Central Kona Union Church
Built in 1855 by the Rev. John D. Paris, Central Kona Union Church, or Popopiia, in Kealakekua is a fine example of the lava rock and mortar buildings erected by missionaries throughout Hawaii in the 19th century. The church served a Hawaiian congregation for many years. In the early 20th century, as the Hawaiian population dwindled, the church attracted a multiethnic congregation that reflected the new immigrant population moving to Kona.
The Rev. Albert S. Baker, Central Kona’s minister from 1905 to 1919, noted the numbers in his journal, later recorded by his daughter, Ruth Loucks, in his biography: “At the start of 1813, Bert noted that the membership of Central Kona Church consisted of 15 Japanese, 12 Hawaiians, 12 Americans, 2 Chinese, 2 Portuguese, 1 German, 11 Hawaiian-American, 2 Hawaiian-Chinese, and 1 Hawaiian-Portuguese by birth. Bert was delighted with this diversity.”
Like Paris before him, Baker arrived in Kona filled with missionary zeal and a builder’s skill. Educated at Amherst, Harvard Medical School and Yale Divinity School, Baker soon discovered he was needed not only as a minister but also as a doctor, lawyer and marriage counselor. His mother, Ruth Baker, lived with him throughout his ministry and was the first woman licensed to preach by the Hawaiian Board.
Fast-growing Kona experienced a wide variety of problems that Baker tried to address through his church work and in civic clubs. Poor roads, lack of public sanitation, animal abuse, wife beating and drunkenness were just a few. He helped organize the Anti-Tuberculosis Society, served as vice president for Hawaii of the Territory Anti-Saloon League, and spearheaded the formation of the Kona Improvement Club in 1911. One of its first tasks was to fight the Mediterranean fruit fly, which was attacking Kona oranges. As chairman of the school committee, he asked for a change in Kona school vacations to permit students to pick coffee during the fall harvest. (This schedule started in 1932.)
Kona had leprosy as well. Baker tried to explain why it was necessary to isolate leprosy patients, but families hid their victims, knowing relatives with leprosy would be sent away to Molokai for the rest of their lives. In 1911, 17 lepers were taken from Kona, but, according to Baker’s notes, there were still some left.
Copyright 1998 Kona Historical Society. Reprinted by permission.