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Old St. John’s Meeting House — Walhalla, South Carolina

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Old St. John’s Meeting House

This historic building known as Old St. John’s Meeting House in Walhalla was built as St. John’s Episcopal Church in 1889. However, the congregation was actually formed in 1875, not long after Oconee County was founded in 1868. The building has undergone a few restorations and two moves since its nineteenth-century construction yet remains remarkably similar to its original form.

St John Episcopal Walhalla

Bill Segars of Hartsville, 2006 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

When the Episcopal congregation was in its early stages and had few members, the group was content to meet in various places such as the “Methodist Church at Walhalla,” according to minutes from August 6, 1886. However, by that year the congregation was steadily growing and ready for its own chapel. A lot was donated for the building of a church by D.H. Biemann and H.D. Biemann behind the original courthouse on Short Street.

Old St. Johns

Bill Segars of Hartsville, 2009 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

In 1888 bids were being accepted for the church’s construction, and the project was overseen by William Perry, head of St. John’s building committee. By September of 1889, the Carpenter Gothic church was completed by master builder John Kaufmann, who designed and built many structures in the area, including St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. St. John’s Episcopal Church was consecrated almost exactly a year after it was built.

St. John's Moving

Bill Segars of Hartsville, 2009 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

Despite the church’s new edifice and its growth during the late nineteenth century, membership at St. John’s Episcopal began to decline in the 1930s. By 1941 the church had closed its doors, and former parishioners were worshiping in nearby Seneca. However, in 1951 a deacon from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in neighboring Pendleton gathered some former members of St. John’s and led services in a nearby Presbyterian building before raising funds to restore the church, which had become dilapidated over the years.

St. John's Restored

Bill Segars of Hartsville, 2014 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

By 1952 the necessary repairs were made, and the church was reopened and led by a former deacon, Jack W. Cole, who by that time had become ordained as a priest. The Reverend Jack W. Cole was soon succeeded by the Reverend Phillip Clarke, but the church again failed to retain an active membership. In 1957 the church was deconsecrated and purchased by a local law firm, and in 1982 resident Jack Kelley bought the historic building, moved it to his property, and opened it to visitors. By 2005 the church was destined to move to Highlands, North Carolina, until local preservation groups interceded and lobbied to keep the structure in its town of origin.

St. John's Interior

Bill Segars of Hartsville, 2014 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

Ruth Kelley, widow of Jack Kelley, donated the building to the Town of Walhalla, and it was moved to its present location on Kaufmann Square on March 18, 2009. The relocation of the building and its recent rehabilitation were due to the efforts of the preservation groups Save Our Church and Walhalla Partners for Progress, who raised both interest in saving the historic building and the funds to do so. Today the former church is known as the Old St. John’s Meeting House and is available for weddings and events. It is the only surviving example of Carpenter Gothic architecture in Oconee County.

Thank you to Bill Segars for the above photo and much of the information.

Detailed History of the Old St. John’s Meeting House, Part I

Below is an article that was contributed to the South Carolina Picture Project by Bill Segars of Hartsville. It originally appeared in his local paper, The Darlington New & Press. It was published in November of 2015.

Sometimes the churches I feel the closest to possess a uniqueness or beauty in the building itself. Very often this closeness is derived from the local people who love their church or the individuals who are working diligently to save a particular building. Those are the groups that deserve the credit for saving a building for us to enjoy today. I see many groups of “History Savers” that may have never attended the church they are trying to save. They work tirelessly in the attempt to save it out of love and appreciation for it and what it stands for.

Few, if any, of the people who gave of their time and money to save St. John’s Episcopal Church in Walhalla ever attended a religious service there. It was deconsecrated in 1957 when its congregation disbanded. From that point in time is when St. John’s building and its rescuers began to shine.

The story can’t start in 1957; we must start our story at the time of St. John’s establishment, a story that includes a Darlington County native. In 1875 the Reverend Thomas F. Gadsden traveled from Anderson to Walhalla to meet with several families interested in forming an Episcopal Church in their home town. By 1887 a lot on Short Street was obtained for $600. Interest in erecting a building ensued very quickly due to a couple of very important individuals. Among the many Germans who settled in Walhalla was Master Builder John Kaufmann. He had proven himself as a qualified builder, having built many buildings in the new town of Walhalla. Kaufmann was chosen to construct the St. John’s building for the cost of $1,000. The building was completed, without pews, in time for its first service on September 12, 1889.

The first pastor to lead the new St. John’s 20 communicants was none other than Society Hill native, the Reverend John DeWitt McCollough. I can, and will someday, write an entire article on his accomplishments in religious Carpenter Gothic architecture in South Carolina. It’s an understatement to say that after designing some 20 Episcopal churches in South Carolina, McCollough was a Godsend to Walhalla and the perfect person to lead St. John’s with its building experience. McCollough and his family become a very important part of the growth of not just the church, but the entire town of Walhalla. After serving St. John’s for over 10 years, the Reverend McCollough died in Walhalla on January 26, 1902. He is buried at another of his churches, Episcopal Church of the Advent in Spartanburg.

Several pastors served St. John’s for the next 40 years. In the strong Lutheran German community of Walhalla, St. John’s Episcopal continually struggled with gaining membership. With a very small congregation in 1941, St. John’s was closed, and the members were encouraged to join with the Church of the Ascension in neighboring Seneca. Oddly enough, Ascension’s building was also a McCollough building. St. John’s not only closed its doors; its doors and windows were boarded up and the building was abandoned, at least for the next 10 years.

The Reverend Jack W. Cole, then deacon, assumed charge of St. Paul’s in Pendleton in 1951 and immediately assumed the challenge of reviving the congregation at St. John’s. Unfortunately, the last 10 years had not been kind to the abandoned St. John’s structure. The roof was leaking and the walls were sagging. Cole, along with six members, tackled the process of raising funds and repairing the building, a task that was completed for a September 28, 1952 re-opening service. However, an Episcopal church in Walhalla was just not meant to be; in 1957 it closed yet again, this time for good. After its deconsecrating service in 1957, the ownership of the building passed to the Ballenger Law Firm.

Again the little building sat unused for 25 years. Due to the fact that it had been repaired with a new roof in 1952, its stability survived this abandonment better that its first period of neglect. When Walhalla resident Jack Kelley got wind that the building could be for sale in 1982, he bought it and had it moved to his property at a personal cost of over $8,200. I did not know Mr. Kelley before he passed away, but he must have been related to my Kelley ancestors. He and I have the same love of heritage with a desire to save history. He had no real purpose for the building other than to have it accessible to the public. After the tall, steeply-pitched Gothic roof was removed and wheels placed under the structure, it was moved to its new location. Mr. Kelley completely restored the building and welcomed anyone to come visit.

As I did research on churches in South Carolina, the name of a St. John’s Episcopal Church in Walhalla kept surfacing, but in 2004 and 2005 I couldn’t find it. At that time I had not met anyone in Walhalla who knew anything about this congregation or what happened to its building. I’m one who can accept the fact that a building is gone, but don’t tell me you don’t know where it is. A building can’t be lost – it’s somewhere. I just hadn’t talked to the right person or looked in the right place yet. I needed to keep searching.

Late on the afternoon of September 23, 2006 I found it in Jack Kelley’s back yard on Pine Street, a little side street in Walhalla. The lighting was not very good for photography that afternoon, so I went back several times for a better picture of this little lost (at least to me) jewel. While I spent more time with St. John’s, I began to discover more people that knew about the building and its history. They were able to fill in some blanks for me, and I was able to supply them with information concerning the establishment of St. John’s.

One bit of troubling information that I was able to obtain was the fact that the building was being considered for yet another move. This time out of Walhalla, even out of South Carolina. Oh my goodness, what could be done? You’ll need to read next week’s Church of the Week article to learn more about St. John’s next life.

Detailed History of the Old St. John’s Meeting House, Part II

Below is an article that was contributed to the South Carolina Picture Project by Bill Segars of Hartsville. It originally appeared in his local paper, The Darlington New & Press. It was published in November of 2015.

Last week we learned about St. John’s early history, 1875 through 2006. By early in the year of 2006 conversation had begun between the Kelley family, the building owner, and a group in Highlands, North Carolina to relocate the building there. The Kelley family certainly had no responsibility to announce this to the townspeople of Walhalla. They didn’t need the building any longer, and the Highlands folks wanted it. So their negotiation was moving in that direction.

In the fall of 2006 – about the time that I found the church – a local group that sponsors an annual Christmas tour of homes and buildings were looking around town for potential buildings to feature on the upcoming tour. The group spied the little gray board-and-batten building sitting in the trees. The group, comprised primarily of ladies, thought this building would be nice to include on the tour. Jack Kelley’s son, Harry, was contacted with the request of including his building on the tour. It was during this conversation that the possible upcoming move was mentioned.

If I haven’t learned much in my life, I’ve learned not to cross a group of little ladies when they make their minds up to do something. Either help them or get out of their way, because they’re going to make things happen. Harry Kelley realized this, also, and became very helpful with the group’s interest. The editor of the local paper, The Keowee Courier, also noticed the ladies’ determination and jumped on the bandwagon by putting the word out that the little church may be moved to Highlands.

Concern over the potential loss was so widespread over the small town that arrangements were made very quickly for the Kelley family to donate the building to the Town of Walhalla. The main stipulation was that it would need to be moved – yes, taken apart and moved – again. The town was glad to accept the building, but due to funding, it was made real clear that the funds needed to move and renovate the building would need to be raised outside of the municipal budget. In other words, tax dollars would not be used to renovate the church.

Christmas of 2006, at the open house tour, is when I got to know the people involved in “Save Our Church”. This was, in the beginning, a loosely-formed group consisting of Anna Zelaya, Betsy Grewe, Duane Wilson, Tracy Towe, and Nancy James, led by Maxie Duke. They may have been loose in the beginning, but they never took “no” for an answer. They held quilt raffles, pancake suppers, and any type of fundraising technique one could dream up. Most importantly, they brought awareness to the community on the importance of saving this building. Very soon, the entire community realized this importance, and almost every civic club showed signs of willingness to help. With $35,000 in hand, the building was moved on March 18, 2009 to its new home in downtown Walhalla on Kaufmann Square.

With the building sitting on Kaufmann Square under a tarp, and no roof and no money to proceed, the leadership reigns were passed from the “Save Our Church” group to Walhalla Partners for Progress (WP2). This 501-3c organization was in a better position to raise the money needed to complete the project that had originally been a dream of a passionate group of ladies. As money was being raised, several “housekeeping” ADA code-compliance issues were dealt with, and the official name of St. John’s Episcopal Church was changed to Old St. John’s Meeting House. Guidelines were established for the use of the Meeting House as a public venue for the of residents of Walhalla.

As fundraising continued, enough money seemed to be in hand to begin putting the building back together. Trehel Corporation, a design/build construction company based in the Upstate, volunteered its services to assist in moving the project forward. In this day-in-time, completing a worthwhile project is not always as easy as having the desire and passion to do it. Plans need to be drawn, codes need to be met, and bids need to be received when public dollars are involved.

From a unity of a town standpoint, this restoration project was truly an amazing venture to watch. I was fortunate to be able to follow this project from the beginning, through the setbacks (which are too numerous to mention) to the dedication service on September 20, 2014. That’s 125 years and eight days after its first service was held in 1889. The willing spirit that the town showed by giving of its money and time to see this dream become a reality was truly refreshing. From the students at the Hamilton Career Center’s Carpentry Class that built the duplicated pews to the many who bought colored glass windows, pride in unity of one goal was always obvious.

The Old St. John’s Meeting House that now sits at 200 South Catherine Street, in downtown Walhalla, will serve as a testimony to the citizens of the late 1800s who sacrificed to build the original building. Not only that group, but the citizens of 2014 can be remembered for the next 125 years for the sacrifices they made to maintain the history of the building for following generations. I realize that Walhalla is a long way from Darlington, but if you are ever near Walhalla, the inspiration that you’ll feel while visiting the Old St. John’s Meeting House will be well worth your trip. You may even feel like bringing that inspiration home with you – we have some old abandoned buildings also.

Reflections on the Old St. John’s Meeting House

Frequent SCIWAY contributor Bill Segars shares with us, “There is a lot to love about this building. I’ve been following it since September of 2006. The main thing that I have grown to love is the determination of a small group of people.”

Add your own reflections here.

Old St. John’s Meeting House Info

Address: 200 South Catherine Street, Walhalla, SC 29691
GPS Coordinates: 34.763274,-83.064815

Old St. John’s Meeting House Map

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One Comment about Old St. John’s Meeting House

Tillie Mattox says:
November 5th, 2018 at 11:45 am

I have just learned from your website what a beautiful historical project the ladies started with an idea and completed to a reality. My great great niece has just been married there and it is truly an outstanding asset to your town.

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