Our Foremothers: Kapiolani

by Jo Ellen Heil | October 30, 1994

Have you ever met someone who quietly yet vividly made an impact on you? Let me introduce you to Kapiolani of Hawaii (??-1841). High chief, breaker of taboos, Christian champion, this heroic woman ruled both politically and spiritually. Her courage was internationally acclaimed though her greatest battle was private.

In December 1824, accompanied by frightened attendants, Kapiolani hiked nearly 100 miles to the Kilauea volcano. Ignoring the pleas of her husband and the priestess of Pele, she descended fifty feet into the boiling lake of lava. Determined to strengthen Christianity and break the volcano goddess’ hold upon her people, she defiantly ate sacred ohelo berries, then threw the stones into the steaming pit, announcing that “I do not fear Pele.” She returned home to Kona unharmed.

Afterward, Kapiolani and American missionary Laura Fish Judd broke long-held sexual taboos by being the first women to enter the sacred helau (City of Refuge). As a result, the temple and fence of wooden idols were demolished and the corpses buried. Her response to these confrontations of deep religious/cultural traditions was: “If I am destroyed, you may all believe in Pele; if I am not destroyed, you must turn to the only true God.”

Kapiolani’s zealous faith also strengthened h nearly two decades later in her greatest battle against a private enemy — cancer. This courageous Hawaiian sister underwent a complete mastectomy without an-estfietic. As her right breast was cut out and removed. Dr. Judd and friends testified of her unbelievable dignity throughout the ordeal. Kapiolani turned to “the only true God” and found courage to win her battles. So may we.