On a two-lane road on Saint Helena Island in South Carolina, we came across the ruins of a historic church that looked like it could be the setting for one of Edgar Allen Poe’s macabre stories. A bit of research revealed that the old church has an interesting history.
The St. Helena Parish Chapel of Ease was built about 1740 to serve as a secondary place of worship for the plantation owners who lived too far away from the parish church in Beaufort to attend services there.
The church was made of a material called tabby, a form of concrete made from lime, sand, and oyster shells, which were found in abundance on the island. When it solidifies, tabby is very strong and will last for centuries. Locals called it the White Church because the combination of oyster shells and lime made it appear to glow in the right light.
Spanish explorer Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón was the first European to explore St. Helena Island, around 1520. Port Royal became the trade center of the area, and at one time was the capital of the entire Spanish colony of Florida. Over the years the 64 square mile island was ruled by Spain, France, and England as the different empires struggled for control of the New World. The island was the perfect setting to grow rice, indigo, cotton, and spices, and soon plantations were built. The workforce of these plantations was slaves brought from Africa, as well as local Indians and indentured servants from Europe. This mix of cultures, isolated from the mainland, produced what became the Gullah culture.
As the island’s population grew, the little chapel was designated a parish church. Life on Saint Helena Island changed dramatically when the Civil War began. The Battle of Port Royal in November, 1861 brought the area under Union control and most of the plantation owners fled.
The newly freed slaves did not have the education or skills needed to survive in their new situation and one of the first orders of business was to establish schools to help them progress. For a time the White Church was used as a place of worship by Union troops, as well as a school for the former slaves. Later the nearby Penn School was established and the heads of households were given grants of land, which allowed the freedmen to flourish with their new independence.
In 1886, a forest fire burned the old church and it was abandoned and never repaired. Today the walls still stand, a tribute to the old tabby construction and the craftsmen who built it. Wandering the grounds is a somewhat eerie experience. The live oak trees with their heavy curtains of Spanish moss that shelter the grounds seem to give it a gloomy feeling even on a bright sunny day.
In the small cemetery next to the church the remains of the Egyptian Revival-style mausoleum of Edgar and Eliza Fripp still stands. Fripp, who owned the Seaside Plantation, was a wealthy member of the community and active in the Saint Helena Agricultural Society and the Southern Rights Association of Saint Helena Parish. Built in 1852, Fripp wanted the grand mausoleum to be a testament to his social standing and financial status.
When Union soldiers occupied the island they heard rumors that when Fripp died in 1860 he had a large sum of gold and jewels interred in the mausoleum with him, apparently believing that you can take it with you. The mausoleum was broken into, but no secret treasure was discovered.
It’s no surprise that a place like this will have at least one ghost story associated with it. One such tale says that after the door of the Fripp mausoleum was torn off by treasure seekers, the Union commander of the area ordered the entrance to be sealed with bricks. The story goes on to say that once a skilled mason finished the job, somebody returned the next day to find the vault open again and the bricks neatly stacked inside the church. Even today the opening is still only half sealed by bricks.
There have also been many reports of people hearing whispered prayers and singing coming from the inside of the old chapel, but when anyone is brave enough to investigate further and look inside, the ruins are empty. Yet another ghost story about the old chapel claims that the figure of a woman shrouded in white has been seen walking among the tombstones with a baby in her arms. Are any of them true? Who can say? As one story I read about the old church says, with such a mixed heritage and bloodline over five centuries of history, it’s surprising that the ghosts don’t outnumber the living in the thick air of the South Carolina sea islands.
The ruins of the old church can be found on State Route S 7-45, just southeast of its junction with State Route 7-37, on the road to the equally gloomy ruins of Fort Fremont a couple of miles away. There is room to park a passenger size vehicle at the ruins, but a large RV would find it difficult.
Today is your last chance to enter our Free Drawing for an audiobook of The Ghost of Halloween Past, Book 5 in my pal Bobbi Holmes’ excellent Haunting Danielle mystery series about a bed and breakfast on the Oregon coast that is haunted by the ghost of a former owner. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening. Note: Due to the high shipping cost of printed books and Amazon restrictions on e-books to foreign countries, only entries with US addresses and e-mail addresses are allowed.
Thought For The Day – War does not determine who is right, only who is left.