By Randi Serrins
Catherine Hinton Lopez and her tomb are an enigma. We addressed this briefly in this paperzine’s July issue; here is the rest of what we know. Catherine was born in Edgefield, South Carolina, in 1814.
She was a Gentile who, in 1832, married David Lopez, Jr., a Jew. She was 17; he was 23. During the next 10 years, they had five children. She and their last child, Charles Hinton Lopez, died within 12 days of each other in 1843. They both died of “consumption,” which we know was tuberculosis. She was 29. He was seven months old. He is buried in her tomb.
Catherine never converted to Judaism. She married a Jewish man, ran a Jewish home and raised her children as Jews. All of her children married Jews. Yet, when Catherine died, her husband was a member of Shearit Israel, an Orthodox synagogue on Wentworth Street that was founded when its members split from Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim because they installed an organ in their newly built temple in 1840 (some believe the organ was installed in 1841). KKBE’s previous building was built in 1792 and was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1838. Catherine’s husband, David, built KKBE’s “new” temple, which is one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in Charleston.
Since Catherine was not Jewish, Shearit Israel would not allow her to be buried in their cemetery, which was adjacent to the Coming Street Cemetery. A small parcel of land abutting Shearit Israel’s cemetery was for sale, and David purchased this for his family’s private burial ground. Originally this land was walled off from Shearit Israel’s cemetery and had its own entrance. Coming Street Cemetery has absorbed both the Lopez family plot and the Shearit Israel cemetery. Shearit Israel cemetery was separated from the KKBE cemetery by a high brick wall. The wall was taken down in the mid 1880s, and all that remains is a wall that is knee high. The Lopez plot is separated from Shearit Israel by a wrought iron fence with the words “David Lopez” on the gate.
Twenty-one souls are buried in 13 graves in this family plot. Often mothers were buried with their babies and children were buried together. After Catherine died, David went on to marry Rebecca Moïse. She is buried here, too, as well as some of their five children.
Catherine’s tomb is remarkable. On the National Park Service website of Charleston’s Historic Religious and Community Buildings, it is noted as “an elaborately detailed box tomb, described as a stone canopy.” According to Dr. Jonathan M. Leader, South Carolina’s state archeologist, her tomb is David Lopez’s Taj Mahal. He believes it is a Gothic Revival, carved tomb, whose like were often seen in England. It has crenellated detailing on its roof, much like the Francis D. Lee’s gothicized tower of the Unitarian Church on Archdale Street.
It is not known who designed or built Catherine’s Lopez’s tomb. Frances Ford, Conservation Lecturer at Clemson University and the College of Charleston, thinks Catherine’s tomb is unique and that it was clearly designed and not just built. David Lopez was a noted Charleston builder. In addition to the KKBE synagogue, he built the Queen Street tenements at 153-155 Queen Street; Institute Hall where the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession was signed; Mt. Zion AME Church; a four-story department store that later became the Academy of Music; the former Farmer’s and Exchange Bank (more recently Saracen Restaurant); and the Courtenay Building. The architectural firm of Jones and Lee worked with Lopez on the Banker’s Trust of South Carolina building. Ernest O. Shealy, in his master’s thesis in architecture at the University of Virginia, writes that Lopez was an “important contractor” who does not appear to have designed any of the buildings he built. Shealy notes that early in his career Edward C. Jones worked for David Lopez.
Is it too big a leap to think that the architectural firm of Jones and Lee worked with David Lopez on the tomb of his beloved wife Catherine? There are no written documents to substantiate this. Oh, that it were true, as some of the questions about her tomb would be answered.
KKBE is currently raising funds to conserve Catherine and Charles Lopez’s tomb.
For a tour of the cemetery, which is gated and locked, please call the KKBE Temple office at (843) 723-1090.