Spiritual Shelter – Church of the Cross Offers Insight Into Antebellum Bluffton

By Jay fraser4 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Church of the Cross, an Episcopal church located on a bluff overlooking the scenic May River, has served as the heart and soul of Bluffton for many area residents.

Constructed of virgin heart pine (not cypress, as many believe), the church has a unique rustic exterior that complements its distinctive Gothic architecture. The church originally wore a coat of white paint but, today, it stands unpainted, as a testament to its early years as a center of Bluffton’s spiritual community.

“The church exemplifies the Bluffton that was, prior to 1863,” said Thomas Heyward of Bluffton, whose great-grandfather Rev. Dr. James Stoney served as the congregation’s first priest. “After the burning of Bluffton in June of 1863, there wasn’t much left but the church. It has withstood not only the weathering of the years, but also the extreme poverty of the area, brought on by the Civil War.”

In recent years, the Church of the Cross has seen a rebirth, as Bluffton has become increasingly attractive to area residents. “The church has come alive,” Heyward reported. “It’s an exciting place to be.” In fact, attendance at the church has quadrupled in the past five years, as many Lowcountry residents discover the quaint charm of this historic church.

The congregation at The Church of the Cross traces its roots to St. Luke’s Parish, which built a church near Pritchardville in 1767. Episcopal services first took place along the banks of the May River in the late 1830s, when Bluffton served as a popular summer resort for people who lived in nearby cities and on local rice plantations. They came to Bluffton in the summer to avoid the dangers of yellow fever and malaria, seeking shelter in the charming community of Bluffton.

In 1857, the present cruciform, (cross-shaped) Gothic building was constructed according to an original design by architect E. B. White. Fanned arches, rose-colored windows and lattice shutters give the church a unique Lowcountry look.

The interior, which features exposed pine timbers, also has a rustic feel and was originally designed to hold 500 people.

By Bill Fitzpatrick [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

General Sherman’s army spared The Church of the Cross during its legendary March to the Sea in 1863, but it burned much of the surrounding Bluffton community. A major hurricane nearly destroyed the church in 1898, damaging the roof and much of the building.

In recent years, devoted parishioners have meticulously restored the original rose-colored windows, renovated the stairs that lead to the balcony and installed a central heating and air conditioning system. They have also remodeled the parish house, built a new rectory and expanded community outreach programs.

Walking through the pine doors at The Church of the Cross and into the church’s hallowed halls is like stepping into another era. Many of the parishioners recall the years when bees and squirrels nested in the walls of the building. When a beekeeper finally evicted the bees, industrious women of the church sold “Holy Honey” from the sacred hives, contributing the proceeds to the restoration and renovation of the church.

The Church of the Cross has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975, and continues to be one of the most architecturally unique places of worship in the United States. The Church of the Cross offers Saturday and Sunday worship services, as well as special programs throughout the year.

As Bluffton has experienced prosperity in recent years, so too has The Church of the Cross. “It has suffered major hurricanes and come through still standing,” said Heyward. “Now it is enjoying the prosperity of the area as Bluffton becomes attractive for so many people.

The Church of the Cross, 110 Calhoun Street, Bluffton, SC | 843-757-2661| thechurchofthecross.net