Stories Behind the Sanctuaries

South Carolina’s Sacred Spaces: Seventy Churches and Temples that Helped Shape the State’s History and Culture

by Bill Fitzpatrick
2019 Bellingham and Bern, 248 pages, $70
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Mulberry Methodist Church in Pacolet, South Carolina, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo: wikimedia.org/upstateherd

Yes, there were times I questioned my sanity, but those doubts would evaporate when I would find an offbeat landmark or better, an eager person with local knowledge,” Bill Fitzpatrick writes. “Tens of thousands of miles I have traveled, snapping photographs of empty textile mills, faded plantations, old general stores, and these achingly beautiful churches. The history of our state could nearly be told through the history of sacred spaces. … How can we save, not just the physical structures of our history, but the stories behind the sanctuaries, some of which may reside in an old shoebox of church notes, yellowed photographs, or an aged person’s memory?”

South Carolina’s Sacred Spaces explores his travels over the most part of a decade recording sacred places. Not content with creating outstanding photos of both high style and vernacular religious structures, he records stories and efforts of deacons and elders, congregants and caretakers, of the state’s often threatened sacred places.

The book documents that diversity while supporting the preservation of many of the structures through the organization called Preservation South Carolina. All of the proceeds from the book will go to fund often direly needed repairs of churches in South Carolina.

Not a dry survey, the photographs and oral histories offer an architectural response to needs and desires related to places drenched in significance for their respective communities, and people whose memories infuse these places with meaning today. With agonizing protective proclivities that have defied mortal resources, dedicated people have nevertheless kept them standing. Weddings, funerals, squabbles, and spiritual epiphanies lay there even in the silenced aisles and pews of endangered, half abandoned structures.

The Charleston Lowcountry showed tolerance of different religious groups and this accepting attitude prevailed in the state as it was settled. This was part of the incorporating laws partially written by John Locke and it enticed the immigration of people of diverse religious backgrounds.

Poignant stories emerge as Fitzpatrick describes historic churches through the lens of the community, like Bruce Littlejohn’s, talking about the Mulberry Methodist Church in Pacolet, South Carolina. “Even if you were a black slave you had a place to work and live,” he tells Fitzpatrick. “This church is very important both to my family and to the community. Helps remind us of the past. Why every year we have a ‘Littlejohn Reunion’ on these grounds.”

And what of William and Stephen Bairefoot? They greeted Bill Fitzpatrick after a Sunday service and told him that they were told to close the doors years ago as the attendees were dwindling. But they decided to maintain the church and grounds on their own. “This church used to be important!,” they said in unison.

In Inman, Clarence and Kay Gibbs curate the Shiloh Methodist Church, last used for services in 1915 but used as a community gathering place. It provided shelter for soldiers in both the Revolutionary and the Civil Wars. Paths on the three-acre site included a very old Yamasee Indian trail that once ran from Florida to Ohio.

Fitzpatrick paraphrases the late South Carolina writer Pat Conroy: “In My Reading Life Conroy notes that South Carolina is a state of contained, unshared intimacies, a place of crosscurrents, passwords and secret handshakes, but it rewards the curiosity of both natives and strangers alike.” I agree.

Ralph Muldrow is an architect and the Simons Professor of Architecture and Historic Preservation at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. His design and preservation work includes numerous churches.