Author’s Note: This three-part story portrays a church in danger of collapsing and the people who love it. France’s Gothic cathedrals inspired architect George Walker’s design for Abbeville’s Trinity Episcopal Church. The church contains rare 19th-century American stained glass and a chancel window attributed to William Gibson, America’s father of stained glass painting. A rare John Baker “tracker” organ was in use for a while. Among Trinity’s illustrious members and clergy were Rev. William Porcher DuBose, founder of the University of the South’s School of Theology, John A. Calhoun, nephew of U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun, and Armistead Burt, former Speaker of the House in the U.S. Congress. The outlook is bleak, but determined people are fighting to save this treasure of a church. If you’d like to donate to Friends of Trinity Abbeville visit http://friendsoftrinityabbeville.org/donate-now/
A notice on the front door warns that you look at the church at your own risk. The church stands empty. Closed. Nothing new. Trinity Episcopal closed during the Great Depression. “When my mother and aunt came back here to live in retirement, they tried other churches and it just didn’t work,” said May. “So, they got some friends who had grown up in the church with them and reopened the church. The first service was on November 1, 1948.”
October marks the 175th anniversary of the church’s founding but all these years later no singing, no praying, nothing takes place in the church. The hammering of woodpeckers shatters the silence.
What needs to be done? A lot. The first thing the church needs is to stabilize its steeple. “It’s hanging by a thread,” says Jean. May said the church steeple is a bird condominium. “One day an owl came to church. Another day a squirrel came to Sunday service. As the squirrel walked down the aisle, as all the ladies drew their feet up, the preacher stopped his sermon and blessed it.”
May started Friends of Trinity. Daughter, Ann Waigand, is president. Friends hopes to secure funds for the restoration of Trinity Episcopal Church, its buildings, grounds, and old cemetery, and to help preserve Abbeville’s architectural, religious, historical, and cultural heritage.
Doing What They Can
A church in distress needs a champion. I present daring May Robertson Baskin Hutchinson who said she nearly got killed in Washington, Georgia. In Washington, she boldly said Abbeville was the last place the Confederate cabinet met. The people in Washington rose up, indignant.
If you know your history, you know that near the war’s end, the Confederate gold train passed through Abbeville on its way to Washington, Georgia. It was in Washington that President Jefferson Davis and several cabinet members met in the Georgia State Bank Building May 4, 1865. On May 2, 1865, a retreating President Jefferson Davis held the last Council of the War meeting at Abbeville’s Burt-Stark Mansion. In its parlor, the South’s will to wage war wilted for good. There’s final glory for both towns.
Preservation makes for a long, winding road but May, Jean, Ann, Trinity’s Friends, and the people of Abbeville are doing what they can. In twenty-two years Friends has contributed about $100,000 to the church, but it’s not enough. At this writing it will require $2,916,000 to save the church.
“People come here to see the church and they’re terribly upset that they can’t get inside,” said May. Hopefully, that will change. Friends of Trinity consulted Meadors Construction of Charleston for restoration estimates. Meadors completed a comprehensive conditions assessment and outlined a phased restoration plan. Meadors, winner of multiple preservation awards from the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, The Preservation Society, and the City of Charleston, will oversee all phases of the restoration. Lack of money is holding things up. Meanwhile the church crumbles … demolition by unintentional neglect you could say.
Some 220 organizations applied for a Sacred Places grant that could provide some funding for the church’s restoration and forty made the initial cut, among them Friends of Trinity Abbeville, but others won out in the end. “We didn’t get the Sacred Places grant—no vicar and small, elderly congregation were the reasons,” said Jean. “My sister spent nearly all summer working on the application. Got to come up with plan B before the church falls down.” It will take $460,460 to stabilize the steeple and reopen the church’s doors (Phase One). The church has raised $95,000 toward that goal.
In a scene reminiscent of “The Millionaire” perhaps a donor will come to the rescue. It’s happened before. The Episcopal Church in Stateburg, South Carolina had similar needs. Termites had tunneled through its rammed earth walls up to the wooden roof and eaten its supports. The church was condemned. An anonymous donor contributed $1 million in seed money and the church was saved.
As for Trinity’s members, they worship elsewhere. “While anticipating the restoration of our historic building, Trinity Episcopal Church gathers temporarily for Sunday Worship at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 206 North Main Street, Abbeville, SC. We come together at other times in our Parish House.”
The old church stands at 200 Church Street. If you feel kindly toward the old church’s plight, its mailing address fittingly, is P.O. Box 911, Abbeville, South Carolina 29620. Donations can be made out to Friends of Trinity, and donating online is possible at www.friendsoftrinityabbeville.org
You can email Friends at [email protected] If you can do something, then please do. Perhaps, like those fragrant sequoia boughs, the giving spirit will jump out of wallets and accounts and bless Trinity Episcopal Church.
One more thing. Turns out May’s husband finally got her a teddy bear. Jean said so, a little heartbreak that healed. As for Trinity? Well, time will tell but time can be a thief.