Some days, coming up with something to blog about can be a real challenge. It’s not that there’s nothing to say—there are too many things to talk about, and I have to narrow the field! Sumter is full of events, full of activities, full of “characters,” full of natural beauty and so many other things…but mostly, it’s full of history.
With the season of Lent upon us, it seems like an appropriate time to take a look at one of Sumter County’s most beautiful and valuable historic buildings. The Church of the Holy Cross in Statesburg, SC has a long and storied history—there has been an Episcopal church on this property since 1785, when the land was given by General Sumter—and it is a national treasure. Yes, that’s right—a national treasure. In 1973, it was recognized by the United States Department of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark, one of only three in Sumter County (the others are the Borough House and Milford Plantation).
What is a National Historic Landmark? According to their website at www.nps.gov:
“National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States. Today, fewer than 2,500 historic places bear this national distinction. Working with citizens throughout the nation, the National Historic Landmarks Program draws upon the expertise of National Park Service staff who work to nominate new landmarks and provide assistance to existing landmarks.”
The Church of the Holy Cross would be a notable building in any area, with its exquisite Victorian High Gothic Revival style, Bavarian stained-glass windows and the 1851 Erber pipe organ which is one of a very few remaining in the United States. Built in 1850-52 by the ancient pisé-de-terre (rammed earth) method of construction (yes, the building is made of clay), the two-foot-thick walls stood tall through earthquakes, hurricanes and whatever else Mother Nature could throw at them, including a storm that knocked off the steeple in 1903. This was a church built for the ages.
And yet, we came so close to losing it. In 2001, the building’s interior was discovered to have been virtually hollowed out by termites that had apparently been happily eating away since 1974, when part of the transept collapsed and was improperly repaired. For a while, it appeared that there was little hope of saving the building, due to the prohibitive cost of repairs. It was gutted, the gorgeous windows put in storage, the priceless organ temporarily loaned to another church, and the congregation assembled in the adjacent Dargan Chapel. Many fundraisers were held and money was secured from a “Save America’s Treasures” grant, but the church was facing a multi-million dollar bill. However, several years ago an anonymous donor stepped forward with the needed funds and in 2010, the Church of the Holy Cross celebrated with a triumphant Valentine’s Day re-dedication ceremony.
In addition to the building itself, the church grounds are steeped in history. Nestled among the tranquil surroundings of the High Hills and draped in Spanish moss are the final resting places of Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers, community founders and others, including WWII Major General George Lafayette Mabry, Jr. The most notable grave is that of Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US Ambassador to Mexico, who brought back to the States the poinsettia, one of our enduring symbols of the Christmas holidays. Although Poinsett never lived in Sumter—he was taken ill while visiting friends across the street at the Borough House—he has become identified with our community through his lasting contributions. Each year, the church honors him by decorating his grave with the flowers that bear his name.
As more of our citizens become increasingly preservation-minded, the Church of the Holy Cross stands as a noble testament to the power of time and dedication.
The Church of the Holy Cross stands on SC Highway 261 (335 N. King’s Highway), about two miles past Shaw Air Force Base. For more info on this amazing structure and the people who call it their spiritual home, please visit the church website at www.holycrossstateburg.com.
And as for the continuing “Is it Stateburg or Statesburg?” controversy…well, we will save that topic for another day!
All photos except that of General Mabry’s tombstone are from the website of the Church of the Holy Cross.