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/
Owing to the need to save money for their daughters’ college tuition, it took May and her husband fifteen years to move to Abbeville After her mother died. That was in 1977. “We came and never looked back,” she said. Her husband took early retirement and she quit teaching first grade. “No more,” she said, but more was in store. A school in the country urgently needed a teacher. “I pitched in and ended up teaching four more years, but that gave me four more years of retirement money.”
She never said so but May went from loathing to loving this old home. Like the sequoia out front, the home’s roots run deeply. The site where she lives has had two homes on it. J. Foster Marshall, who died at the Battle of Second Manassas, built the first house, which burned in 1880. The present house rose from its ashes. Among its features: a staircase with steps crafted from pine strips flanking black walnut, a musket over a fireplace, a stout sideboard graced by crystal, and a 2014 Stewardship Award from South Carolina Historic Preservation for the Preservation and Maintenance of Robertson-Hutchinson House and Documents.
There’s much more, of course. I saw an aged stereopticon, and something I had long heard about but never seen: a 1770 King’s Land Grant. The aged parchment, foxed and looking a bit like your grandmother’s hands, possessed regal language I can only approximate. “George Third, by the Grace of God, of Great-Britain, France and Ireland …” (Yes, France …) Know ye That we of our special grace, certain knowledge, and here Motion, have given and granted … a plantation or tract of land containing … 100 acres situate … on the Little River in Granville County bounded by ….”
Not One Doubting Thomas
The name “Thomas” seemed a prerequisite for establishing and blessing gorgeous Trinity Episcopal Church. Charleston lawyer Thomas Parker founded the church, along with Thomas Jackson and Thomas Walter Thomas in 1842. Bishop Thomas F. Davis consecrated the current building in 1860, built by Newberry contractors Blease and Baxter. The church still has the original letter of consecration of its building, signed by the Bishop and carrying his red wax seal.
Trinity was made to be stout. The brick in Trinity’s walls, more than two feet thick, were made on Trinity’s grounds and covered with rough cast, a mix of local sand, lime, and water. Restorers in the 1970s recommended coating the outside with pink Portland cement, thus assuring Trinity’s place as Abbeville’s lady in pink. The 1859 church members hired only the best craftsmen and spared no expenses. You can still see brick flecks in the mortar, ground brick that helps reinforce the structure. The church’s spire, 130 feet tall, pierces the skyline over Trinity Street. The organ, made by John Baker of Charleston, is one of two such organs in South Carolina. The churchyard and cemetery contain boxwood gardens, towering old magnolia trees, and graves of church leaders. Confederates and one Federal soldier, too.
A rainy day seemed right for visiting this lady in pink. Green leaves provided a beautiful disparity and a glance revealed a church in fine condition but that’s deceptive. It’s in dire straits. The passing of decades steals things, good things. In December 2015, Bill wrote about the church’s plight for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The church that cost $15,000 to build in the late 1850s now will cost more than $2 million to save. There are no big moneyed donors in Abbeville, South Carolina, but there is an aging church community at Trinity Episcopal Church with a deep appreciation of the past and the faith to search for the funds.
“Our congregation is so old that all our acolytes draw Social Security,” the church historian May Hutchinson tells me. I laugh, the sound echoing off of the now water-stained walls that were first raised in 1858-1860. Better preserved is the church’s inventory of rare 19th-century stained glass. For years it was thought the chancel window was of English origin and, given the timing of the Civil War, run through the Union blockade of Charleston Harbor, a charming story that has now been discounted. Experts now attribute the chancel window to the New York Studio of William Gibson.
Trinity Episcopal Church was consecrated on November 4, 1860. On November 22, possibly the first organized mass meeting for secession from the Union was held in the city. A month after the rally, 169 delegates at a state convention in Charleston unanimously approved South Carolina’s secession. Spirits were high, but at war’s end the South was in ruins and many of its men dead. The town, and its most-recognized church, never fully recovered from the devastating effects of the war. Its future is now in the hands of a few determined souls who believe the work of preservation is important and that it can be done.
Determined souls who believe the work can done … A church needs believers, in more ways than one.