St. Paul’s Church in Summerville is the town’s second oldest congregation, formed in 1717 as St. George’s Parish Church in the now-extinct Dorchester settlement. St. George’s Church was created 21 years after a group of Congregationalists from Dorchester, Massachusetts, arrived in 1696 and established a village on the upper Ashley River. These Congregationalists called their new town Dorchester for the New England home they left behind, and their descendants eventually would form Summerville Presbyterian Church, the town’s oldest congregation.
In 1706 South Carolina adopted the Church Act, declaring the Church of England the official church of the colony. South Carolina then was divided into parishes, which were required to maintain an Anglican church and priest at the parish’s expense. At this time, Dorchester was a part of St. Andrew’s Parish, which extended to Charleston. In 1717 the parish divided, and a new parish called St. George’s was created and included Dorchester. St George’s Parish Church then was built on lot 99 in the settlement, completed in 1720.
Though some Congregationalists willingly joined St. George’s Church, most continued worshiping in their nearby meeting house. The Anglicans referred to these settlers as “dissenters.” The first priest at St. George’s, the Reverend Peter Tustian, came to Dorchester in 1720 but stayed only six months. His successor, the Reverend Francis Varnod, arrived in 1723 and was determined to prevent an increase of dissenters in the village. His plans to recruit and retain Anglicans included sponsoring a school within the parish and expanding the church building. The church was enlarged – essentially, rebuilt – in 1733, and its stately bell tower, still standing within the Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site, was added in 1751.
Though the Dorchester Free School Board was established in 1734, the school took longer to build; but by 1761 the Dorchester Free School – which still exists as a scholarship organization and is comprised of descendants of the original Dorchester Free School Board – was operating in the village. Reverend Varnod’s efforts paid off, as Anglicans remained in the settlement and prospered after most Congregationalists had left for a more promising future along the Midway River in Georgia.
When the Revolutionary War came to Dorchester, the British took over the small village and burned many of its buildings, including St. George’s Church. By 1788 the village was nearly abandoned for a new village nearby.
This new establishment in the neighboring pines offered good drainage and thus provided refuge from the bogs of the Ashley River, a prevalent breeding ground for mosquitoes. Some people migrated to this new village permanently while other planters who had property lower on the river spent their summers here.
The new town was called Summerville for the latter group. Despite the advent of the new town, the parishioners of St. George’s Church and other local Episcopalians – what former Anglicans called themselves after the war – did repair the building in devastated Dorchester in 1811, and many continued worshiping there.
Meanwhile, a parish that abutted both St. Andrew’s and St. George’s – St. Paul’s Parish – was conducting worship services in its second building. The first parish church, built in 1708 on the Stono River in Rantowles, suffered extensive damage during the Yemassee War in 1715. It was replaced by another one eight miles away in 1736. In 1829 the Reverend Philip Gadsden of St. Paul’s Stono Church, as it was called, began holding services in people’s homes in the new village of Summerville. These worshipers had been traveling more than twenty miles to St. Paul’s Stono. In 1830 the Summerville Episcopalians built a church of their own near the current site of St. Paul’s in Summerville, which served as a chapel of ease for members of St. Paul’s Stono. Previous members and descendants of St. George’s Church also began worshiping here.
In 1855 St. Paul’s in Summerville became incorporated and acquired the remains of St. George’s Church. The current building seen above was built in 1857, replacing the original. Following the Civil War in 1866, St. Paul’s Church became an independent church. St. George’s Church fell to ruins by 1870, though its bell tower remains. St. Paul’s Church, a member of the Diocese of South Carolina, left The Episcopal Church (TEC) in 2012.
Catherine Porter Tupper, a longtime resident of Summerville, shared the following with our Facebook group: “My father, Lockwood Tupper, used to spend a lot of time working in the churchyard. If we couldn’t find Dad, Mother would say, “Check the churchyard”. Widows would call and ask him to take care of their husbands’ graves. He would dig up azaleas and camellias in our yard and transplant them around the graves of friends and family at St. Paul’s. Then, he would load up a truckload of manure from our stables or The Farm and fertilize the plants. I have seen photos before and after Dad started planting bushes. There is quite a difference.”
St. Paul’s Church in Summerville is listed in the National Register as part of the Summerville Historic District:
Summerville originated as a pineland summer refuge for low country planters. Originally the streets were laid out without any plan and winding roads still characterize the oldest section of town. This “old town” lies in the southwestern portion of the historic district and contains about two thirds of the land and half the structures of the district. The South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company laid out the more regular “new town” in 1832. Streets run parallel and at right angles to the track laid in 1830-1831. The “old town” and that portion of the “new town” were incorporated into the village of Summerville in 1847. Following the Civil War, wealthy northerners began wintering there.
The town’s designation in 1887 as a health spot gave it an impetus as a resort, which was not lost until the Depression of the 1930s. There are approximately seven hundred structures within the nominated area; about 70% predate World War I. Uniting the different building styles of the town is a common sensitivity to the natural setting and to the local landscaping traditions reflected in streetscapes, parks and gardens. Raised cottages, Greek Revival influenced, and Victorian/Queen Anne and other turn of the century structures are found throughout. Antebellum buildings are principally located in the southern and western areas. Churches are located in the center of the district, and the commercial buildings—most dating from around 1900—are located on either side of the town square in front of the present town hall, which faces the railroad. Additionally, Summerville has been the center for azalea culture and there is a variety of azaleas popularly named “The Pride of Summerville.”