A new coffee-table book featuring a wide variety of South Carolina's most picturesque and historic rural churches aims to do more than document their architectural beauty.

It aims to help save them.

"South Carolina's Sacred Spaces," a book created by writer and photographer Bill Fitzpatrick, is being published later this year in partnership with Preservation South Carolina, a statewide nonprofit.

Fitzpatrick essentially donated his labor, documenting about 600 Colonial church ruins, proud survivors and more humble praise houses that reflect the wide variety of religious expression in the state.

The 264-page book is scheduled to be published later this year, and Preserve South Carolina is taking advance orders. The proceeds will create a new statewide fund that will help struggling congregations with maintenance work.

But more importantly, said Mike Bedenbaugh, executive director of Preservation South Carolina, the book will educate more people about the richness of religious heritage on the state's back roads.

"The book has a mission of educating and communicating all the wonderful places out there with the intention of elevating their original purpose," he said. "There are many that have dedicated small groups of people keeping them alive. The book is about sharing their story and empowering them to attract not only donations but new energy for saving them."

'Can you help us?'

Fitzpatrick, who lives in Greenville, might seem like an unlikely chronicler of South Carolina's sacred spots.

A native of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., his family moved all around when he was young, and he first arrived in Columbia to attend the University of South Carolina. He has spent most of his professional life developing software that chain restaurants can use to set up their cash registers.

But before his business venture took off, he bicycled across the country and self-published a book about his adventure. He was pleased with its reception, and he did a series of books about his visits to South Carolina historic sites.

So when he sold his business in 2010 and agreed not to compete with its purchaser for four years, he had time on his hands — time that he ultimately spent on the state's back roads seeking out and photographing historic buildings and other spots.

"Out of that set, I loved the churches," he said. "They really resonated with me. The churches seemed to speak so much to South Carolina, the life, the culture, the center of its communities."

"You can almost tell the story of our state through them."

During his visits, Fitzpatrick met many of the small groups of people working to maintain these old churches.

"These members all have ancestors in accompanying graveyards that go back to settlement days. I found the same set of circumstances across the state," he said. "That became the story to me. Then I got to thinking, 'Maybe I could use this to give back.'"

Fitzpatrick self-published his own volume on churches and got positive feedback. In January, he met Bedenbaugh, who quickly raised the possibility of a collaborative effort.

Bedenbaugh said he has hoped for years that Preservation South Carolina could create a new statewide fund to help preserve sacred spaces, partly because of their importance to the state's sense of place and partly because he gets a call every few weeks from someone affiliated with a church asking him, "Can you help us?"

A clear need 

recent list of South Carolina's eight most endangered historic sites included Trinity Episcopal Church in Abbeville, cited as a prominent example of the struggles facing rural churches that have seen their congregations dwindle.

Trinity's 125-foot steeple is the tallest in town, but it could collapse because of rot in the wooden supports inside its brick walls. The steeple already has a lean, so the church has been closed until it can be stabilized.

"With estimates of $500,000 to restore the steeple before the sanctuary can be open again, along with an additional $1.5 million to stabilize the exterior coating with the removal of the Portland cement and replacement of lime-based stucco, the challenges are more than the congregation that now numbers less than 20 active members can sustain," the listing said.

Bedenbaugh said sales of 1,000 copies of the new book would generate about $60,000.

Not much, but he said Preservation South Carolina hopes to attract other contributors outside the book project. And while Trinity faces a large repair bill, less money could buy time for some more modest houses of worship.

"A few thousand dollars here and there can really help some at-risk places," he said. "It doesn't take much to install two pieces of tin roof to keep a corner of a church from rotting in."

In some cases, preserving a sanctuary can be almost akin to preserving a community. "When we talk about historic buildings, one way they resonate is because of the intention of those who put love and family and investment in them.

"That intention becomes more powerful when there's religious and spiritual form that goes with it," he said. "To see that lost is even more tragic."

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.