The Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg was born of a chapel of ease and rests on land given to the church by Revolutionary War hero General Thomas Sumter, a resident of the area also known as the High Hills of Santee.
In 1788 worshipers from the chapel of ease applied for and received their own charter, and the first Episcopal church on this site, the Church of Claremont, was constructed. Before this area became Sumter County, it was known as the Claremont District. The Church of Claremont was a simple, wood-frame building. By 1849, the congregation was ready to build a bigger, more beautiful sanctuary.
The chairman of the church’s building committee, a man by the name of Dr. Anderson, recommended a common European building material, pise’ de terre, or “rammed earth,” for the new building that would be christened the Church of the Holy Cross.
Dr. Anderson had built his residence of this material and insisted that it was extremely durable as well as affordable. The committee agreed, and construction began in 1850. The European-Gothic church was completed the following year and possesses such architectural details as the oak leaf frieze, as seen below.
Other points of interest in the Church of the Holy Cross are the original Henry Erben organ, installed in 1851 and one of the few remaining in the country, and the stained glass windows over the chancel, modeled after the ones in the Pope’s summer residence.
Joel Roberts Poinsett is one of several notable South Carolinians buried in the church’s graveyard. Before he died in 1851, he was a well-regarded statesman and botanist. The Christmas poinsettia is named for him because he introduced the flower to this country from Mexico. Every year on his birthday and on the date of his death, poinsettias are placed on his tomb at the Church of the Holy Cross.
In 2012 the Church of the Holy Cross disaffiliated with The Episcopal Church. The church is now aligned with the Anglican denomination and is affiliated with the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina.
The Church of the Holy Cross is listed in the National Register:
Built in 1850, Holy Cross is of Gothic Revival design and is constructed of yellow pise de terre (rammed earth). Walls constructed of pise de terre (minimum depth of 13 inches) are almost impervious to earthquakes. Edward C. Jones of Charleston, designer of Holy Cross, was one of the best known South Carolina architects of the antebellum era. The cruciform Holy Cross is considered one of Jones’s most unusual designs. It resembles an Old World Parish Church. The high-pitched roof is of red tile. The interior features Bohemian stained glass windows designed by Violett de Duc and a rare Henry Irwin organ.
Holy Cross is significant in that it, along with various other structures in Stateburg, comprises the largest complex of pise de terre buildings in the United States. Buried in the graveyard of Holy Cross is Joel R. Poinsett, a U.S. Congressman, Minister to Mexico, Secretary of War, and first president of the forerunner of the Smithsonian Institution, who is best remembered for bringing the poinsettia flower to this country from Mexico.
Detailed History of Church of the Holy Cross
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 on September 1, 2015.
Since I began writing these articles I have resisted writing about this church building. As a parent, when you are asked, “Which is your favorite child,” how do you answer? My churches are the same way; I don’t have a “favorite”. Of the 757 churches that I have visited, I do have several that I remember more vividly than others. All of my “old friends” are favorites, or I would not have taken the time to drive 38,000 miles in South Carolina to find them. Honestly, I do have many special ones, and Church of the Holy Cross certainly ranks among the top of that list.
There is so much that I can write about this building and its people, but I’ll try to confine this article to the building itself. The building is so impressive. With a little knowledge about it, it speaks for itself. It is in Sumter County, located at 335 North Kings Highway (SC Highway 261) in Stateburg. It’s about a 55 minute drive from Darlington, but I can assure you it is well worth the drive.
Stateburg has an interesting history. There is not much going on in Stateburg now, even though over 1,200 people list Stateburg as their “hometown”. In 1780 Stateburg was in the running for the state capital by virtue of its geographic location as the center of South Carolina. It lost out to Granby’s Ferry on the Congaree River near the confluence of the Broad and Saluda rivers. The capital stayed there for only nine years when it moved across the river to Columbia. Stateburg did become the county seat of Claremont County until that was dissolved in 1800. Notable people that have lived in Stateburg are General Thomas Sumter, General Richard H. Anderson and Mary Boykin Chestnut.
Claremont Episcopal Church, the forerunner of Holy Cross, was established as a Chapel Of Ease for the St. Mark’s Parish is 1788 and occupied a 1785 church building. St. Mark’s, the only Anglican Church in the area prior to 1780, was 17 miles away from the Stateburg area. The 1785 building served the congregation well until 1849 when the influential people of Stateburg desired a more suitable house of worship.
As the local people began planning their new church building they chose noted Charleston architect Edward C. Jones to design their building. After some discussion, Jones returned with a very impressive High Gothic style, cruciform designed building. For those of you who may not be familiar with the term cruciform, this is the shape of the building. It actually has a Latin Cross form. The best way to view this design is from above, on Google Earth. Many church buildings have a cross shape to them, but a true cruciform building, if properly orientated, has the foot of the cross on the western end of the building and the head of the cross on the eastern end. The alter inside the cruciform church building is always located in the head end, the sunrise end. As a result of this Latin Cross design, when the corner stone was laid for Claremont on September 11, 1850, the congregation changed its name to Church of the Holy Cross.
When you stand in the church yard, which I’m sure after reading this article you’ll be doing soon, you’ll be amazed with the grandeur of this stunning building. It’s 25′ X 100′ length with its 25′ X 56′ transept is far beyond what you would typically see as a Chapel of Ease. But until you fully understand how this building was built, you’ve missed out on a very important part of appreciating the building. It is constructed from dirt. That’s right, the exterior load bearing walls are built of clay, dirt. Mexican-American War General Richard H. Anderson, who lived next door at Borough House Plantation, was very familiar with the French building process known as pise de terre, or rammed earth. Through Anderson’s influence, Edward Jones elected to build his design using pise de terre, the only church in South Carolina employing this technique. The building process was very simple. Wooden forms were built and a wet mixture of dirt, lime and pebbles was pour between the forms and manually packed until the mixture hardened. The wooden forms were then removed and moved up and the process repeated until the desired wall height was achieved. Window holes were blocked out and the Bavarian stained glass was installed. The main walls of Holy Cross are three feet thick with stucco applied to the exterior and plaster on the interior.
Over Holy Cross’s 163 years they have experienced their share of problems, with the congregation and the building. Holy Cross presently has an active congregation, but they have experienced times of dormancy. The building has followed the same trend. The Earthquake of 1886 inflicted damage to the steeple, allowing water to get in. On February 16, 1903 a storm blew through and toppled the steeple, damaging the North wall and the roof. Repairs were made, but problems continued due to water infiltration. In 1950 the steeple was repaired yet again. Then in 2000 an almost fatal blow was dealt Holy Cross; termites were found in the building. Termites had tunneled their way up the dirt wall to the wooden roof structure and rendered the building structurally unsound. The building that had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 was officially condemned; no one could enter its massive Gothic oak doors.
The small congregation struggled with what to do next. They hardly had enough money to pay the original 1852 cost to construct Holy Cross, $11,358.74, much less the projected renovation cost. For eight years the congregation prayed about it and thought about it. As usual, God does provide. An anonymous donor contributed one million dollars as seed money to jump start the process. On February 14, 2010 the congregation moved back into their completely renovated edifice after 18 months of work and spending 2.3 million dollars. Miracles do happen, even in historical restoration.
You may have noticed that I have not mentioned the interior or the surrounding graveyard. You’re on your own with the interior. Words cannot describe the beauty, and pictures don’t do justice to what you’ll see when you go to a 10:00 Sunday morning service. Take a few minutes to look around the graveyard. You will see names that you may recognize, one in particular, Joel Poinsett. Remember, we talked about living history a few weeks ago. Here is another chance, don’t let it pass you by.