Old Sheldon Church deserves our respect
What’s left of one of the nation’s oldest churches of its architectural form is now behind a fence and a gate shut with lock and key after recent shenanigans.
The Old Sheldon Church ruins, just outside Yemassee in northern Beaufort County, is one of South Carolina’s most photographed sites. Because of its remote location and previously unfettered access, the 18th-century brick structure has also been the target of repeated vandalism and damage from visitors.
A 5-foot black fence installed this weekend around the ruins has become the most visible sign caretakers are serious about curbing misbehavior at the site. A gate with a small lock still allows entry to those permitted.
A fence of some sort had long been planned on the property but was expedited after recent events, church caretaker Bill Sammons said. Someone had removed bricks from the site and was selling them online and a female model had posed topless while sitting in an archway of the church, he said.
“We said ‘OK, this has got to stop,’” Sammons said.
Sheldon Church is private property under the ownership and care of Parish Church of St. Helena in Beaufort. That the grounds are private property wasn’t always clear to the public before signs were installed to make it explicit.
“Old Sheldon is not a recreational area or playground,” a sign reads.
Visitors often run free through the site. Bridal parties and brides-to-be seek out the site for photo shoots without coordinating with the church and paying required fees.
Someone called the church upset Monday because they had a wedding planned at the site without having received permission, Sammons said. Only church members can be married at Old Sheldon.
Photo sessions will probably continue to be allowed for an undetermined fee, and will require someone to meet at the site to unlock the gate, Sammons said.
Some of the past damage has included people carving names into the soft, handmade bricks, left-behind chewing gum and broken headstones at the adjacent gravesites. In 2017, someone stole iron crosses marking three Confederate graves at the site.
“It’s not getting ready to fall down,” said Frances Ford, a historic preservation lecturer and conservationist with College of Charleston and Clemson University, by phone Monday. “But you’ve got to control the traffic. Tourists just don’t know how to behave. It is a sacred site.”
In 2016, Ford was among a group of Clemson University researchers, graduate students and Charleston preservationists who mapped the ruins using three-dimensional scanning, and assessed the condition of the bricks and mortar. Some of the plans at the time included removing vandalized bricks, flipping them around and returning them to the wall. Also suggested was a gate at the parking lot across the road to the ruins, limiting access to certain hours.
The process allowed preservationists to assess the condition of the site for a local volunteer committee and offer recommendations.
The preservationists’ work was regularly interrupted by visitors and pushy photographers who insisted the site was public, Ford said.
A fence around the property — but not immediately around the ruins themselves — was among the preservationists’ recommendations. Sammons said a fence could eventually include the larger property while still allowing public access, but that the fence around the ruins was a more urgent decision after the recent events.
Arrival of the fence — which is aluminum made to look like wrought iron — was a surprise to local photographers and caused a stir on social media.
“In the end I understand the logic behind it and I will get used to it,” photographer Phil Heim posted to his Facebook page, Beaufortpics.com. “It doesn’t add to its beauty however, I don’t think it totally ruins it either.”