October 13, 2016

The White Church in Berkeley County, South Carolina

  • More: Sacred Places
  • By: Bill Fitzpatrick
  • Photography: Bill Fitzpatrick
St. Thomas & St. Denis Parish Church Exterior

photo by: Bill Fitzpatrick

The church is also known by its original name, St. Thomas & St. Denis Parish Church.

How did the educated, urbane, and internationally famous Harry F. Guggenheim, who spent most of his life in the Northeast, come to preserve a historic church in the sandy backwoods of South Carolina’s Lowcountry?

To find out, one hot afternoon I took a last gulp of sweet tea, kissed the cool comforts of a downtown Charleston restaurant goodbye, and cranked my car for the one-hour drive to Berkeley County’s White Church, also known as St. Thomas & St. Denis Parish Church. I parked in front of a metal gate just off Cainhoy Road, walked a few steps, and found myself on grounds once shared by Anglicans and French Huguenots at a site symbolic of the social tensions in the South after the Civil War.

Though few records detailing the church’s history exist, the first church on the property likely formed in 1706, when the Church of England became the official church of the colony. St. Thomas and St. Denis originally were two separate parishes, a distinction based primarily on the language disparity between the English and French colonists.

The current church was built in 1819 after the first building burned in a forest fire. Called the White Church due to the white-painted stucco coating its brick envelope, the building’s simplicity in form is typical of early parish churches of the Lowcountry. Compass-headed windows, arched doorways, and the hipped roof characterize the White Church and several others in the Charleston vicinity.

Racial tensions in post-Civil War South Carolina came to a head inside the church in October of 1876. In what became known as the Cainhoy Massacre, groups of white Democrats and black Republicans were involved in a riot that resulted in several deaths and numerous wounded. (News of the massacre even made its way into the New York Times.)

St. Thomas & St. Denis Parish Church Exterior

photo by: Bill Fitzpatrick

The interior of the church.

Since 1925, the church has remained inactive, with special services performed only once or twice a year. The religious history of the church and the violent event that occurred on its grounds, however, remain culturally significant to South Carolina. This was recognized in 1971, when the White Church was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, an event that might not have occurred without the generosity of Harry F. Guggenheim and his interest in rehabilitating the structure.

Guggenheim’s interest in the White Church and South Carolina is well beyond that of a distant figure who writes the check and captures the deduction. During the Great Depression, Guggenheim purchased upwards of 10,000 acres on the outskirts of Charleston, an area that would be known later as Daniel Island. He thought the land a good investment, but with an avid interest in horse racing, he also found the area a perfect base for his sport. He named his property Cainhoy Plantation, in reference to the original name of the area. One of his horses from Cainhoy Stables won the Kentucky Derby in 1953. Charleston residents saw Guggenheim so often they thought he was a local.

St. Thomas & St. Denis Parish Church Exterior

photo by: Bill Fitzpatrick

The church lands also include a cemetery where the earliest known grave dates to 1782.

In 1937, sponsored by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, Guggenheim provided the necessary funds to restore the church that was included in his land purchase. The rehabilitation included installing wire metal lath to support the roof, replastering the interior, and erecting a fence to keep animals away.

Though Guggenheim passed away in 1971, relatives continued to take care of the church. A couple decades later, the Harry F. Guggenheim Foundation sold portions of the 10,000 acres for a tidy profit; currently, it is being carefully developed as an extension of the greater Charleston area.

Now, thanks to the efforts of so many groups and patrons over the years, those who travel in the rural parts of Berkeley County have at least one good reason to slow down: to enjoy the sanctuary and beauty of the historic White Church.

By: Bill Fitzpatrick

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