Recently I visited one of the most iconic churches in Beaufort and the Lowcountry, the St. Helena Episcopal Church. Thanks to our lovely guide the free tour was a pure delight (that’s quite a feat with my young and restless 5 years old!).
St. Helena church was established in 1712 as a colonial parish of the Church of England, under the Lords Proprietors of Carolina.
Getting ready to celebrate 300 years of existence, the venerable St. Helena is the state second oldest church, and remarkably, one the fastest growing in the diocese.
St. Helena History and Interesting Facts (content courtesy of St. Helena Church website)
• Built in 1724 (construction delayed by the 1715 Yemassee War), St. Helena was made out of ships ballast bricks and then smoothed over with stucco, bolstering excellent proportions and fine interior decorations
• In 1734, Captain John Bull gave a silver Communion service in memory of his wife, who disappeared during the Yemassee Indian War.
The chalice, paten and tankard, engraved “The gift of Captain John Bull to the Parish of St. Helena” are still used today on special occasions.
• Thomas Heyward, Jr., signer of the Declaration of Independence, was St. Helena’s most noted parishioner during the Revolutionary period.
A wound inflicted at the battle of Port Royal in February 1779 left a scar, which marked him for the remainder of his life.
• During Civil War, Union forces occupied Beaufort in November 1861, the entire congregation fled and the church was converted to a hospital.
The church was stripped of its furnishings, balconies were decked over to make a second floor and slab gravestones from the graveyard were used as operating tables.
Bishop Thomas noted soon after the war was over “the church was a wreck of its former self and could not be used”. All that remained of the antebellum furnishings was the 1784 baptismal font.
The St. Helena Church graveyard and the legends…
The old cemetery, enclosed by a brick wall constructed around 1804, is entrenched in the local history.
• One of the earliest burials was Colonel John Barnwell (1671-1724), better known as “Tuscarora Jack,” a famous Indian fighter and a founder of Beaufort Town in 1711.
• Two British officers, killed in the battle of Port Royal at Gray’s Hill during the American Revolution in February 1779, are buried in the churchyard.
Recovered from a hasty grave on the battlefield, they were interred by an officer of the American forces, who read the funeral service from St. Helena’s altar prayer book:
“Soldiers and fellow citizens: We have now shown our enemies that we have not only the courage to face and best them in the field, but that we have the humanity to give their dead a decent and a Christian burial.”
• Two Confederate generals rest in peace in the old cemetery, Lieutenant General Richard Heron “Fightin’ Dick” Anderson and Brigadier General Stephen Elliott, Jr.
• Beware of John, legend has it he asked to be buried with a jug of milk (or was it wine?), a loaf of bread and an axe so when the time comes he can come out his tomb!…
How St. Helena Church changed over the years…
• The church has been enlarged 3 times, in 1769, 1817, and 1842. The northeast corner of the building and the original bricks in the outer walls have been retained over the years
• The 1817 west side extension was retained in 1842 while the rest was demolished. The present sidewalls were constructed at that time, and the foundations of the 1769 church were used to support the interior galleries.
• In 1874, a new roof was put on the church. Two years later a new organ replaced the one lost in the Civil War and the original cedar box pews were replaced with heart of pine benches.
• The current altar was given by the officers, and carved by the sailors, of the U.S.S. New Hampshire stationed in Port Royal Sound during the reconstruction.
A hurricane in 1896 destroyed the east end of the church. When the debris was cleared away, the altar remained intact. The building was subsequently rebuilt in its present form.
• The present steeple was built in 1941, (the old one was removed for safety during Civil War). Designed by Simons and Lapham of Charleston, it stands 118 feet high, the only existing specification of the earlier steeple.
• The church was repaired and redecorated in 1959 following Hurricane Gracie, which ripped off half of the roof. Disaster struck again on Easter Sunday 1970, when a hailstorm broke 150 windowpanes on the south side of the church.
• Taylor and Boody organ builders of Staunton, Virginia, installed a tracker pipe organ in 1985. Patterned after 17th-century organs of northern Europe, this two manual organ has 19 stops and over 1,150 pipes housed in a beautifully crafted oak case.
• By 1998, the 286-year-old church was badly in need of restoration and repair. 19 months of hard work and $2.6 million later, the church reopened on Palm Sunday 2000.
With its Gregorian makeover edition St. Helena is now ready to celebrate its tricentennial in 2012. No need to wait that long, you are always welcome to visit this magnificent church year around from 9AM to 4:30PM.
Worship Services are on Sunday at 8AM, 10:15AM and 6 PM, Wednesday at 5PM and Thursday at 11AM.
St. Helena Church is located downtown Beaufort at 505 Church Street Check out the official website for sermons, tours, summer camps and ongoing events.
Open your heart and free your mind in spiritual Lowcountry region of South Carolina!
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