Lowcountry ruins still 'sort of half way to heaven'

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMay 13, 2014 

Contrary to popular belief, I was not there when Prince William's Parish Church opened its giant wooden doors in the 1750s.

But I did attend the annual service at its elegant brick ruins this month. The outdoor gathering on the second Sunday after Easter has been a Lowcountry staple since 1925.

What we call the Old Sheldon Church stands near Gardens Corner in northern Beaufort County. Its ruins on a tree-shrouded byway near U.S. 21 quietly stand witness to tales of war and peace, feast and famine, of biblical proportions.

The church was built with rice money and slave hands. It was said to be the finest country church in the land, and the first temple-form Greek Revival building in the Western Hemisphere.

It was burned when neighbor turned against neighbor in the American Revolution. When it was rebuilt in antebellum times, someone lamented that the perfectly good ruins had been ruined.

The church was stripped to its brick walls after the Civil War. At times it has been almost swallowed by the forest. Today, its tall columns beside sweeping live oaks make it a popular place for weddings and photographers.

The Parish Church of St. Helena in Beaufort conducts the annual service. It's bring your own chair, your own picnic and your own bug spray.

For my first "pilgrimage," I took my $30,000 folding chairs. They came free with a new Ford Expedition many years ago.

The lady next to me had painted her ankles with calamine lotion. Another sipped iced tea while the Charleston Brass Quintet played. We faithfully sang and mumbled our way through 11 pages of liturgy, chanting the same Psalms, creeds and prayers that somehow soothed our forebears worrying about Indian attacks and taxation without representation.

Former St. Helena rector Frank F. Limehouse preached the sharp message of St. Peter's first sermon.

For hundreds of worshipers, the sweet aroma of fried chicken drifted by on one wisp of wind, and Skin So Soft on another.

Flowers on the portable altar were given in honor of Bill and Kathey Sammons, volunteer caretakers of the grounds.

When the picnic broke out, enough loaves and fishes, not to mention pasta salads, were there to feed 5,000.

Why do people of the Lowcountry still flock to these ruins? Why did the Bull family, whose Sheldon plantation was next door, want to build such a fine edifice in the woods?

Tucked into a folder at the Beaufort District Collection in the Beaufort library is one answer. The late Roger Pinckney X, our county coroner for 35 years, wrote:

"A visit to old Sheldon is soothing to man's troubled soul. There among the sacred ruins one feels close to the Creator. It is like being out of this world -- sort of half way to heaven. One feels as if when God made heaven and earth, He split a little bit of heaven and it landed on a spot on earth we call Sheldon.

"Sheldon was inspired by God and built by God's children, and by the hands of God's children it was destroyed. But although the timbers are gone and the bricks somewhat dislodged, and the sears of wars and vandalism are there, the hallowed love of God yet prevails, and will continue on and on."

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