The Commons House of Assembly, under the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, established St. Helena’s in 1712 as a colonial parish of the Church of England. The church was built in 1724 and is one of the oldest active churches in North America. Construction of the church building was delayed by the Yemassee Indian War of 1715. Built of brick, much of which originally was ship’s ballast, and smoothed over with stucco, the church has excellent exterior proportions and fine interior detail.
Thomas Heyward, Jr. (1746-1809), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was St. Helena’s most noted parishioner during the Revolutionary Era. A wound inflicted at the battle of Port Royal in February 1779 left a scar, which marked him for the remainder of his life. Another parishioner, John Barnwell (1748-1800), distinguished himself as an officer in the South Carolina Militia, reaching the rank of Major General. The church still possesses a Communion set commissioned in 1734 by Captain John Bull in memory of his wife, who disappeared during the Yemassee Indian War.
The church has been enlarged several times-in 1769, 1817, and 1842. The northeast corner of the building has been retained; the original bricks in the outer walls were used repeatedly.
The original building was repaired and enlarged in 1769. In 1817, the 1769 building was extended to the west. The extension was retained in 1842 when the remainder of the church was demolished to ground level. The present sidewalls were constructed at that time, and the foundations of the 1769 church were used to support the interior galleries.
“From 1800 to 1860, the Sea Islands of St. Helena’s Parish formed one of the ‘wealthiest, most aristocratic and cultivated’ communities in America. St. Helena’s Protestant Episcopal Church was at the center of this culture and prosperity.
Some of the wealthiest and most prominent families in the American South were represented in St. Helena’s Church. Among them were Barnwells, Heywards, Elliotts, Rhetts, Fullers, Graysons, Wiggs, and others. The parish and the town produced many men of mark in politics, scholarship and religion during the Ante-Bellum years.”1
During the Civil War, when Union forces occupied Beaufort in November 1861, the entire congregation fled. Initially during the occupation, church services were held in St. Helena’s, but eventually Federal troops converted the church to a hospital. The church was stripped of its furnishings, marble tombstones were brought in for use as operating tables, and the balconies were decked over to make a second floor. “On a visit after the war in 1866,… Bishop Thomas noted that ‘the church was a wreck of its former self and could not be used.’ Only a small marble font remains today of the furnishings prior to the war.... A new roof was put on the church in 1874, one-half of the expense being born by friends of St. Peter’s, Perth Amboy, New Jersey. A new organ to replace, on a smaller scale, that lost in the Civil War was installed in 1876, officers of the U.S. Fleet assisting.”2
The original cedar box pews were replaced with heart of pine benches.
The present altar was given by the officers, and carved by the sailors, of the U.S.S. New Hampshire stationed in Port Royal Sound during the reconstruction.
A hurricane in 1896 destroyed the east end of the church. When the debris was cleared away, the altar remained intact. The east end was subsequently rebuilt in its original form from salvaged bricks. And a new century arrived-St. Helena’s in 1906.
The present steeple was built in 1941, restoring one built in 1817 that had been removed for safety’s sake in the 1860’s. Designed by Simons and Lapham of Charleston, it stands 118 feet high which is the only existing specification of the earlier steeple.
The church was repaired and redecorated in 1959 following Hurricane Gracie, which ripped off half of the roof. Disaster struck again on Easter Sunday 1970, when a hailstorm broke 150 windowpanes on the south side of the church. The glass was replaced with Williamsburg “old glass,” which was removed in 1999, during the restoration of the church, when original glass panes were dispersed throughout the church.
Taylor and Boody organ builders of Staunton, Virginia, installed a tracker pipe organ in 1985. Patterned after 17th-century organs of northern Europe, this two manual organ has 19 stops and over 1,150 pipes housed in a beautifully crafted oak case. The instrument was specifically designed to meet the needs of the historic church. Installation required rearranging the choir section of the gallery, restoring the narthex to provide two staircases, and demolishing the walls behind the organ itself. A tray ceiling was crafted to accommodate the height of the case.
By 1998, the 286-year-old church was badly in need of restoration and repair. The side walls were separating, the mortar crumbling, the roof truss needed work, the balconies, without pews or kneelers, were unsafe, major work was needed on both ends of the church, and asbestos need to be removed. After 19 months of work and an expenditure of some $2.6 million, raised by subscription, the church reopened on Palm Sunday 2000.
Structurally restored, safely bricked, freshly stuccoed and painted, St. Helena’s is ready for its Tricentennial in 2012.
The old churchyard cemetery, enclosed by a brick wall constructed around 1804, is a mirror of local history.
One of the earliest burials in the churchyard was Colonel John Barnwell (1671-1724), better known as “Tuscarora Jack,” a famous Indian fighter and a founder of Beaufort Town in 1711. An early settler of the Carolina colony from Ireland, he won his nickname by successfully leading an expedition to northern Carolina against the Tuscarora Indians in 1711. In 1715, Barnwell rallied the Port Royal Militia and helped Governor Craven drive the Yemassee Indians into Florida after they attacked and burned the young town of Beaufort, torturing and killing many settlers. It was thought that his grave was covered over when the church was expanded in 1817. However, the ground under the church was carefully examined during the recent restoration, and not a trace of his grave was found. There is a plot in the churchyard, enclosed sometime after the Civil War, signifying his grave.
Buried under the church are: R. Woodward Flowers, d 1786; The Reverend Matthew Tate, d 1796; Sarah Gault Wigg, d 1809; and Ann Mullins, d 1830.
Two British officers, killed in the battle of Port Royal at Gray’s Hill during the American Revolution in February 1779, are buried in the churchyard. Recovered from a hasty grave on the battlefield, they were interred by an officer of the American forces, who read the funeral service from St. Helena’s altar prayer book and then reportedly said, “Soldiers and fellow citizens: We have now shown our enemies that we have not only the courage to face and best them in the field, but that we have the humanity to give their dead a decent and a Christian burial.”3
Also buried in the churchyard are two Confederate generals. Best known is Lieutenant General Richard Heron “Fightin’ Dick” Anderson (1821-1879). An 1842 West Point graduate, Anderson served in the Mexican War, resigning his commission to join the Confederate Army in 1861. Starting as the Colonel of the 1st South Carolina, he assumed command of Charleston as a Brigadier General when General Beauregard went to Virginia. Subsequently, he became a Brigade Commander in Longstreet’s Division on the Peninsula and after being promoted to Major General, commanded Divisions at Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness. Anderson assumed command of ll Corps. at Spotsylvania when General Longstreet was severely wounded following the Battle of the Wilderness. Promoted to Lieutenant General at Cold Harbor, he fought to the end at Sayler’s Creek, finally surrendering with General Lee at Appomattox Court House.
The other is Brigadier General Stephen Elliott, Jr. (1830-1866). A planter and politician, Elliott fought as the captain of the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery during the unsuccessful defense of Port Royal against the Union invasion in November 1861. Subsequently, he was wounded while commanding a brigade at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Virginia, and although considered disabled for further service, was wounded again during the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina, at the very end of the war. He died the following year from the effects of his wounds.
Now, as it enters the second millennium, St. Helena’s historic ministry, the second oldest in South Carolina, is one of the fastest growing in the diocese, bearing witness to the continuing vitality of this venerable parish.
1 History Committee, The History of the Parish Church of St. Helena (Columbia, SC:
The R.L. Bryan Company, 1990), p. xii.
2 Ibid., p. 159.
3 The History of the Parish Church of St. Helena, p. 22.
History Committee. The History of the Parish Church of St. Helena. Columbia, SC: The
R.L. Bryan Company. 1990.
Hardy, Sue Martin. The Parish Church of St. Helena Episcopal, A Short History,
1712-1997.Beaufort, SC: St. Helena’s Episcopal Church, 1997.