Local vestry preserving piece of history

St. James Church in Goose Creek. Goose Creek Gazette

GOOSE CREEK — One of South Carolina's oldest churches isn't regularly used for worship, but it's religiously maintained by parishioners.

St. James Church, a one-story structure tucked between trees off Vestry Lane, was built by early English planters from Barbados in 1719.

It once was a vibrant place: The compact structure welcomed more parishioners than St. Michael's Church in Charleston before the American Revolution, according to Michael Heitzler, a former mayor of Goose Creek who wrote a book about the church.

The nearly 300-year-old structure has been maintained but not modernized: It lacks restrooms or air conditioning. Worship services here are held only once a year, traditionally the first Sunday after Easter. A guest preacher leads the service. Weather permitting, there's a picnic afterward.

Those in charge of the church are mainly focused on preserving the historic site where their ancestors prayed.

“The mission is the protection and maintenance of the ancient church and its ground," said Brad Waring, who serves as the warden of the church's vestry.

Keeping the structure intact has not been easy, with major challenges including the Revolutionary War and the massive earthquake in 1886. An equal danger arrived in the mid-20th century: a long period of neglect.

Through the 1960s and '70s, the building suffered extreme termite and water damage. In the '90s, members secured funding to save the structure.

Today, it's regularly maintained by the parishioners, a sexton and a contractor.

“It's a true jewel in the Lowcountry. You can't let it get away from you," Waring said. “We never want to see the church fall into the condition it was in late '60s and '70s."

In 1970, as parishioners were helping reverse that neglect, the church was listed as a National Historic Landmark, the highest designation in the National Register of Historic Places.

Church leaders understand the public interest in the property. While it only holds one regular service, it often hosts group tours and special services, including weddings, christenings and funerals for people connected to the congregation.

There have past issues with vandalism, so the vestry intends to hire a caretaker to protect the property at night.

While the church isn't regularly open to the public because of logistical reasons, it remains one of a handful of historic churches and chapels of ease that no longer hold regular services but remain on the landscape and speak of the Lowcountry's rural roots.

“It’s our gift to the community," Waring said.

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Rickey Dennis covers North Charleston and faith & values for the Post and Courier.

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