St. Philip's Church

St. Philip's Church is part of the Diocese of South Carolina, which left The Episcopal Church in 2012. (File)

When Alfred Pinckney strolls the ancient graveyard at St. Philip’s Church, as he likes to do, he steps over earthen paths traveled by his ancestors who have worshipped here since the 1760s.

Beneath the church’s towering spire and a cluster of massive live oaks, elegant grave markers bear their names. Pinckney clutches to his chest memories of their lives and deaths contained in a family history book.

“All these gravestones, they have a story,” he says, gesturing to an expanse along Church Street where at least 20 of his family members are buried alongside names like John C. Calhoun. The name of another Alfred Pinckney, one of several namesakes, is engraved into a marble dedication near the sanctuary, a forever thanks to young Confederate soldiers from St. Philip’s who died in the War Between the States.

Pinckney’s grandchildren mark the sixth generation in his family to worship here. But he wonders for how long, given two-thirds of the Diocese of South Carolina’s parishes, including this one, left the national Episcopal Church in 2012.

Today, they are embroiled in a lawsuit over more than $500 million in church properties, including some of the areas oldest Colonial congregations: St. Philip’s Church, St. Michael’s Church, Old St. Andrew’s Parish and Christ Church, all signatories of the diocese’s founding constitution in 1786.

A circuit judge decided on Feb. 3 in favor of parishes that left, but now the case moves on toward an appeal.

As it winds through the courts, its files swelling with thousands of documents and arguments, on the sidelines sit families from both sides of the theological divide whose histories are steeped in these Colonial churches. From the pews now at stake, their ancestors have worshipped, baptized children, buried loved ones and prayed to survive the city’s wars, plagues and storms for centuries.

The idea of fighting over the church properties confounds many because their value is too enormous. At 75, a past St. Philip’s senior warden and diocesan trustee, Pinckney wonders what will happen as the case moves forward.

“These churches are so intertwined with families,” Pinckney says. “It’s a bad situation.”

The throngs of camera-wielding tourists passing any of those churches today might not realize that all four grew up scrappy little houses of worship besieged by fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, wars, you name it only to rank among the most cherished Colonial congregations today.

In a Holy City so full of churches, its skyline pierced by steeples, St. Philip’s was the first Anglican church established south of Virginia.

In the early 1680s, its small wooden building was the first church built in Colonial Charles Towne. Back then, it didn’t sit on the picturesque spot on Church Street it calls home today. Instead, it was built at Broad and Meeting streets, at the so-called Four Corners of Law where St. Michael’s is located.

After the church was severely damaged by a hurricane in 1710, construction of its new building began a few blocks away on Church Street (only to be interrupted by another hurricane).

Originally built for Church of England families, several Colonial governors and Episcopal bishops have since been buried in its graveyard, not to mention John C. Calhoun, vice president of the U.S., and author Dubose Heyward.

The first services in its new building were held on Easter 1723 only to be followed by fires, hurricanes, smallpox, yellow fever, slave uprisings, attacks by Native Americans and threats of war from the Spanish, according to a church history.

Its steeple became a handy target for Union soldiers shelling the city. One shell exploded in the churchyard during a Sunday service.

Then the second St. Philip’s building burned down in 1835 only to be rebuilt.

And almost a century later, Bishop William Alexander Guerry was murdered in his office by a priest, who then took his own life.

But as time passed, as the city prospered after the Great Depression, so did St. Philip’s. Today, it ranks among Charleston’s most iconic houses of worship.

As St. Philip’s grew too large, the General Assembly of the Province authorized a second church be built.

Construction stretched over 10 years, from 1751 to 1761, once the damaged wooden remnants of the old St. Philip’s were torn down.

The new cornerstone was laid in 1752, and nine years later St. Michael’s held its first services. Except for adding a sacristy in 1883, the building has changed little over the years, according to a church history.

Its steeple, soaring 186 feet high, housed what today is the oldest tower clock in North America with bells imported from England in 1764.

For 250 years, from Charleston’s poorest days to its wartime sagas to these prosperous tourist-laden years, those bells have announced the city’s routine life events, not to mention hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and two war-time bombardments.

Today, St. Michael’s also remains among the Holy City’s most iconic structures.

Also one of the Colony’s original 10 parishes, what’s commonly known today as Old St. Andrew’s Parish was born in 1706 to serve planters and their slaves west of the Ashley River.

After a rocky start with its first two rectors — one died, the other was chased out — the parish grew into one of the wealthiest, fueled by rice, indigo and slave labor. By 1720, planters in the area owned more land and slaves than any other in South Carolina.

In time, the Colonists grew divided. Two-thirds of Anglican clergy sided with those wanting freedom from the king. So when the Revolutionary War erupted, the British didn’t much like the Anglicans’ houses of worship, and the war left St. Andrew’s in near ruin.

“The ravages of war have left St. Andrew’s a desolation,” reported John Grimke Drayton, the parish’s longest-serving rector, according to a church history titled “Against All Odds,” written by Paul Porwoll.

Reconstruction forces set up camp at the church, and worship was no more. Its doors and windows were left open, its pews vacant, its future bleak.

In 1891, Drayton died. Old St. Andrew’s nearly died, too. For 57 years, the church sat dormant.

Then, a small band of faithful saved it, reopening on Easter 1948.

Most recently, it underwent a restoration in 2004 and 2005, and is the suburban worship hub that locals know today.

Another suburban church, Christ Church, was born in 1706 when the Church of England was the Colony’s official church.

Back then, the parish was described simply as “South-east of the Wandoe river,” according to a history written by a late parishioner, Anne King Gregorie. She descended from one of its key families, the Porchers.

Most of its first vestry probably were “hardy adventurers who had crossed the ocean to make new homes in America,” she wrote.

Back then, Mount Pleasant wasn’t so pleasant. The residents labored in a mostly agricultural area of slave-owning plantations.

In 1725, the church building burned accidentally. So the church rebuilt.

Then in 1781, British troops occupied the new space. They burned down the church and the vestry house.

The church was destroyed, many of its faithful dead, and the area was left impoverished. The blackened ruins remained on the roadside, “reminding all who passed of the hatefulness of war,” Gregorie wrote.

The church and vestry house eventually were rebuilt.

But then came the Civil War when a company of Union Cavalry used the church as a stable. They burned the windows, doors, pews and pulpit in campfires. Once again, the shell of the walls was all that remained.

Yet again, Christ Church rose and rebuilt.

Mount Pleasant also began to look more like Mount Pleasant. And Christ Church took its place among the area’s most historic hubs of worship.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.