As I dipped my fingers into a shell filled with holy water, I stood for a moment at the doorway making the sign of the cross and taking in the church interior which was simply decorated with Rapa Nui art. I knew then that what I was about to experience was miles away from the Catholic school in which I grew up.
The church was fairly full by the time we got there. My mother and I took a seat on a plain, wooden pew, not unlike the benches I am used to sitting on in Quaker meeting. Wanting to see and experience as much as I could, I felt lucky to get an aisle seat. As I looked around at my fellow parishioners I noticed that the men were dressed in flower shirts, not unlike the stereotypical shirts you might see in Hawaii, and some women were dressed all in white. Some of both sexes wore a crown of beautiful flowers in their hair.
Before I knew it, the congregation was at their feet as a small, seemingly informal, procession came down the aisle consisting of men and women dressed all in white and the priest, who was wearing white robes, a drab green stole and a beautiful flower necklace (lei). When the procession reached the front and everyone took their assigned position, we sat.
The priest then proceeded to welcome us in Rapa Nui, a language I was eager to hear the sound of as it is only spoken on this island. He then welcomed us in Spanish, then German, then French and finally in English. I felt welcomed indeed.
The service was performed in both Rapa Nui and Spanish and in this way I was able to learn a few words that got repeated, namely “mana” which was translated into “espiritu” in Spanish (Holy Spirit in this context). At one point I recognized the rhythm of the Our Father, a prayer that was ingrained in me in elementary and middle school. There was something comforting, perhaps simply its familiarity, about the sound of everyone saying this prayer in unison, despite that fact that it wasn’t spoken in my mother tongue.
At one point, at the direction of the priest, parishioners began shaking hands with those standing near them. I very much enjoyed this as I was greeted by one friendly face after another, something that transcended language or background. This also reminded me of Quaker Meeting, where members shake each others’ hands to signify the close of the meeting.
Another amazing experience for me was simple and yet so profound. Parishioners began holding hands in rows (holding them up with their arms bent at the elbow, making w’s down the line) with the people on either side of them. Because I was sitting at the end of my pew, I got to hold the hand of a Rapa Nui woman from the pew across the aisle. As I stood there holding up my mother’s hand with my left hand and a stranger’s from a foreign and remote land with my right, I couldn’t help but to appreciate the symbolism of standing between these two women. I was holding hands with the woman who had prepared me for the world with one hand and a woman whom to me represented the far reaches of the world with the other. To my surprise and embarrassment my eyes began to tear and pretty soon tears were rolling down my cheeks. Not wanting to break the bond with either woman so that I could wipe my eyes, I decided to simply let the tears fall and be in the beauty of the moment.
As a more practical observation, I had also forgotten what a workout attending Catholic mass is. It seemed like every few minutes we were standing up, sitting back down or kneeling. I began to wonder if the reason for all this was to ensure that people stay awake. This was not needed at this church however, due to the amazing music performed live.
Without a doubt the music was a highlight of the service for me as it seemed to add a boisterousness to the mass, making this church experience highly unique. The instruments included drums, stringed instruments, an accordion and voice. The drum, or time-keeper, was made out of wood with deer skin on top, which struck me as odd since I was unaware of any deer on Easter Island. However, I was aware that this is how many Native American and First Nations tribes make drums in North America. Many of the rhythms I heard in the music were also reminiscent of the rhythms I had heard at the Thursday night social at the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto, for example.
I was surprised to recognize one of the songs! Towards the beginning of the service the musicians played “Michael row the boat ashore”, but in Spanish. I was happy to be able to join in on the “Hallelujah” part of the song.
The most beautiful musical moment, in my opinion, involved no instruments at all. As both a lover of music and of language, I was emotionally struck when the congregation broke out into an a capella song completely in Rapa Nui. The purely human sound filled the church and if anything was an offering to God that day, this was it! And for me personally, to hear this moving piece of music sung in a language many never get a chance to hear was nothing short of amazing.
As a non-Catholic child going to a Catholic school, I was never allowed to take communion during a mass and I’m certain they could have gotten into some serious trouble with parents if they ever allowed such a thing. This never really dawned on me, frankly, until the very moment when the priest was blessing the eucharist. Suddenly, I felt compelled to have my very first communion there in the Catholic church on Easter Island, considered by many to be the most remote place on earth. My decision was further solidified when I saw that women (all dressed in white) were also giving out the host, something else I had never seen before.
And so, for the very first time I joined a line to receive communion. As I slowly moved up the aisle towards the priest with lively music playing, a pressing thought suddenly entered my mind, “Is the communion vegan?” Quickly, I ran through what the ingredients were likely to be (water and flour?) and decided that the wafer must be vegan. If I am truly eating the body of Christ, on the other hand, that might be a different story.
When I reached the front of the line, the priest made the sign of the cross with the wafer and placed it in my mouth. I walked back up the aisle with hands clasped and smiling. I felt good. When everyone was back in their seats, the drummer had to abandon his instrument to quickly run up to the front to receive his communion.
At the end of the service, the priest and his procession walked back up the aisle to the door and the band played on. This was when it became obvious who was local and who was there visiting as all the visitors quickly broke out their iPhones and cameras to get pictures and videos of the musicians as they continued to play. I happily joined them, wanting to hear it again and again and share it with others.
Tips and Information About Visiting the Church on Easter Island
The Catholic church on Easter Island is located in the capital, Hanga Roa, at the top of Te Pito O Te Henua Street and just across the street from the artisanal market. Sunday service begins at 9am and be sure to arrive early to get a seat. For perfect viewing I recommend sitting in an aisle seat or better yet up front on the left. Do not sit in the front right as the first five pews or so are reserved for the musicians.
You can park in the small parking lot across from the artisanal market to the left of the church when facing it. Dress as nicely as you can and do not wear shorts. Pictures are not allowed during the service but afterward you are welcome to take as many as you like (according to the priest). If you are not familiar with a Catholic mass, be sure to take cues from those around you of when to stand, sit or kneel.