Native Hawaiian Clergy in Hawaiʻi’s Episcopal Church

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The Episcopal Church in Hawaiʻi celebrates the Feast Day of the Holy Sovereigns King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma on November 28. That is also Lā Kūʻokoʻa, the day Hawaiʻi’s sovereignty was recognized by Great Britain and France in 1843.

The Episcopal Church has a long history in Hawaiʻi. King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma were close friends with the British Royal family and were familiar with the Anglican Church in England.

They invited the religion to the islands in 1862, where it became the Hawaiian Reformed Catholic Church, now known as the Episcopal Church. The priests that came here to run the services were not Native Hawaiian.

How long would it be before Kānaka Maoli would be welcomed into their ranks?

The Rev. William Hoapili Kaʻauwai was ordained as a deacon in 1864, just two years later, but it took many years before any Native Hawaiian was ordained as a priest. In fact, 90 years passed before the first Native Hawaiian priest, The Rev. E. Lani Hanchett, was ordained in 1952. He went on to become bishop of the Diocese of Hawaiʻi in 1969.

About one-fifth of Hawaiʻi’s general population is Native Hawaiian. At the time, the proportion of priests in the Diocese who were Native Hawaiian was far lower than would be considered representative of that population.

Painting of The Holy Sovereigns King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma
The Holy Sovereigns King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma pictured here with their son, Prince Albert honored on the Aliʻi Sunday in November at the Cathedral of St. Andrew. – Photos: Courtesy

The Right Rev. Harry Kennedy was Bishop of Hawaiʻi from 1943 until 1969. He wanted to encourage stability and did not see the point of hiring priests from the mainland and bringing them to Hawaiʻi, as they often stayed for only a few years before returning home.

Thus, Bishop Kennedy’s encouragement of Native Hawaiians toward the ministry was not a matter of native empowerment or Indigenous rights, but rather to provide continuity within the Diocese. If Native Hawaiians went through discernment and seminary, they were more likely to return to Hawaiʻi and stay for the rest of their career.

The current bishop, The Right Rev. Robert L. Fitzpatrick has encouraged the same thing. Besides the seminary route, the Episcopal Diocese offers an additional route to ordination, Waiolaihuiʻia, which literally translates as “the gathering of the living waters.” The program provides training and formation for mature persons, grounded in the local cultures of Hawaiʻi, for whom the disruption and cost of mainland seminary is not feasible.

In 2015, the first set of students (all Kānaka Maoli) completed the three-year Waiolaihuiʻia program and were ordained to the transitional diaconate. Mahi Beimes became the first female of Native Hawaiian ancestry to be ordained into the Episcopal Church worldwide. It was a joyous occasion!

Describing the experience the following day, The Rev. Deacon Nāhoa Lucas said, “When people congratulated me, they often said ʻIt’s about time!’ or even ʻWe’ve been waiting a century for this!’”

Within the first century of the Episcopal Diocese, there were only two widely spaced ordinations of clergy of Hawaiian ancestry. Within recent years, momentum has grown, leading toward a more representative balance of clergy. With those newly ordained adding to the current clergy of Native Hawaiian ancestry, it demonstrates a strong beginning of Hawaiian leadership in the faith founded by Hawaiian royalty.

Why is it important to have priests and deacons who are Native Hawaiian?

The Episcopal Church in Hawaiʻi was originally founded as the Anglican Church of Hawaiʻi by Hawaiian monarchs who were educated with Hawaiian and European influences. In order to carry on their intent and traditions, there has to be an understanding of Hawaiian history and language and the experience of being Hawaiian.

When a new priest accepts a position in the church, long-term parishioners want to be able to relate and have their life experiences understood. There were many times Hawaiian congregations felt the clergy regarded them as being backward. The Hawaiian community often felt like they had to fight off changes to maintain their cultural identity. The sense the kūpuna described was “needing to fight just to stay even.”

A Hawaiian minister enables a Hawaiian Congregation to feel understood and that they have an advocate. When there is a shared identity and common experiences, people develop deeper, more trusting relationships. There is great value in having Hawaiian clergy lead their congregation on its spiritual journey.

As an example, during Aliʻi Feast Days at the Cathedral of St. Andrew, when the Hawaiian Royal Societies and the Hawaiian Civic Clubs attend, if the minister demonstrates well-grounded knowledge of life in Hawaiʻi, the congregants are more receptive.

Currently, there are seven active Kānaka Maoli Kahuna Pule (Native Hawaiian priests) and two diakona (deacons) serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaiʻi. Native Hawaiians now account for 21% of the Episcopal clergy serving in the Diocese of Hawaiʻi, which is representative of the general population of Native Hawaiians in Hawaiʻi!

Hoʻomaikaʻi Ke Akua!

Photo: Rev. Keleawe Hee

The Rev. Dr. Keleawe Hee is the Vicar of Pastoral Care at The Cathedral of St. Andrew in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. He is Kanaka Maoli and his family line is from the Manu-Kawelo ʻohana from North Kohala, on Hawaiʻi Island. Rev. Hee wishes to mahalo historian Ann Dugsdale Hansen, Verger of The Cathedral of St. Andrew, and Nāhoa Lucas for editing.