Church of the Holy Cross
The Church of the Holy Cross, Stateburg, South Carolina
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 is one of your neighbors. They welcome you to the community as they hand you a just-baked casserole and a homemade dessert. “You will be looking for a church home,” they 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. For a small community to lose such an important anchor as a towering historic church would be a dreadful blow. 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 and by just a few votes, Stateburg lost its bid to become our state’s capital. Despite the setback, the community remained prosperous, due in part to its productive cotton fields, due also to 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 sports teams of the University of South Carolina. Late in his life, Sumter donated the land to build the Church of the Holy Cross.
When I was a young boy, I’d often wander into the woods and build forts made of dirt, branches and leaves, not realizing 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. Then 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 rare-to-America construction method 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 more church could be built for the same amount of money if this technique was used, he successfully argued his case before the congregation.
Even dirt construction can be expensive, so in order to fund the new construction pew rents were increased. One of the more intriguing men who paid his share was a former-slave, William Ellison. Freed by his owner in the early 1800’s, Mr. Ellison in turn became one of our state’s largest slave owners in the pre-Civil War era, and very rich.
Adjoining the church is a peaceful and well-maintained graveyard. Its most famous resident is Joel R. Poinsett, an accomplished man who was a U.S. Congressman, Minister to Mexico, and our nation’s 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.
Mary Chesnut, whose Civil War musings would win her a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982, spent her early years in the Stateburg area.
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. It was then they discovered that termites had worked their way up the dirt columns and 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 $45K.
A decade or so ago, I was an elder in a local Presbyterian church. After spending much time arguing over a difficult matter, one member of the Session offered that as a last resort, maybe we should pray! What? Oh, yes, good idea! So it was with the members of the Church of the Holy Cross. It took time, but eventually their prayers were answered.
In 2008, an anonymous donor contributed $1M dollars, an amount that energized the effort. Eighteen months later the congregation moved back into their “new home."