No Ordinary Church Choir in Pago Pago

by Harry Peacock

Matafao Peak above Pago Pago Harbor
Matafao Peak above Pago Pago Harbor

While serving aboard the USS Charles Berry (DE-1035) the ship made a refueling stop at Pago Pago, American Samoa in 1966.  Since refueling would take the entire day because of the limited facilities available and since it was Sunday, several junior officers decided to go into town to attend church.

We randomly picked the first church we came to on the main street walking from the pier into town.  Services were in Samoan so we didn’t understand a word that was being said but when the choir started singing, accompanied by a small reed organ being pumped by hand by two small boys, the language was immaterial.

This was singing such as none of us had ever heard.  The voices the rhythms and the harmonies so perfect it was difficult to believe this was just an “ordinary” church choir.

Upon returning to our home port at Pearl Harbor, I related this experience to my wife and told her I now knew what the Heavenly Host must sound like and should we ever get the opportunity, she had to hear what I had heard.

Then in 2003 we booked a cruise to Tahiti which included a trip to Western Samoa (now the Republic of Samoa) and to Pago Pago, American Samoa.  As luck would have it our port call at Pago Pago was going to be on a Sunday.  Everyone on the cruise ship was wondering what there was to do in Pago Pago on a Sunday and when asked we said we intended to go to church and proceeded to explain why.

So off my wife and I went, back to the same church 37 years later.  The church is The Parish of Fagotogo, Ekalesia Faapotopotoga Kerisiano, Amerika Samoa.  It is made of wood, with stairs and a steeple and painted white.

We were warmly greeted in English by the pastor as we climbed the stairs and I told him about my prior visit to his church.  It was very warm and humid and one of the ladies in the congregation immediately offered my wife a hand woven coconut leaf fan.  The services began and we were given hymnals.  Upon opening mine I was astonished to see that there was no music, only the words to the hymns and of course everything was in Samoan.

When the choir, with the women all dressed in white dresses with hats, and the men all dressed in tropical white shirts, started singing, it was as if time had reversed itself and it was 1966 all over again.  As the singing continued I could see tears running down my wife’s cheeks, she was so moved by the beauty of the voices.  At the end of the service my wife tried to return the fan she had been given but the woman who had given it to her told her to keep it as a memory of her coming to church in Samoa.

So to all of you cruisers out there who want to know what to do on a Sunday in American Samoa, do yourself and those you are traveling with a favor and go to church.  You will never regret it, even though you will not understand a word they are saying.