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Mission Accomplished: A Visit to Waioli Mission House on Kauai

The Waioli Mission House and grounds in Hanalei, Kauai.

In the hours following Hurricane Iniki’s devastating march across the island of Kauai in September 1992, the only visible damage to Hanalei’s historic Waioli Mission House seemed to be three broken glass window panes. Closer examination revealed that a far more ominous outcome had been narrowly dodged.

Iniki—to this day, one of the most powerful hurricanes to directly strike one of the main Hawaiian Islands—had caused numerous hairline stress fractures to the structure. Only two things had saved the then 155-year-old mission house from complete destruction: Iniki’s relatively quick pass over Kauai, which saved the house from the storm’s sustained 145 mile-per-hour winds; and the home’s heavy timber frame and clapboard siding, which miraculously absorbed most of the hurricane’s force. The historical treasures in the home’s interiors were also unharmed.

More than $800,000 in repairs and new landscaping eventually restored Waioli Mission House, which, since 1919, has served as a museum honoring three of Kauai’s early missionary families. On a 45-minute guided tour of the venerable structure, visitors learn about the storied home and its former occupants, as well as its furnishings and grounds. Barbara Kennedy and her husband, Roger, have served as Waioli Mission House’s caretakers and docents since May 1998, six years after ‘Iniki.   

“A family member, who was on the museum’s board at the time, asked us to apply for the positions,” says Barbara. “We were longtime residents and businesspeople in Hanalei, but we had never worked for a nonprofit organization before. We looked at each other and asked: Why not? What a blessing that decision turned out to be!”

In 1834, Rev. William Patterson Alexander and his wife, Mary Ann, arrived in remote Hanalei on Kauai’s north shore to establish a mission, church and school, and to oversee the construction of a residence for themselves. Completed in April 1837, the Alexanders’ two-story, four-room residence was one of the first Western-style houses built on the island. The Alexanders led the Hanalei parish until December 1842, with George and Malvina Rowell following from 1843 to 1846, and Abner and Lucy Wilcox from 1846 to 1869.

Waioli means “joyful water,” a likely reference to Hanalei’s frequent rains. On an overcast day soon after the Kennedys were hired as caretakers, Barbara was strolling the mission house’s grounds when the clouds suddenly parted and the sun illuminated waterfalls cascading down the majestic slopes of nearby Namolokama mountain.

“It was such a spectacular sight, I started to cry,” Barbara recalls. “Roger and I are history lovers. We sat in the house and spent years reading all the books in the (home’s) collection. Never in our lives did we think we’d have a job that would enable us to learn not only about missionary history, but the history and culture of the people who walked this land long before Captain Cook arrived (in the Islands). Even better, we have the opportunity to share the knowledge we’ve gained. It’s a privilege we’ve never taken for granted.”

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