On a historical level, Central Union Church embodies the Congregational Church's influence and impact on Hawaii, as it evolved from the missionary organizations which were instrumental to the culture, institutions and history of post-contact Hawaii. Central Union was formed in 1887 by the merger of Bethel Union Church (established as the Seamen's Bethel in 1833 by the first chaplain of the American Seamen's Friend Society) and the Fort Street Church, another branch from the Seamen's Bethel, founded in 1851 as the First Foreign Church. This year (2008) Central Union Church is celebrating the 175th anniversary of its beginnings in 1833.
Central Union Church and its predecessors have been associated with events that have made a significant contribution to Hawaii's post-contact history. The Church has provided some of the Christian religious needs for Hawaii's people for 175 years. Its pastors and congregations have included many of Hawaii's leading citizens, who have had a significant influence on Hawaii's history.
Central Union traces its roots to the whaling ships that began visiting beginning in 1819. The American missionaries who had arrived in 1820 saw a need for Christian work with the seamen and asked for a resident chaplain from the American Seamen's Friend Society (ASFS), founded in 1828.
The first ASFS chaplain to Hawaii was twenty-four-year-old John Diell, a graduate of Hamilton College and Andover Seminary, who came to Hawaii in 1833. A new church, called the Seamen's Bethel, was built at the corner of King Street and what is now Bethel Street, then on the waterfront. Other chaplains who served at the Seamen's Bethel included Samuel Chenery Damon, who served for 42 years. Over the next 175 years and directly from the time of the first services at the Seamen's Bethel, dedicated in November 1833, Central Union has evolved into the church it is today.
In 1851, a second church called First Foreign Church was formed for English-speaking residents worshiping in the Bethel. The name of the church was subsequently changed to the Fort Street Church. The congregation and its pastors included many influential citizens, including The Rev. Walter Frear, who served from 1870 to 1881.
The great Chinatown fire of 1886 destroyed the Seamen's Bethel. In 1887 the Bethel Union Church congregation joined with the Fort Street Church to form Central Union. The congregation at that time included members of the Dillingham, Judd, Castle and other families. The church built a new sanctuary at the corner of Beretania and Richards Streets, directly across from Washington Place.
By 1920 that facility had become crowded, noisy and in the heart of the rapidly expanding city. Central Union purchased a portion of the Dillingham family land from Mrs. Dillingham, by now a widow, and built the present Sanctuary plus other buildings there.
Church Location and Significant Buildings
Central Union Church is located at the corner of South Beretania Street and Punahou Street on an 8.4-acre campus. The church campus is commonly referred to as the "Church in a Garden", as its worship, education and administrative buildings are set in landscaped grounds, characterized by large lawns and mature trees including monkeypod, kiawe, plumeria, Norfolk Island pine, royal palms and coconut palm trees.
Five acres of the church grounds, fronting on Beretania and Punahou Streets, and including Central Union's most significant buildings and most prominent garden areas were placed on the State Register of Historic Places in 2006:
1.) The Sanctuary Building (1924) was designed by Ralph Adams Cram of the Boston architectural firm of Cram and Ferguson, a well-known American church architect in the early 20th century. Its design in a Colonial Revival style was intended by the congregation to express the church's New England heritage. The building is of local bluestone, a close-grained basalt quarried from the Mo'ili'ili Quarry nearby (since closed and currently the site of athletic fields for the University of Hawaii). French doors along the sides of the sanctuary allow for the tradewinds to cool the interior. There have been no major additions or renovations to the building's exterior or interior.
2.) The Atherton Chapel (1949) was designed by Mark Potter of Honolulu. It was designed to provide a smaller, more intimate chapel for services, ceremonies and functions, and is therefore of a smaller, less elaborate scale when compared to the Sanctuary. The location of the chapel was intended to maintain the Great Lawn, create a village green between the two buildings, and incorporate an existing exceptional monkeypod tree within an adjoining courtyard. Atherton Chapel is based on the Colonial Revival style, and is compatible in design with the Sanctuary although not a miniature copy. It is also constructed of Mo'ili'ili bluestone, the last such rock extracted from the quarry of which the first was used for the Sanctuary.
3.) The Great Lawn is an open, gently sloping grass lawn of approximately 2.75 acres, bordered by the two major streets accented by a series of mature monkeypod trees along the streets. The Great Lawn predates the Church's acquisition of the property in 1922 from the Dillingham family, who owned the property, on which they had a working dairy operation, from 1879 to 1922.
4.) Atherton Chapel Courtyard adjoins the Chapel's west lanai, and is defined by a continuous 6 ft. tall bluestone wall. The courtyard is accented by a mature monkeypod tree, listed as an "Exceptional Tree" by the City and County of Honolulu. Its canopy extends over most of the courtyard.
Central Union Church's Sanctuary Building, Atherton Chapel, the Great Lawn and the Atherton Chapel Courtyard were built during a period from 1924 to 1949 and represent exceptional examples of Colonial Revival church architecture adapted to the tropical region in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The remaining 3.25 acres of the campus are covered with a dozen buildings used for the wide range of church and community activities, including the Central Union Church Preschool. Over the years ahead many of these buildings will be rebuilt or rehabilitated to meet the future needs of the Church.
Central Union and its predecessors have been instrumental in the formation of many other charitable and religious organizations still active in Hawaii today. These include Palama Settlement, First Chinese Church of Christ, Salvation Army, Arcadia Retirement Home, Makiki Christian Church, La Pietra (formerly Hawaii School for Girls), Manoa Valley Church and Windward United Church of Christ. We added a City Missionary position to our staff, responsible for coordinating our efforts to feed and minister to the homeless.
Suzanne Case and Rosemary Eberhardt, Church Historians