Exterior Side View of the Church of the Holy Cross
May 4, 2016

Answered Prayers

The Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg, South Carolina

  • More: Sacred Places
  • By: Bill Fitzpatrick
  • Photography: Bill Fitzpatrick

Let’s say you move to South Carolina. You find a neighborhood you like and a home you can afford. The moving van has just left and there is a knock at the door. It’s from one of your neighbors. He or she welcomes you to the community and hands you a freshly baked casserole and a homemade dessert. “You will be looking for a church home,” he or she might say, “so if you are open to the idea, why, please, come worship with us tomorrow.”

The church is the center of life for many people in our religious state. To lose such an important anchor as a towering historic church would be a dreadful blow for a small community. Thanks to the faith of the people and a large gift from an anonymous donor, the Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg, South Carolina, still stands.

In 1783, Stateburg lost its bid to become the state’s capital by just a few votes. Despite the setback, the community remained prosperous, due in part to its productive cotton fields as well as the leadership of men like Thomas Sumter. He fought so hard during the American Revolution that he was called the “Fighting Gamecock,” a name now used by the University of South Carolina’s sports teams. Late in his life, Sumter donated the land to build the Church of the Holy Cross.

Stained Glass in the Church of the Holy Cross

The stained glass windows above the chancel, made in Bavaria after the designs of French architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, are modeled after the ones installed in the pope's summer residence.

When I was a young boy, I’d often wander into the woods and build forts made of dirt, branches, and leaves, not realizing that I was on to something: The Church of the Holy Cross, built in 1850 by one of South Carolina’s most celebrated antebellum architects, Edward Jones, was similarly constructed. The method of using dirt and other materials to build walls, pise’ de terre (“rammed earth”), is as old as human civilization.

First, wooden forms are built. Next, a wet mixture of dirt, lime, and pebbles is poured between the forms and packed. When the mixture hardens, the forms are removed and the process is repeated. In the case of the Church of the Holy Cross, the walls are three feet thick.

The inspiration for using this construction method, rare in America, came from Stateburg resident Dr. William Wallace Anderson. Decades before he chaired the building committee for the new church, he himself had used the method on his home and outbuildings at Borough Hall Plantation, a place directly across from the church. Believing that a larger church could be built for the same amount of money if this technique were used, he successfully argued his case before the congregation.

Even dirt construction can be expensive, so rents were increased in order to fund the new construction. One of the more intriguing men who paid his share was William Ellison, a former slave. Freed by his master in the early 1800s, Mr. Ellison in turn became one of the state’s largest slave owners in the pre-Civil War era.

Adjoining the church is a peaceful and well-maintained graveyard. The most famous person interred there is Joel R. Poinsett, an accomplished man who was a U.S. Congressman, Minister to Mexico, and a one-time Secretary of War. But never mind those resume stuffers; he is best remembered for bringing the poinsettia flower to our country. He died while visiting Dr. Anderson and Stateburg in 1851.

The Church of the Holy Cross has had its shares of challenges over the years, but none quite as dire as the one it faced in 2000. That year, it was discovered that termites had worked their way up the dirt columns, high into the support beams. The structure was condemned and closed. It would take over two million dollars to repair the damage, a large sum for any congregation, and a seemingly impossible amount for one located in a county with a median family income of $45,000.

It took time, but eventually their prayers were answered. In 2008, an anonymous donor contributed $1,000,000 dollars, an amount that energized the effort. Eighteen months later, the congregation moved back into its “new home."

Those who visit our interesting state often spend their time in historic Charleston, golf-crazy Myrtle Beach, or bustling Greenville, and all are excellent stops. But other less-known possibilities also await, few more interesting than the Church of the Holy Cross and historic Stateburg.

Bill Fitzpatrick is a South Carolina writer and photographer.

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