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After Maui fires, a Catholic school reopens and brings hope

Tonata Lolesio, Principal of Sacred Hearts School, with students as the school reopens.

Sacred Hearts School | Facebook

Tonata Lolesio, Principal of Sacred Hearts School, with students as the school reopens.

John Touhey - published on 08/30/23

"Even if students have lost their first home, we can't lose our second home – our school," the principal of Sacred Hearts School tells Aleteia.

When the West Maui wildfires razed most of the historic town of Lahaina on August 8-9, the Catholic church of Maria Lanakila was one of the few structures that survived. The Sacred Hearts School next to the church was not quite as fortunate. About half the building was lost.

Almost immediately, Tonata Lolesio, the school’s principal, felt that this could not be the end of the story for Sacred Hearts. More than ever, she believed that the school had a mission. “We’ve got to provide some hope and stability for the children and families who remain,” she told Aleteia.

“I see the potential in you.”

In 2000, “fresh out of the University of Hawaii,” Tonato Lolesio was hired to work as an aide at Sacred Hearts School’s new preschool program. “I always knew I wanted to teach, but I wasn’t sure which grade. So, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll start from the very beginning. They’re sweet, they’re cute.'” The next year, a position opened up in second grade.

“You know how it is in Catholic schools,” Tonata said with a laugh. “The principal at the time said, ‘Hey, I see potential in you.'”

Lolesio remained as second grade teacher for 19 years. For much of that time, she was also Director of Religious Education at Maria Lanakila Church next to the school. In 2020, however, Sacred Hearts needed a new principal and she was asked to take over.

Tonata Lolesio, the principal of Sacred Hearts School.
Tonata Lolesio, the principal of Sacred Hearts School.

Challenge after challenge

Tonata was hesitant to accept the position at first. “It took me a lot of discernment because I knew how to do second grade with my eyes closed. I knew everything, I knew the curriculum, I was very comfortable there. But as we know, God wants to get you out of your comfort zone. And get you where you really need to be.”

She was definitely needed. A few weeks before the hiring, the state of Hawaii had issued shutdown orders due to Covid. Under her leadership, the staff was able to reopen the school for in-person instruction. As the pandemic waned and normalcy returned, it seemed that Sacred Hearts was in a good place. Then the wildfires struck.

Aleteia spoke with Tonata Lolesio late last week as she was in the midst of preparations to reopen the school again — but this time under even more dramatic and challenging circumstances. Here is our conversation.

To start, I would like to offer our deepest condolences for everything that you have been facing and say that our prayers are with you.

Lolesio: Thank you.

I was wondering if you could help us understand the place of the Sacred Hearts School in the community of Lahaina prior to the tragedy.

Lolesio: Last year we celebrated the school’s 160th anniversary. And that was an important milestone for us. Before the school existed, there was the Maria Lanakila Church, which, as everyone in the world now knows, miraculously survived the wildfire. The school was founded by Father Albert Bouillon, who belonged to the Congregations of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary. It is the same congregation that gave us St. Damien of Molokai, who served those with Hansen’s disease on the island of Molokai, right across from Maui in a place called Kalaupapa.

It was called Maria Lanakila School in those days. The school initially served a whaling community and then eventually the community’s demographics changed from whaling to plantation workers of many different ethnic backgrounds. There were two simple classrooms next to the church and it served the immigrant families who came to work on the plantations.

I remember, growing up in Lahaina, the hills were filled with plantation workers working in the sugar cane fields. Of course, those plantations are gone now.

You know, Sacred Hearts School survived another fire. On August 17, 1971, there was an arson fire that burned down the entire school. The Sisters of St. Frances were here at that time. Those sisters were tough! They were not going to let the school just go away. They got the Lahaina community to pull together. It was that small, tightknit community that rebuilt and safeguarded Sacred Hearts School. And it stood there right up until the latest tragedy.

Sacred Hearts School a few days after the wildfires. Half of the school was destroyed.
Sacred Hearts School a few days after the wildfires. Half of the school was destroyed.

You had already begun the school year before the wildfires struck.

Lolesio: We started school on August 1. The kids had returned to school from preschool all the way to 8th grade. There is also a high school virtual program with in-person facilities. We were in for a couple of days and had an amazing start with the kids. It was so good to see them. They were hugging and saying, “We missed you, Mrs. Lolesio!”

Then we took a day off because of the high winds that knocked out the power. In the middle of the night, everything spiraled into the wildfire.

Now the children are scattered. They’re on the other side of the island or they have already moved off the island and have had to go to live with families. Some of them are still here, displaced because they lost their homes.

It is just a few weeks later and you are preparing to restart school.

Lolesio: I felt, you know, this is my mission. My calling is to serve and be an advocate for the children and their families. And at a time like this, the students need their teachers the most. There is no abandoning the mission at this point.

Half of the school remained standing, along with the church. That was confirmation that the work and the mission must go on. We must work to provide a stable environment for the children, especially those that are moving from place to place right now here in West Maui, trying to secure a home that they can stay in for longer than a few days, a few weeks, a month.

We just felt that kids need to be in a learning environment where they feel safe enough to deal with their social and emotional problems. They need somebody there who can help them, walk them through whatever trauma they’re going through.

School is like a second home to all of us. Our second family. And if we can gather as many of our family members in our school community together again, you know that will restore some hope and healing. And I felt like returning those students to school is like returning them to their second home. Even if students have lost their first home, we can’t lose our second home – our school. It burned down, but we can still work to restart that school and that home, that community, that friendship, that help that they need. This is where we are right now.

Sacred Hearts School a few days after the wildfires.
School staff member finds statue of Christ intact after the Lahaina wildfire.

I imagine the first challenge was simply to track people down and find out their situations and where they were located. How were you able to accomplish that?

Lolesio: I have an amazing faculty and staff. Several of them have lost their homes and are displaced as well. When we regrouped, I asked them, “What are your intentions? I can’t do this alone.” During Covid everyone came together and we worked hard to prepare the school to return to in-person instruction according to the CDC guidelines. And I said to them, “Here we are, called once again, because teaching at a secondary school is not a job, it’s a ministry. So tell me, are you in?”

And they’re all in and they’re all amazing people. They’ve been through so much, too. But, you know, they’re just so resilient, and they truly believe they are being called to serve in this moment through their profession.

We were then tasked with the work of going out and looking for our children, to do a safety and wellness check on them and their families. That was the hardest week for me, going through the list. I just kept praying, “Lord, when we regroup on Friday, please make sure that I have not lost anyone, not even one.”

Were your prayers answered? Were all the children safe?

Lolesio: When we regrouped on Friday and each made our report, when one teacher said I was not able to make a connection or locate this child, another teacher would say, “Oh, I saw that family walking along the street,” or “I know somebody else who saw them.”

So, thank you, Lord Jesus, we were able to account for all our children and our families.

But there was so much waiting and anxiety. I just can’t imagine what other people in the community are going through. People who are still waiting to hear from their loved ones and who have had to go to processing centers and submit DNA samples.  

Volunteers unload supplies as Sacred Hearts School prepares to open in its new location.
Volunteers unload supplies as Sacred Hearts School prepares to open in its new location.

After accounting for everyone, you had to come up with a plan to begin again. How do you even start when you have all your resources taken from you?

Lolesio: Our St. Marianne Cope Hall was destroyed in the fire, along with the right wing of our school, my office, the preschool, and the convent – but in St. Marianne Cope Hall, under her picture it says, “Nothing is impossible. There are ways that lead to everything.”

And that was my mantra – there’s got to be a way. There has got to be because we need to help the children who have decided to stay. The families are staying for a reason and we’ve got to provide some hope for them and some stability.

I reached out to my pastor and said, “Myself and my faculty, we’re all onboard to continue the school somehow.” He gave me his blessing and I just took if from there. I started making contacts with people near me to see if they have hotels around this mission church (Sacred Hearts Mission Church in Kapalua, Maui) that have open ballrooms or conference rooms. And one thing led to another, really.

They led me to someone else, Maui Land & Pineapple Company who said they had a land opportunity. And from there the word just spread that there is a potential to re-establish here in Kapalua. It’s about 5 to 7 minutes’ drive from Lahaina, away from the devastation. It’s green, it’s lush, it’s a healthy environment. It’s a perfect place to begin healing and rebuilding for the kids. It’s a safe place as well for that.

And the response of people to reopening Sacred Hearts School here has just been amazing. They’ve provided everything from equipment to funding to supplies to materials. I’m just overwhelmed with all the support, as are my staff and faculty.

I imagine you still need outside help though.

Lolesio: When we started the school year our enrollment numbered about 215 students and about 100 are now returning. The rest of that number represents families who are displaced and/or have lost their homes. About 80% of them are Catholic and are in our religious education program. We do need tuition assistance to help with those children. There are also the operational costs that come with re-establishing the school in a brand-new location.

Sacred Hearts School class in reopened location.
Sacred Hearts School resumed classes this week in nearby Kapalua.

It’s a tremendous undertaking. You told me in our email exchanges that you want to help as many children as possible.

Lolesio: Here is the blessing that the new land will provide: Before we had one class per grade level. With this new land, we have about four acres now. If we can find teachers, we can open up two second grades or two third grades and bring in more.

My goal is to bring in as many children as we can – but I have to start small because I don’t want to overwhelm all my volunteers and all the people preparing places for the first group of students. So the first group will start and from there we can see how much we can expand.

Ultimately, though, if I can take them all in, I will. And there are at least 600 displaced children from the West Maui community who need education. The latest plan is that the Hawaii State Department of Education will have school buses and drive the children over to schools on the other side of the island. Now, when I say the other side of the island, you have to drive about an hour from here and you only have one road to get from West Maui to South Central Maui. And anything that happens will close and shut off that road.

Parents at this time are very hesitant to separate from their children after what has happened. They would much prefer that they are here in West Maui with them. They feel it’s a much safer option.

Thank you for taking time from your schedule to speak with us. And thank you for everything you are doing.

Lolesio: Thank you. God bless you.

Aleteia readers who wish to help Sacred Hearts School to rebuild and provide for the needs of the children of West Maui may contribute directly on the school’s donation page.

Sacred Hearts School students celebrate their return to school this week.

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