One of the first churches built in South Carolina, St. James Parish Church near Goose Creek was completed in 1719. The parish was one of nine formed in South Carolina following the Church Act of 1706, which established the Church of England as the official state church. A wooden church was initially built for St. James but was soon replaced by this stucco-covered brick church. Construction began on the church in 1713, and it was completed in 1719. Slaves built the church for British planters who settled here from Barbados in order to establish a new colony.
Notable exterior features of the church include decorative mortar work. Above each arched window sits a stuccoed cherub’s head, and above the entrance are five flaming hearts. Within the triangular pediment over the double doors rests a stuccoed pelican piercing her breast in order to feed her brood (photo below). The bird is a symbol used by the Anglican church to represent the propagation of the Gospel; the church sent funds from London to support parishes in the new colony.
By 1844, the church and surrounding graveyard had fallen into near ruin. Jonathan Lucas was appointed by St. Michaels Church in Charleston to facilitate repair work. Lucas described the walls as being cracked and needing to be held together with the help of iron rods. The rods were put into place, walls replastered, roof reworked, everything painted, floors repaired and pew bottoms cut off due to rot. The pelican that graced the pediment above the main entrance had deteriorated. A new one was modeled and the original sits inside the church today.
Inside the church, the Royal coat of arms graces the area above the pulpit. During the American Revolution, British troops were ordered to burn Lowcountry homes and churches as they left, but legend says St. James was spared because of the church’s display of the coat of arms.
Centered on the upstairs balcony is a hatchment bearing the Izard family coat of arms (photo below). A hatchment is a large tablet, typically diamond-shaped, with a family’s coat of arms that was placed on a casket during a funeral procession. This is one of two surviving hatchments in the United States; the other is in Virginia.
On August 31, 1886, tragedy struck Charleston when the Earthquake of 1886 devastated the Lowcountry. The west and eastern gables of St. James Goose Creek Parish Church fell; walls cracked; memorial tablets and the coat of arms broke into pieces. The vestry raised funds for restoration work. The shingle roof was replaced with slate which was a gift from two Englishman residing in Charleston. It is believed that one of the gentlemen was Cowlan Gravely.
No history of the St. James Goose Creek Parish Church would be complete without mention of the Simmons family. The Simmonses have acted as sextons of the church since its beginning. This photo, appearing originally in the Charleston News and Courier (now The Post and Courier) on March 13, 1926, shows a young boy as the “Key Keeper of the Goose Creek Church.”
The Simmonses were an enslaved family who belonged to the planters who attended this church. For centuries the family has protected this sacred ground. The Simmonses have looked after the churchyard, greeted visitors, and held the keys to this ancient place of worship. The photo below shows Mr. Simmons, a descendant of the original slaves who tended St. James Goose Greek, greeting visitors to the church just as generations have before him.
Notable residents of South Carolina – such as members of General William Moultrie‘s family, Henry and Thomas Middleton of nearby Oaks Plantation, and noted historian Samuel Gaillard Stoney – are buried within the churchyard at St. James.
St. James Parish is listed in the National Register:
Built 1713-1719 by early planters from Barbados, St. James Goose Creek is one of the earliest Georgian churches in the English colonies. The building is not only early, but generally recognized as one of the real architectural beauties in a category of small eighteenth century parish churches. St. James’ Church is a small, compact, rectangular one-story structure with stucco covered brick walls, and a slate jerkinhead roof. The round arched windows of the church are protected by exterior wooden shutters and framed by plaster architraves adorned with cherub’s heads. The corners of the building are marked by large quoins, and a small stucco cornice adorns the eaves line. The vestry was incorporated in 1778, and it is said that the presence of the royal coat of arms over the pulpit saved the church from destruction in 1779-1780 when British troops moved through South Carolina during the American Revolution. Services were discontinued during the latter part of the war, and the Church of England was disestablished. The revival of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina took place gradually from 1795-1817.
Exterior Images of St. James Goose Creek
Interior Images of St. James Goose Creek