The Portuguese Evangelical Church, Honolulu: 1890-1940

The Portuguese Evangelical Church, Honolulu: 1890-1940

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This is a history of the Portuguese Evangelical Church in Honolulu, Hawaii: 1890-1940 written by E. Jean L. Debagh

In 1878, the vessel, Priscilla, from Funchal, Madeira, brought the first of several groups of immigrant Portuguese to Hawaii. After this date, other vessels continued to bring larger companies at shorter intervals – some from Madeira and some from the Azores – until, ten years later, the Portuguese in Hawaii numbered about twelve thousand and mad up almost one-sixth of the total population. The people were brought to work on the sugar plantations, but, by 1887, hundreds had left the plantations and had moved into the cities and towns. In Honolulu, on the Ewa slopes of Punchbowl and in parts of Manoa, Portuguese families had leased or bought plots of land, built cottages and surrounded them with lawns, fruit trees and grape arbors.

A writer of the time said, “…they are all Catholics.” But when members of Central Union Church, located then at Fort and Beretania Streets, saw unschooled youngsters playing in the near-by alleyways every day – including Sunday – they were not deterred from action by the children’s religious background. Why wait, urged some of the women at a church meeting, for somebody else to develop a full-fledged Portuguese mission? Surely Central Union can do something – now! Start a Sunday School? Maybe evening – or even day-time classes? The concerned church members acted and, in temporary quarters and facing a language problem, a Sunday School was started. It soon attracted some thirty “scholars” of all ages. A small night school was begun by Central Union men who each volunteered an evening a week as teachers.

By early 1890, the Sunday School had grown into the Portuguese Mission, with an obvious need for Portuguese-speaking leaders. The Hawaii Evangelical Association sought religious leaders for the Mission among the Protestant Portuguese communities in central Illinois. Small groups had settled there in the early 1850’s after persecution for their Protestant beliefs had forced them to leave their predominantly Catholic homeland. Dr. C.M. Hyde, pastor of Central Union Church, was on the mainland and went to Jacksonville, Illinois, to see the Rev. Emanuel N. Pires, pastor of the Westminster Portuguese Church there, seeking to find men to fill the need.

Two young laymen, Antonio V. Soares of Springfield, and Robert K. Baptiste of Jacksonville, accepted the call to serve in Hawaii. Baptiste, born in Jacksonville and still unmarried, was the son of parents who had fled Madeira during the Protestant persecution. Soares, on the other hand, was not a son of exiles. Born in the Azores of staunch Catholic parents, he had followed an older brother to Illinois at the age of fourteen. Whether for adventure or to escape military conscription is not quite clear but it was not for religious reasons that he left St. George, Azores, for America.

Through the influence of devout Protestant church members in Springfield, however, young Soares joined the Presbyterian Church, supported its work, gave much time to the YMCA and had married Rachael Fernandes, the daughter of an active couple in the Springfield Church. With the intense loyalty of one whose faith grew from conviction rather than from custom, with compassion rather than enmity for those who had not seen the light as he now saw it, he proved just the tolerant, tireless pastor needed to build a strong Protestant Portuguese church in the heart of Honolulu.

The Rev. Pires obtained three months’ leave to accompany the volunteers and start them in their work in Honolulu. The party included Mr. Pires, Mr. Baptiste, Mr. and Mrs. Soares and their two-year-old son as well as Mrs. Soares’ aunt and uncle and their daughter. They traveled together, arriving in Honolulu September 19, 1890, and the first Protestant Portuguese Mission of the Pacific was established.

Great progress marked the first months after their arrival. A gift of money paid for land at the corner of Punchbowl and Miller streets, in the Portuguese settlement, and also for the building of a chapel which later became a schoolhouse, when a larger sanctuary was erected. It was here in this little church, just six months after their arrival, that Mr. Baptiste and Mr. Soares were ordained. Mr. Baptiste was sent to Hilo and Mr. Soares remained in Honolulu. The Reverend Pires returned to his church in Jacksonville after helping to get the Mission started. The evening school grew and a day school for children was started. On June 11, 1892, the Portuguese Evangelical Church of Honolulu was formally organized with eleven members. The chapel bell enthusiastically rang early and late until requests for shorter and less frequent chiming came from nearby Queen’s Hospital. The congregation’s singing brought no such objections, however, for the little church came to be known as “the Singing Church” and many a hospital patient expressed appreciation for the hymns that drifted across the grounds.

As he could, Pastor Soares enlarged his outreach by traveling to Ewa, Waianae and even to Kahuku, where Portuguese worked on the sugar plantations. The Mission also sponsored street-corner meetings in the Kakaako and Punchbowl areas, where people who wouldn’t have dared to enter a Protestant Church could join the crowd at these open-air gatherings. Sometimes these street meetings were interrupted by the pounding of tin cans and the throwing of tomatoes, small stones and other missiles. For many years the Protestant Portuguese were annoyed by the calling of names such as “Baggasse!” – a name cried in derision. Protestant children of that time still feel its sting. In spite of opposition and persecution, the little church gained members and support and finally outgrew its accommodations. When the time came to build a more spacious sanctuary, a cornerstone was laid July 9, 1896, with three flags on display – Portuguese, American and Hawaiian – and a fine new church rose up next door to the original chapel at Miller and Punchbowl streets.

The years sped by and the work prospered. On its tenth anniversary, the Portuguese Evangelical Church began to pay the Hawaiian Board of Missions $15.00 a month toward the pastor’s salary. By 1919, the church was fully self-supporting. That was, indeed, a proud day for Pastor Soares and his flock! Nine years later, in 1928, Antonio V. Soares retired, after thirty-eight years of dedication to his people and to his God.

The church at this time began to reassess its role in a changing Honolulu. A new generation had grown up in the congregation, speaking only English. Under Pastor Soares’ successor, the Rev. T.M. Talmage, the church decided to eliminate the Portuguese language from all its proceedings, to become a “union” church serving all nationalities in its part of the city. At this time, it took the name of Pilgrim Church. In one more decade, when the Miller-Punchbowl area had ceased to be largely residential, when the Portuguese families lived in all parts of the city, when the waifs of the one-time Sunday and day school were caring for all the children of all the people – when all this had come to pass, the church closed its honorable fifty-year history and accepted the invitation of Central Union Church to merge with it. On October 6, 1940, one hundred fifty-one members of the Pilgrim Church were welcomed into the congregation of Central Union Church.

The church building was rebuilt and used as a hostel until it burned to the ground early in 1971. The location is presently used as an auxiliary parking lot for Queen’s Medical Center


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Note:  This article was from the Central Union Church Archives. Reprinted with permission of Suzanne Espenett Case, Central Union Church Historian, 10 Dec 2002. (Thank you to Sandy for you hard work in tracking it down!)

Article References:

Loomis, Albertine – To all people, a history of the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ. Honolulu, Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ, c. 1970

Rodrigues, Abel A. – A brief history of the beginning of our country, state and church. Honolulu, typescript, 1971

(Soares, Olympia) History of the Portuguese Evangelical Church, 1890 – 1923. Honolulu, typescript, (1971)

COMPILED, SEPT, 1978 – EJLD

Olympia Soares
Born: September 30, 1893
Died: May 7, 1982

 

2 thoughts on “The Portuguese Evangelical Church, Honolulu: 1890-1940

  1. Melody, This is a very informative article in it’s descriptive view of the early development of the Portuguese communities in the Punchbowl and Manoa areas. And, the kind of assistance these people received to educate their children. Why didn’t they send their kids to school? Was there no public schools at that time? Thank you!

  2. Jody, Thanks for your thought provoking questions! I am not sure why they didn’t send their children to school. I don’t believe there was mandatory education in Hawaii until well after 1900, so that might be a factor. I also know from reading Pioneers of the Faith that there was a lot of strife between different Christian sects in Hawaii especially before 1900. There were violent clashes between Catholics and Protestants. The royal family changed which form they favored at different times and this lead to one group being treated as a minority. I remember somewhere reading about a massacre. So, perhaps personal safety was part of the issue?

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