EASTER'S RISING Old St. Andrew's survives disease, fire, war and decay to rise again

Parishioners of Old St. Andrew's Parish Church gather outside after one of their three Sunday services.

Birth. Life. Death. Rebirth. So goes the biblical story of Christ, the essence of life as Christians view it and even the Holy City's own history.

It's also the story of a parish born into tribulation, a little country church that endured to prosper through seasons of indigo, rice and slavery only to face death after the Civil War. And then rise again.

Commonly known as Old St. Andrew's Parish, family names of Drayton, Middleton, Heyward, Pinckney and Rivers buttress its three centuries of stories.

The West Ashley church's first published history has arrived for Easter, just as azalea blooms paint its grounds, filled with 1,200 grave sites, and guests visit its renowned tea room.

The new book's author comes "from off," if off includes Atlanta. Paul Porwoll, a history and research buff, arrived eight years ago and fell in love with the oldest surviving church structure south of Virginia.

"The story of this church is a microcosm of the history of South Carolina," Porwoll writes in his newly released Against All Odds: History of Saint Andrew's Parish Church, Charleston, 1706-2013. (Royalties will support historic preservation of the church, where Porwoll sits on the vestry.)

The Rev. Marshall Huey, rector of Old St. Andrew's, applauds "the energy and enthusiasm that this book has generated within our congregation."

It tells the story of a parish born in 1706, one of the colony's original 10, to serve planters and their slaves in a day of wealth and promise for plantations along the Ashley River.

It wasn't an easy birth. St. Andrew's first rector died early and not terribly beloved.

Its second fared worse, at one point claiming a parishioner tried to poison his wine, then getting locked out - and ultimately kicked out - of his own church after much name-calling and bickering.

But colicky babies can grow into happy toddlers, and such was the case with the arrival of the church's third rector, the Rev. William Guy. In his day, deaths were more common than births and marriages. But at least he was loved by his people.

Fueled by rice and indigo, the young parish grew into one of the wealthiest.

By 1720, planters west of the Ashley owned more land and slaves than any other in South Carolina. About 2,500 slaves lived in the parish that year, Porwoll writes.

"The economy of St. Andrew's Parish, from its inception into the twentieth century, was fueled by white capital and black sweat," Porwoll writes.

However, Guy saw the value - be it to save souls or placate the enslaved - in ministering to the parish's most populous people.

With growing ranks, the rectangular church expanded into a cruciform, or cross shape, to accommodate the faithful. Despite fire, earthquake, hurricane and war, that shape still defines Old St. Andrew's church.

However, the people grew divided. Two-thirds of Anglican clergy sided with those wanting freedom from the crown. When the Revolutionary War erupted, the British didn't take kindly to the Anglicans' houses of worship.

St. Andrew's sat along the path of two British marches toward the peninsula. Twice they marched through the parish's soul, threatening the structure and destroying nearby plantations.

Luckily, the foreign troops didn't take much liking to the local wolves, bugs, snakes and alligators. And a logistical decision by one British captain spared the church from death by cannon fire.

Damaged and destitute, the tiny church survived a war.

But the future held another.

Three families owned nearly one-fifth of all of the parish's 2,546 slaves. The rector owned seven. Thomas Middleton owned the most at 243, Porwoll writes.

Then came John Grimké Drayton, the parish's highly revered and longest-serving rector.

Drayton, an Episcopal priest who inherited nearby Magnolia on the Ashley, also led efforts to teach and minister to slaves as the winds of secession gusted through the South.

"I have never seen clearer examples of undoubting faith - of holy love, and of a meek and consistent walk than among them," said Drayton, an aristocrat and world-class horticulturist.

Meanwhile, as St. Andrew's fell in need of restoration, along came Col. William Izard Bull to lead the work. His plan, still drawn onto the church's sanctuary wall, remained undiscovered for more than a century.

Then, war landed at the church's front door.

"Shadows have become substance-and threats and bitterness have marched out of Congress and off of Paper and embodied themselves in gathering armies and the bristling implements of war," Drayton wrote in 1861. Weeks later, Confederates on James Island fired on Fort Sumter.

The war left his house at Magnolia in charred ruins, along with much of plantation life, the parish and the very soul of Charles Towne.

"The entire social make up of South Carolina and the South was turned on its head," Porwoll says.

Few parishes suffered like St. Andrew's.

"The ravages of war have left St. Andrew's a desolation," Drayton reported in 1866.

Reconstruction forces set up camp at St. Andrew's church. Worship was no more. Its doors and windows were left open, its pews vacant, its future barren.

Freed black residents flocked to their own churches, ones filled with new hope - African Methodist Episcopal, North Methodist, AME Zion and others.

Many freedmen in St. Andrew's Parish, however, returned to Drayton's ministry. "That just didn't happen anywhere else," Porwoll says.

In 1891, after battling tuberculosis for decades, Drayton died at 74.

In many ways, St. Andrew's died with him.

Drayton wasn't replaced. For 57 years, the church sat dormant.

"St. Andrew's once sheltered within its now decaying walls the beauty and fashion of one of the richest parishes in South Carolina. Desolation reigns about it now," a magazine reporter wrote in 1901.

Time and vandals left its centuries-old vaults and tombstones broken, scattered like ashes over the grounds.

When a group inspected the church to reopen it in 1948, member Gene Taylor recalled, "A veritable forest surrounded the church, and plaster was hanging from every side, and remember, there were only a very, very few of us, none with fat bank accounts."

That small band saved Old St. Andrew's. With 67 worshippers, the church left for dead reopened on Easter 1948.

Shortly after, a simple act of hospitality gave birth to the area's beloved tea rooms.

Back then, the path toward West Ashley's plantations was long and without fast-food chains or restaurants. Church women prepared and offered lunch to passersby.

Their act of kindness became a major fundraiser called St. Andrew's Tea Room and Gift Shop, replicated by many local churches today.

Meanwhile, the congregation grew, and the old church was restored. It got electricity and, later, an organ. After surviving Hurricane Hugo, it underwent a final - or at least most recent - $1.2 million restoration in 2004 and 2005.

A year after the work was completed, Old St. Andrew's turned 300 years old as suburbia reached its doorstep.

This Easter, the church holds its service at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens as the sun rises through the Ashley River mist to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ - and the rebirth of a small country church once left for dead.

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