Taveau’s history unique among the state’s rural churches
To Gaye Sanders Fisher, traveling along a two-lane road winding through the Francis Marion National Forest provided a welcome respite from the incessant city traffic she experiences almost daily. The artist prefers taking the road less traveled whenever possible. On this particular morning, the lush green trees that hugged the road didn’t so much as hint at the change of season that was just days away. Gaye sighed, content in her mission despite the unrelenting late summer heat.
“This forest that was so damaged by Hurricane Hugo 30 years ago has come back,” she said, almost to herself. “It’s been restored.”
Clearly, restoration was on her mind as she pulled her Jeep onto Doctor Evans Road just outside the community of Cordesville — population 493. In fact, the whole purpose of Gaye’s journey from her art gallery on Church St. in downtown Charleston to rural Berkeley County that day was all about restoration.
Moments later, Gaye was peering through a chain link fence at Taveau Church, the subject of her next painting in a series she’s been working on to help save South Carolina’s endangered sacred spaces. As with her paintings of Mulberry Methodist Church in Cherokee County, Trinity Episcopal Church in Abbeville County and nearby Strawberry Chapel, Gaye loves to delve into her current subject’s history in an effort to capture its essence in her work.
Taveau’s caretaker, Clarence Brown, soon arrived to remove the padlocks from the fence and door so Gaye could get better acquainted with the church. He filled her in on some of the church’s 184-year history.
“Taveau was built in 1835 by Martha Caroline Swinton Ball Taveau,” stated Brown, an engineer who traveled the world building cellular networks before retiring in Berkeley County where he grew up. “Mrs. Taveau was a devoted Presbyterian living among Episcopalians, so she established Taveau as a Presbyterian church.”
Mrs. Taveau was born in Charleston County in 1785. She married John Ball, Sr., a wealthy plantation owner, in 1805. After his death in in 1817, she married Augustus Louis Taveau.
According to Brown, Taveau is an unusual example of early 19th century church architecture, exhibiting a seldom seen air of sophistication. “After Mrs. Taveau’s death in 1847, the church was used by black Methodists, slaves from the nearby plantations.”
The two were soon joined by Robert Brown, Clarence’s brother who is the assistant pastor at Cordesville United Methodist Church which now owns Taveau Church and its surrounding cemetery and grounds; and Michael Bedenbaugh, the executive director of Preservation South Carolina. Bedenbaugh hopes to help the Cordesville congregation find a way forward in the plans its developed to restore Taveau and return it to use. During the last several months, he and the board of directors at Preservation S.C. have worked diligently to establish a Sacred Spaces fund to help save endangered historic rural churches such as Taveau across the state.
Like the Francis Marion National Forest, Hurricane Hugo ravaged Taveau in 1989, ripping the tin roof off the tiny church that had been closed since the early 1970s due to the merger of its congregation with that of Cordesville United Methodist located just down the road. Miraculously, the funds were raised, the roof was replaced and the church was stabilized, allowing the mid-19th century structure to survive the 20th century. But the new century has not been kind to Taveau. Harsh licks from the tropical storm winds of Hurricane Irma in September 2017 left the church with broken windows and damage to its roof and clapboard siding, making it more vulnerable to wind and rain damage from subsequent storms, including the recent Hurricane Dorian.
As Gaye surveilled the exterior of the structure, she understood immediately Taveau’s precarious situation. But viewed through her personal 32-year career in design and restoration of historic buildings, she also understood its uniqueness in architecture and history and why it must be saved for future generations.
Bedenbaugh gave voice to her thoughts. “It has a formality of design that does not surprise me in that it was constructed by a member of the plantation aristocracy,” stated Bedenbaugh. “The church’s architectural significance, along with the layer of African American history are important elements to the overall mission of the Sacred Spaces fund.
“One of the most significant aspects of this church is its balcony that was taken from Strawberry Chapel and donated to Taveau in the 20th century,” continues Bedenbaugh after going inside. “It was the place where the slaves worshipped during regular services there. The staircase is from Strawberry Chapel, as well. I believe the balcony and the staircase can definitely be saved.
“Strawberry Chapel and Taveau Church are inextricably connected,” he added. “I believe the preservation of both is vitally important to this region.”
Brown agrees. “When I was growing up, I passed this church often,” he said. “During high school, I worked across the road at Mepkin Abbey and would pass by here, not understanding Taveau’s significance. But as an adult, I do. My fore-parents sat in the pews here and in that balcony at Strawberry Chapel. Our oldest brother, Matthew, is buried under the live oak trees here next to the church. Saving Taveau is personal for me and my brother and for a number of others in the community.”
Gaye hopes her painting of Taveau will shine the light of truth on the communities that once worshipped at the site, as plans for its restoration and future use move forward.
Giclée prints of Gaye’s series of paintings depicting South Carolina’s endangered Sacred Spaces can be ordered by contacting the Gaye Sanders Fisher Gallery located at 124 Church St. Net proceeds from the sale of these art-quality prints will go to benefit Preservation S.C.’s Sacred Spaces fund. To learn more about the efforts to save the state’s rural churches, please tune into NPR’s Walter Edgar’s Journal at noon on Friday, October 18.