St. Benedict’s Painted Church is one of my favorite stops on the way around the Big Island Belt Road. A short detour on some really amazing twisty roads brings you to this little white and green structure. Inside, the walls are covered in fine folk art depictions of Bible scenes in the most Hawaiian way.
St. Benedict’s Catholic Church was erected in 1899 by Father John Velghe. Because of the paintings inside, it earned the nickname “the painted church.” The uniqueness of the church (and those paintings) earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. This is Hawaii’s first painted church.
The staff is so helpful and interested in educating you on the history of the church. Here, a staffer named Susan shows a furry flowery plant to my parents. I didn’t pay attention – sorry Susan! I will pay more attention to Susan a little later.
Without any professional artistic training, Father John decided a vibrant interior would be the way to get people to visit his little church. He used ordinary house paint on the wood paneling. And boy was he right. His work continues to pull in interest from around the globe.
There aren’t any gothic arches inside, it’s all painted! If you look behind the altar, it seems to go farther back than the wall it’s painted on. Art freaks will know this technique is called “trompe l’oeil.” This is French for “deceives the eye.”
You may notice the words on the columns. That is the Prayer of Exorcism “Never Satan!” translated from Latin to Hawaiian.
Oh, hi mom!
In those early days few Hawaiians could read (and Father John had not yet learned Hawaiian) and so he taught stories from the Bible with these six murals.
Let’s look at those big Bible scenes in detail, shall we?
The ceiling is very Hawaiian, don’t you think? Like many cathedrals, the ceiling is covered in stars. Palms are popular in both Hawaii and in the Catholic faith. They have a whole Sunday for them, after all.
A closer look at the altar reveals many interesting details. For instance, Father John had some real talent! It really does look like the church continues 100 yards beyond the wall. This scene is based on the Cathedral of St. Mary in Burgos, Spain.
Who’s that peeking?
Why it’s Jesus! Come on out here l’il guy! Don’t be shy!
Hopefully, you’re able to stick around for an introduction to the church (welcome back, Susan). Given by a caretaker, these informational talks help you understand more about what you’re seeing and how it came to be. Of course, you’ll learn some of that since you’re visiting this blog post!
After the brief talk, I notice more tour buses pulling up outside. Time to make like Jesus on Easter and disappear.
Brian! Stop taking photos and get in the van. I’m one to talk.
Before we jump back in the van for the rest of our drive around the Big Island, I want to walk the gardens around and behind the church.
Up the hill at the rear of the church, there is a grassy drive. To the left, a graveyard, birds of paradise, and some coffee trees. At the end of the road is a Pieta with the best ocean view.
A quaint little fruit stand tempts visitors for a fresh snack. The proceeds go right back into the church penny bank.
The church is open every day and is an active church. Check their mass schedule if you’d like to attend.
While you’re in the area, consider visiting Kealakekua Bay State Park or Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park.