Prince Frederick's Episcopal Church, Georgetown County, SC
May 23, 2016

Prince Frederick's Chapel Ruins

  • By: Bill Fitzpatrick
  • Photography: Bill Fitzpatrick

On November 17, 1859, Reverend Joseph Hunter laid the cornerstone to a church he believed would serve the Plantersville community for many years. It didn’t. Many of the men and women who came to witness the event would be dead before the rural church held its first service.

Prince Frederick’s Chapel was built on the presumption that prosperity based on the production of rice and the exploitation of slaves would outlive Abraham Lincoln. After all, it had been the “way of life” for over a hundred years. But when the Civil War ended, so did the old society life of plantations and gracious living. The former slaves, now freed and owning the right to vote, vastly outnumbered the whites, particularly along South Carolina’s coast. In Biblical terms, the last had become first and the first had become last. It was a difficult time for all the citizens of Georgetown County.

Several years ago, when I first visited the chapel ruins, the only information I had on hand came from the team at South Carolina Archives and History. Begun in 1859 and completed in 1876, Prince Frederick’s Chapel played a vital role in the religious life of the Pee Dee settlers in the latter half of the 19th century. With the decline of the rice economy, parishioners migrated to the more densely populated urban areas and the church suffered from lack of maintenance. The ruins of the chapel are all that remains of what once was a striking example of Gothic Revival architecture in South Carolina.

I returned to photograph the ruins on several occasions. Each visit pushed my interest in this otherwise godforsaken place. Very few photos of the original church exist; it is as if its past had been swallowed by a whale and never spit out. Finally, I came across a copy of the register book for the parish that was written and compiled in 1916. In the forward, Elizabeth W. Allston Pringle writes: “This writer first became interested in the publication of these records when it became necessary to repair the brick church, which had been damaged by storms and was not thought safe, so that service had not been held there for a great many years.”

How many years is a “great many?” Twenty? Thirty? If the latter is true, simple math tells us that the church that was completed in 1876 was thought to be “not safe” in 1886. With the decline and eventually collapse of rice production and the subsequent flight of white people to places with more promising opportunities, the church was eventually abandoned. In 1966, believing the structure a severe safety hazard, three of the four walls were intentionally knocked down.

Long-time Georgetown County resident A.H. “Doc” Lachicotte was there on the day the walls came tumbling down.

"Sure it was sad," he says. "Even though the church had not been used since the 1940s, it was still a part of our area’s history. That’s why we decided to preserve as much as we could, in this case, the tower and front wall. Folks say it is still beautiful, and I suppose it is."

Earlier this year, I returned to photograph the stark ruins. With some imagination, I can see why the folks at South Carolina History and Archives describe the remaining bricks and mortar as a striking example of Gothic Revival architecture in South Carolina. It takes less imagination for me to see the historic landmark in another light.

On a long ago fall day that was mere weeks before our state’s secession from the Union, a group of people assumed that the old way of life would go on well into the future. It didn’t. Now all that remains of that day and those beliefs is the cornerstone, a single wall, and a crumbling tower. I take my photographs and leave.

Bill Fitzpatrick is a South Carolina writer and photographer.

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