A German Church on Kauai- Where Aloha means Guten Tag
Over the years I’ve gotten into the habit of seeking out the German history of places I visit. While browsing the history section of my local used bookstore, I stumbled across the book, “Hawaii and the German-Speaking People” by Niklaus R Schweizer. Since we were planning a trip to the Islands, I grabbed it (a little light reading for the plane ride). And I was delighted to find out that at one time Kauai had such a strong German presence, that it was nicknamed “Germantown”. Not only that, just off the Kaumaulii Highway… not too far from the Nawiliwili harbor where they arrived in 1881…a group of German immigrants who were starting new lives working for the sugar plantations, built a church and school at the center of their community. While the school shut down in 1918, the German church on Kauai is still in use today. The Lihue Lutheran Church, was the first German Lutheran church in Hawaii, and today is the oldest operating church in the Pacific Synod. Naturally, I had to go see it.
modern photos taken by Karen Lodder- use only with permission
Sweet Sugar lures Germans to Hawaii
How did a group of families from Northern Germany end up farming sugar in Hawaii in the 1880s? That turns out to be a great story… and it has everything to do with sugar.
Sugar cane first grew in Polynesia, and from there, it spread across the globe. When the ancient Polynesians made their voyage to the Hawaiian islands, they carried 24 special “canoe plants” (important life sustaining plants were meant to insure that all of their needs would be taken care of wherever they landed), including sugar cane. Interestingly, Sugar Cane came along as a medicinal plant. The Chinese and Indians learned to cultivate and process it. The Greeks and Romans also used sugar medicinally to treat stomach ailments and wounds. Then with the Crusades, the “taste” for sweet sugar was brought to the rest of Europe. As the cravings for sugar grew…ships sailed off looking for more. Naturally, since Hawaii had the perfect growing conditions, new plantations were established. And growers came from around the world to grow this white gold.
Abandoned Sugar Mill on Kauai
In the early 1800s the first sugar mill was built in Hawaii (on Lanai). Then in 1852, a sugar mill was built in Koloa, on the island of Kauai. Sugar was big business, and it BOOMED during the American Civil War when sugar grown in Southern States could no longer be shipped to the North. Then the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 did away with any taxes or tariffs from Hawaiian Sugar imports, which drove down prices and increased demand. Great news for Koloa Plantation owners like Paul Isenberg, who ended up on Kauai after his agricultural apprenticeship in Hanover. Only problem, he didn’t have the labor force to meet the demand. Then (like what happened in New Orleans) someone suggested recruiting Germans.He reached out to his friend Henrich Hackfeld for help.
Paul Isenberg Public Domain Wikipedia Commons
Germans in Hawaii
In 1849, German immigrant, Heinrich Hackfeld started a dry goods store in Honolulu with a shipload of goods he brought from Bremen. Now consider the time and place. The Whaling industry was at its height. The Russian Fur Trade was hot. The California Gold Rush cleared market shelves on the west coast. Hackfeld had shiploads of goods to sell. And sell he did. His business grew, as did his influence with the Hawaiian government (remember, Hawaii was still a Monarchy at this time). By the 1870s, he had offices in Bremen as well as in the Islands. Then in 1880, Paul Isenberg partnered with Hackfeld and Co.
At that time, immigration to the Hawaiian islands was still restricted. But in 1880, Hackfeld & Co got permission to bring in German workers. He had the ships, he had the connections, and he had a Bremen office to recruit Germans emigrants, anxious for a new start. Paul Isenberg went to Germany as an agent of the Hawaiian Immigration Board to sign people up for the journey. Hackfeeld and Company offered to hire people and even pay their passage in exchange for a 3 year commitment to working on the plantations. But they didn’t take just anyone, workers needed to show experience working with agriculture.
On January 4, 1881 the “Ceder” left Bremen with 128 passengers (twenty one families) aboard. 14 were Norwegian or Swedes, the rest were Germans. 6 months later the ship arrived in the Islands. (Imagine for a moment what they went through… 6 months on a ship across the Atlantic, and then around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. I feel bad when I fly coach for 11 hours). You can read an account here. Two more ships followed… another sailing ship, and then the steamer “Ehrenfels” carrying 800 passengers (the steamer made the trip in 2 months…). The German population on Kauai was growing.
German Church on Kauai
Because it was important that Hawaii feel like home to the new immigrants, Paul Isenberg, son of a Lutheran minister, established the German Lutheran church on Kauai soon after the Germans began arriving on the island. And it’s said that he designed the church building itself. But there are a few different stories. The church website claims the building reflects the ships they traveled on , “The long experience on board ship was reflected in the architecture of the church, as they carried out the symbolism of a ship as descriptive of the church. The floor slants like the deck of a ship; the balcony is the captain’s bridge; the ceiling is like the hull; the lights are ship lanterns; and the pulpit the forecastle. The altar painting is an original work by Ernst Marx (1864-1942).” (History Lihue Lutheran Church) But there are also sources that say the church was built in Hanover, then dismantled and shipped to Lihue for assembly (like a Sears Catalog house). Either way, after two years, on November 11, 1883, the 400th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birthday, the walls were up, and the “Deutsche Evangelisch Lutherische Germinde zu Lihue” got its charter with Frank Richter as pastor.
At the same time, Friedreich Richter, set the school up following the German village school model. Lessons were taught in both German and English to insure that students would be bilingual.
When Frank Richter returned to Germany in 1886, Paul Isenberg brought his brother Hans to Kauai to be the Pastor. Sermons were naturally given in German. Hans and his wife Dora (daughter of a German missionary) settled down to lead the church and community.
As successful as the school was, in 1918, when America entered World War I, the school was shut down. Anti-German sentiment affected the church as well, so it underwent some “Americanization”. German sermons were biweekly now, and the church opened up more to the surrounding community. According to sources, the German language was still used until the 1960s.
(side note- Hackfeld & Co.was seized by the US Office of Alien Property Custodian in 1918 and sold. Soon after, the company changed its name to AmFac aka. American Factors Limited, and became known as one of the “Big 5” companies on Hawaii.)
For more information about this time, I highly recommend the paper “The Effect of World War I on the German Community in Hawaii” by Sandra E. Wagner-Seavey
Hans Isenberg died in 1918, but his wife Dora carried the ministry. She worked hard for the German community in Lihue, and for the greater community of Kauai, where she influenced arts, and worked on Hospital boards. She passed away in 1949, and is buried in the Lutheran church cemetery with her husband.
The Lutheran Church in Lihue
When Hurricane Iwa destroyed the old church in 1892, gifts and donations poured in from around the world. In time, the church was rebuilt to look just like the first one. The church is still active today.
Behind the church you’ll find the lush green cemetery, a lava rock memorial to the Isenbergs dominates one end. A majority of the headstones are inscribed with German names, and date back to the 1800s. A reminder that once upon a time, Lihue, Kauai was called “Germantown”.
Book- “Hawaii and the German-Speaking People” by Niklaus R Schweizer
The Effect of World War I on the German Community in Hawaii by Sandra E. Wagner-Seavey