MCCLELLANVILLE — Surrounded by pine trees and empty fields off a dirt road, a historic brick church and its rural surroundings look a lot like it did centuries ago.
On Sunday, the scene at the St. James-Santee Episcopal Parish church will mirror its Colonial-era roots even more when worshippers pack the boxed-in cypress pews for a Colonial-style service to celebrate the church’s roots.
Also known as the Brick Church at Wambaw, named after a nearby creek, the structure will host a Thanksgiving Harvest service on Sunday to celebrate its 250th anniversary. A traditional Episcopal worship service will honor those who laid the foundation of the parish along with modern-day parishioners who've helped preserve the site.
“This is where we celebrate our beginnings,” said Bud Hill, director of the Village Museum whose ancestors attended the church.
Built in 1768, when South Carolina was still a British Colony, the brick church's congregation consisted of several French Huguenot families that operated successful rice plantations along the nearby Santee River.
The edifice was placed on King’s Highway (present-day Old Georgetown Road), which connected Charleston to Boston in the Colonial era and was used by President George Washington during his tour of the South.
But navigating the dirt road's muddy potholes became an obstacle, so the St. James-Santee Episcopal Chapel of Ease was constructed farther inland in McClellanville by 1890.
This caused worship to dwindle at the brick church and the structure wasn't well-maintained. Over the 20th century, the church’s roof became worn, timbers under the floors rotted and pews needed to be repaired.
“It was kind of ratty looking,” Hill said of the church during the early 1900s.
This sparked the formation of the St. James-Santee Brick church restoration and Preservation Committee in 1992. The group, which includes members of the nearby Chapel of Ease and other concerned residents, secured funding to care for the structure.
A brick and wooden enclosure was recently completed to surround the site, and the building's leaking roof was replaced by a copper covering two years ago. Vandalism also had been an issue, so a house was built where Hill now lives and watches for perpetrators.
To ensure that the church and its the surrounding property maintain their historic character, both the church and present-day Old Georgetown Highway have been placed on the National Registry.
Today, the Brick Church is only used twice a year for worship: the Sunday after Easter and the Sunday before Thanksgiving. The doors are unlocked and it's open for guests to visit. Hill said the open-door policy is used so people won't break down the doors to come in.
It is similar to several other historic Episcopal structures throughout the tri-county region. While the edifices are seldom used for worship, they are cared for by committed vestry members.
“If we did not have the committee that we have today, it would probably look run-down,” Hill said.
Meanwhile, the Chapel of Ease in McClellanville is active. The church brings in about 40 parishioners each Sunday and participates in a community Bible study on Wednesdays.
It also has a children’s art ministry, supports the local senior center, funds overseas mission efforts and hosts weekly coffee gatherings in its parish hall.
The Rev. Caroline Goodkind, interim vicar of St. James-Santee Episcopal Church, said it’s important for the congregation to reconnect with its past. On Sunday, she said the church will recognize the “value of the saints that went before us.”
“It’s just part of who we are,” she said.