In the autumn of 2010, I set out with my camera on a four-year journey to discover the history, heritage and culture of South Carolina. Within months, my interest in the state’s many historic structures became my all-consuming passion as I found and photographed historic structures from the Upstate through the Midlands and Pee Dee to the Lowcountry.
One building that made an indelible impression on me was the Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg. It is likely its close brush with complete destruction that amazes me every time I stand in the shadow of this Anglican church’s towering steeple. To lose an important icon such as a historic church would have been a dreadful blow to this now tiny town of only 1,400 persons. The church’s place in the town’s history is undeniable.
In 1783, Stateburg lost its bid to become the state’s capital by just a few votes. Despite the setback, the community remained prosperous due in part to its productive cotton fields, as well as the leadership of men like Brigadier Gen. Thomas Sumter, who earned “Fighting Gamecock,” after his fierce fighting style against the British during the American Revolution. In 1850, upon land donated by the Sumter family, the Church of the Holy Cross was built. This project was helmed by one of the Palmetto State’s most celebrated antebellum architects, Edward Jones, using the pisé de terre (“rammed earth”) method for constructing foundations, floors and walls using natural raw materials. This method is as old as human civilization. In fact, the Great Wall of China, built more than 5,000 years ago of stone and rammed earth remains one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken. Construction using rammed earth has recently been revived as a sustainable building method.
First, wooden forms are built. Next, a wet mixture of dirt, lime and pebbles is poured between the forms and packed. When the mixture hardens, the forms are removed and the process is repeated. In the case of the Church of the Holy Cross, the walls are three feet thick.
The inspiration for using this construction method, rare in America, came from Stateburg resident Dr. William Wallace Anderson. Decades before he chaired the building committee for the new church, he himself had used the method on his home and outbuildings at Borough Hall Plantation located directly across the road from the church. Believing that a larger church could be built for the same amount of money if this technique were used, he successfully argued his case before the congregation.
Even dirt construction can be expensive, so rents were increased to fund the new construction. One of the more intriguing men who paid his share was William Ellison, a former slave. Freed by his master in the early 1800s, Ellison in turn became one of the state’s largest slave owners in the pre-War Between the States era.
The stained-glass windows in the church were made in Bavaria after the designs of French architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. Those above the chancel were modeled after the ones installed in the pope’s summer residence. The organ was constructed by renowned 19th century organ maker Henry Erben. Still in perfect working order, it is one of the few Erben organs in existence in the United States today.
Adjoining the church is a peaceful and well-maintained graveyard. Joel R. Poinsett, an accomplished man who was a U.S. congressman, minister to Mexico and a one-time secretary of war is buried there. Poinsett is best remembered for bringing the poinsettia flower to our country. He died while visiting Dr. Anderson and Stateburg in 1851.
The Church of the Holy Cross has had its share of challenges throughout the years, but none quite as dire as the one it faced in 2000. That year, it was discovered that termites had worked their way up the dirt columns, high into the support beams. The structure was condemned and closed. It would take over $2 million to repair the damage, a large sum for any congregation and a seemingly impossible amount for one located in a county with a median family income of $45,000.
It took time, but eventually their prayers were answered. In 2008, an anonymous donor contributed $1 million, an amount that energized the effort. A year-and-a-half later, the congregation moved back into its “new home.”
Each time I stand in awe of the magnificent church, I’m intrigued by the randomness of preservation. The Church of the Holy Cross was saved due to the intention of those who love it and want it to pass it on to generations to come. Progress is being made to save Trinity Episcopal Church in Abbeville, a church of equal magnificence in every respect to Church of the Holy Cross. I worry about those such as Taveau Church in Berkeley County and Mulberry Methodist in Cherokee County. Will the histories of the people who built and attended at these churches survive? Or will they be gone with next wind?
Bill Fitzpatrick is member of the board of Preservation South Carolina and the author of South Carolina’s Sacred Spaces, a gorgeous pictorial coffee table book that depicts 70 of South Carolina’s churches and temples, many in need of repair. Fitzpatrick donates all proceeds from the sale of the books to Preservation SC’s efforts to save the states’ sacred spaces for future generations. Please visit savingsacredspaces.org for details on Fitzpatrick’s speaking tour. Or visit preservesc.org to donate to the project.