 10.

There were conflicting news reports on the fate of the church — whose name translates as “Our Lady of Victory” — and its parish school, Sacred Hearts School, which had lost half of its roof to heavy winds Aug. 7. The parish’s priests, women religious and staff were safe and accounted for.

The church is a block or two from Front Street, the famous waterfront stretch of visitors’ shops and restaurants which the Lahaina fire reduced to a smoldering pile of ashes. Pictures showed charred trees across the street from the church.

Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva echoed the vicar in saying Maria Lanakila Church “was miraculously spared, as was the rectory.” He said the adjacent convent, school and hall were “burned, along with neighboring homes.”

Maui County officials confirmed on Aug. 16 they have recovered the bodies of 106 people, but the death toll was expected to keep rising “as crews scour the ruins.” About 1,300 people remained missing. 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.

As many as 3,000 homes may have been destroyed. Other Maui communities affected by fires include Kihei and Kula, with more than 500 acres burned. According to research done by Moody’s Analytics, the economic cost to Maui from the wildfires could reach $7 billion.

The White House press secretary announced Aug. 16 that President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden will travel to Maui Aug. 21 to meet with first responders and survivors, as well as federal, state and local officials. On Aug. 10 Biden issued a federal disaster declaration for Maui and the Big Island (Hawaii island), ordering “all available federal assets on the Islands to help with response.”

“As a community of faith, we are called to come together and provide unwavering support to those who are suffering,” Bishop Silva said in an Aug. 11 message to Hawaii Catholics. “It is in times like these that our collective love, faith and compassion can make a tremendous difference.”

“Let us also remember the power of prayer,” he said. “In our collective prayers, we ask for strength, resilience, and healing for the fire victims and their families. May we find the grace to rebuild our families, their livelihoods, and the physical structures that were lost. Let our faith guide us as we navigate the challenges ahead, knowing that with the grace of God, all things are possible.” Bishop Silva said.

The diocese’s Hawai’i Catholic Community Foundation was established to support Hawaii’s parishes and schools. It has a dedicated webpage for donations to Maui wildfire relief efforts: tinyurl.com/MauiCatholic. Catholic Charities Hawai’i also is collecting donations for wildfire victims at catholiccharitieshawaii.org/maui-relief.

The Maui blaze began the night of Aug. 8. The National Weather Service said strong winds from Hurricane Dora, passing hundreds of miles to the southwest of the Hawaiian Islands, were partly to blame for fueling the fires.

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