St. Helena’s Church in historic Beaufort is one of the oldest active churches in the country. The congregation dates back to 1712 when St. Helena’s colonial parish was established by the Church of England. The church was built in 1724 and has been modified and enlarged three times since its construction. The edifice received its current facade in 1824.
Among the historic artifacts within the church is a silver communion set donated to the congregation by Captain John Bull in 1734. Captain Bull had been a militia captain in the Yemmassee War of 1715; his wife was lost in the war. Another notable figure associated with the church is Thomas Heyward, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who served on the church vestry.
During the Civil War the church was used as a hospital by Union troops. Stories claim that marble gravestones from the churchyard were used as slabs for operations. Because so much of the church’s furnishings were destroyed while it was in use as a hosital, the only remaining fixture from the period before the Civil War is the marble baptismal font from 1784. Following the war, the present altar was given by soldiers from the U.S.S. New Hampshire, who were stationed in the Port Royal Sound.
The Parish Church is an active congregation with around 800 members. The church also manages the ruins at Chapel of Ease on St. Helena’s and Old Sheldon Church near Yemassee. St. Helena’s Church is a member of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.
St. Helena’s Church is listed in the National Register as part of the Beaufort Historic District:
Beaufort is significant for its role as a major center of South Carolina’s antebellum plantation culture, its contribution to the history of the Civil War, and for its role it played in African-American history both during and after the war. Architecturally, the district is significant both for the high-style architecture produced by its pre-war planters and for the folk architectural patterns of its post-war African-American community. The antebellum architecture, unlike that of Charleston and Savannah, is generally made up of free standing Federal, Early Classical Revival, and Greek Revival style houses on large lots that is more akin to the architecture of the Southern plantations of the period, plantations brought to town and adapted to the heat of the summer weather and dampness of lowlands, as well as to the aesthetics of their waterfront settings.
The town’s present appearance owes much to the events of the period between ca.1860 and ca. 1935. The buildings and structures constructed during this period display a variety of architectural forms and styles, including Italianate, Gothic Revival, Victorian, Queen Anne, and Neo-Classical, and reflect the development of the town in the last half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. In the 1870s, more modest houses were built on vacant lots in the older parts of town. One type was a five bay I-house, similar in form to many of the antebellum mansions, but reduced in size and of balloon construction using sawn lumber. The second type was a three-bay, gable fronted house, often with Italianate or Eastlake detail. Many antebellum homes were also updated during this period with commercially milled porch details, bay windows, and larger window glass. Colonial Revival made an impact on residential building after the hurricane of 1893, and the bungalow dominated new construction before and after World War I. Commercial construction also reflected increasing prosperity. The historic district includes 475 contributing resources and 350 noncontributing resources.
Reflections on St. Helena’s Episcopal Church
Sue Jarrett, a Beaufort resident who shared the photo below, adds additional insight into St. Helena’s:
“St. Helena Episcopal Church, now known as the Parish Church of St. Helena, was founded in 1712 by the Church of England and built in 1724. After the American Revolution it became part of the newly formed Protestant Episcopal Church. It was expanded and remodeled for many years, and now still looks like it did in 1842. In 1861 it was used as a hospital for black Northern troops.”