Each morning, before Michael Bedenbaugh leaves his farmhouse on the outskirts of Prosperity, he tucks a special key safely into his pants pocket. To him, the key already seems a natural piece of his life — even though he can’t deny the extraordinary circumstances that transpired over the course of more than a quarter century that recently landed that key into his protective custody.
That key unlocks the door to Trinity Episcopal Church in Abbeville, South Carolina, a town of about 5,250 people that lies some 60 miles to the west of his home. These days (and for the foreseeable future) he frequently takes the hour and a half drive from Prosperity through some of the state’s quintessential small towns including Newberry, Ninety Six and Greenwood until he exits at Abbeville onto Church Street to where it intersects with Trinity Street. There stands Trinity Episcopal Church, one of S.C.’s compromised sacred spaces that Mike is helping to save.
Each time he turns the lock in the door, he bears the responsibility of representing the passions and integrity of the board of directors of Preservation South Carolina for which he serves as executive director. More importantly, he has made promises to the church’s congregants, to the community, to the Episcopal diocese. Saving this church edifice for future generations is personal. To Mike, they’re all personal.
As Mike enters the church as its caretaker, he often reflects on the journey that brought him to this place. As a young man, he fled the confines of small-town life. After a five-year tour of duty in the U.S. Navy, after completing his college education that began at the University of South Carolina can ended at Columbia University in New York City, after running a product marketing company that catered to the entertainment industry, he eventually returned to S.C. to reevaluate his life. As he began re-exploring rural life in back home, he came upon Abbeville, where he’d often visited to hunt with his father as a child. He found himself outside of Trinity Episcopal Church, staring up in wonder at its 125-foot steeple. Mike quickly discovered the door was open and the church was welcoming, so he found himself inside, marveling at the church’s sophisticated architectural and pondering the original intent of those who built it in Abbeville on the eve of the War Between the States.
“On that first trip I made to Abbeville as an adult, I bought a print of Trinity at an art store there,” recalls Bedenbaugh of that decades-ago journey. “Later I found a Gothic-style frame for it. That print still hangs in my dining room along with pictures of other churches I’ve collected through the years.
“It’s the room from which I draw my sustenance,” he adds.
Trinity Episcopal Church of Abbeville has remained in the periphery of Mike’s consciousness ever since. As he’s gone about the work of trying to save a number of South Carolina’s historic structures, Trinity has subtly made itself and its needs known to him. Now and for the foreseeable future, it’s become his mission to help save this important piece of South Carolina’s history, heritage and culture for future generations.
As he strolls the aisles of the church, Mike often reflects on the task ahead. “It’s the most difficult project our organization has ever taken on,” he states. “It’s also the easiest thing we’ve ever taken on.
“It’s easy the same the way it’s easy when the tide pushes you up,” he continues. “It’s easy because this is the flow the organization has been going since its inception 30 years ago … it’s the natural outcome of that flow. This is the culmination of our path.”
As the restoration of Trinity rushes toward that momentous day when scaffolding will rise up to surround its towering, but leaning steeple, Mike has, in the leadup to that day, become the consummate tour guide of the church, its grounds including a boxwood garden and its hidden graveyard. It’s interesting to note that he does not see the 160-year-old edifice through the lens of its current condition. Instead, he sees its glorious past and its equally glorious future.
The church was designed by George Walker, who worked under architect Edward Brickell White during the construction of Charleston’s French Protestant (Huguenot) Church; and Grace Church Cathedral, a mirror image of Trinity. Rather than the water-ravaged and deteriorating plaster walls, Mike sees the old English parish church built of stone. The failure of the building’s internal gutter system exposed the original stone walls that had been scored to resemble ashlar block. Once Mike absorbed architect George Walker’s original intent for the church’s interior, a clear vision for the restoration replaced the reality of the church’s current condition in his mind.
Trinity is one of only five known places remaining that features stained glass windows by William Gibson, the father of stained-glass painting in America. Although the leading and framing of these windows are failing, Mike’s mind embraces the words of an article dated November 9, 1860 regarding the consecration of the church. It reads, in part, “On either hand are the large Gothic Windows of Stained Glass, through which the ‘dim, religious light,’ falls in rays of many a fantastic hue; whilst in the rear is the beautiful Chancel with its soft carpeted floor, its stuccoed ceiling and rich stained-glass window. This window has been much admired and is one of the finest in the State; representing the figure of Christ bearing his cross and surrounded with many appropriate devices.”
The church’s tracker organ is one of only three extant organs crafted by the celebrated Charleston organ builder, John Baker, who was apprenticed by the world-renowned New York organ builder, Henry Erben. Today, the organ’s original components sit in boxes, abandoned 15 years ago by an unscrupulous repairman. But instead of damaged and in pieces instrument, Mike hears the voice of that organ soar once again in the acoustical magnificence of the church during its Christmas services in 2021.
After the steeple bell rings again, Mike will return to his other projects at Preservation South Carolina, leaving the future of the church in the capable hands of its congregants and the Friends of Trinity Abbeville, which will continue its mission of preserving Trinity Episcopal Church — its buildings, grounds and old cemetery — and to help preserve Abbeville's architectural, religious, historical and cultural heritage while serving as a beacon for Abbeville's future growth through heritage tourism. It will fall to the people who love Trinity to nurture its next generation of caretakers.
You may help preserve this important piece of the Palmetto State’s history, heritage and culture through your generous donation. Please visit RestoreTrinity.org to donate.