Priest’s skills with a paintbrush resulted in beautiful church


St. Benedict’s Catholic Church (Painted Church)

A Roman Catholic Church once stood at the shore of Honaunau. In 1900, it was rebuilt inland at Honaunau mauka where the majority of the Hawaiian congregation had moved to live. This is St. Benedict’s Church, known as the Painted Church, because of the Rev. John Berchmans Velghe’s skill with a paintbrush.

Velghe arrived in Honaunau in 1899 at the age of 41. Born in Belgium, he was familiar with Polynesia, having served as a priest in Tahiti and the Marquesas. Having painted Bible stories on church interiors in his former parishes, he chose to decorate St. Benedict’s as well.

Thanks to his creative use of housepaint, the interior of St. Benedict’s looks like a small cathedral. With painted palm fronds sprouting from the tops of brightly striped red-and-white columns, a vaulted ceiling spangled with stars, and detailed Biblical scenes lining the walls, the “painted church” is unique. The congregation must have been amazed.

In 1902, Velghe painted the inside walls of Maria Lanakila (Mary the Victorious) at the coastal village of Kealia near Hookena. The church was destroyed in the 1951 earthquake. Velghe was called back to Belgium in 1904, where he continued to teach and paint throughout Europe until shortly before his death in 1939.

In 1924, Velghe trained a young Belgian student named Matthias Gielen, who later became Father Evarist. Father Evarist created this island’s two other “painted churches” at Kalapana and Mountain View, inspired, no doubt, by his former teacher.

Copyright 1998 Kona Historical Society. Reprinted by permission.