The Star of the Sea Painted Church appears as a simple wooden church on the side of a Hawaiian highway, but this is one of those who don’t trust a book by its cover places as the inside of this church boasts a very special type of beauty. Of course, this unique little landmark on the Big Island certainly won’t keep everyone’s interest, but for some, it will be well worth the stop.
You will find the Star of the Sea Painted Church on the very eastern side of the island, just off Highway 130. You will see it on the eastern side of the highway between mile markers 19 and 0, or on your left as you drive south to the village of Kalapana. However, this wasn’t always its location. If you visited the Big Island prior to 1990, you might remember the cozy little church being located more within Kalapana itself. However, the lava flows in 1990 got precariously close to destroying the Star of the Sea Painted Church and so it was carefully moved to its new location.
It’s not easy to drive by the Star of the Sea Painted Church and not notice it. While it is a small church, it boasts a beautiful pale, almost seafoam green exterior color that nicely meshes with the rich tropical landscaping surrounding it. A large clay parking lot is located on its left as while the Star of the Sea Painted Church is open for visitors to come and view, it is also a functioning Catholic Church with mass regularly held at 4 pm on the first Friday of every month and on most major religious holidays.
Of course, while the landscaping around the Star of the Sea Painted Church is lush and beautiful and the exterior of the building striking, the real beauty and drawing lies on the inside. The church’s construction began in 1928 under the leadership of Belgian missionary Father Evarist Matthias Gieglen. The church boasts the colonial revival architectural style so common during this missionary era, but what was really special about the Star of the Sea Painted Church is the personal artistic touch Father Giglen provided.
Father Giglen personally painted the entirety of the church’s upper portion, covering them not just with one base color but rather with elaborate, life-size portraits and landscapes. The story goes that Father Giglen, in a tradition similar to that of Michelangelo, painted late into the evening, by the light of an oil lamp. His artwork across the interior’s upper portions is all inspired by the religious characters and settings from the Catholic Book of Catechism.
In 1941, the local diocese wanted to add to this artwork a more personal story and so hired a Georgian artist by the name of George Heidler. Heidler added to Father Giglen’s artistic renderings by covering the lower wooden panels with depictions of another Belgian missionary priest who spent his time on the Hawaiian islands, Father Damien De Veuster. Father De Veuster spent 16 years caring for the leper colony set up on the island of Molokai until he himself contracted the disease, eventually succumbing to leprosy-induced complications in 1889.
Visiting the Star of the Sea Painted Church offers a unique glimpse into the life of Father De Veuster as well as the beauty of Heidler and Father Giglen’s paintings. This is a fantastic travel stop for those interested in learning more about Hawaiian history, including that part of history — the country’s use of leper colonies — often overlooked.
-If you are on the Big Island during Christmas, the Star of the Sea Painted Church is an excellent place to go for Christmas carols. The whole community gathers around and this little church becomes especially charming.
-Remember, this church still holds regular service on select Fridays and religious holidays. The best time to go if you just want to visit and experience the paintings is during a weekday earlier in the week.