ABBEVILLE — About 200 miles from the Holy City, a historic South Carolina sanctuary is quietly waiting.
Dust-covered hymnals still sit in pews. Light filters through stained glass onto a floor flecked with chipped paint. Pastel pink Portland cement has started to crack off the 158-year-old church’s exterior, exposing the tinted stucco underneath.
Because of its Gothic style, Trinity Episcopal Church almost resembles a castle with its spindly spires and towering steeple, tucked onto an unassuming street in this small town in such a way that it seems to appear out of nowhere.
Paige Bowser, an Abbeville resident who owns a shop at Church and Trinity streets, said she’s gotten used to hearing drivers slam on their brakes once the building comes into view.
“I will always remember the first time I pulled into Abbeville and I turned that corner on Trinity Street and there was this Gothic masterpiece,” said Mike Bedenbaugh, executive director of Preservation South Carolina, a group dedicated to preserving historic structures across the state.
Last year, Preservation South Carolina put Trinity on its list of eight "at risk" South Carolina historic sites. Now, the nonprofit hopes to help Trinity's congregation save the building through a partnership with the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina.
Restoring Trinity will be the first project for the preservation group’s Sacred Spaces program, an effort to protect at-risk sanctuaries across the state.
Organizers hope to raise a total of $3 million to complete the restoration. The congregation, the diocese and a local donor already have committed about a quarter of that sum, but they still have about $2.22 million more to go.
“You don’t see this sort of stuff in the Upcountry,” Bedenbaugh said, walking through the sanctuary on a mid-January morning. Since the restoration project was announced, he has spent many days inside the quiet church exploring every extraordinary detail.
If Trinity Church were in Charleston, which has numerous historic churches and impressive steeples, it would be a treasure, Bedenbaugh said. But where it stands in Abbeville, a town of just around 5,000, the church is “like their Eiffel Tower and Mona Lisa, combined,” he said.
“It’s a landmark for people,” said Andrew Hartsfield, a Trinity member and the president of the local historic society. “Everyone knows the ‘big pink church.’”
It’s also served as an economic engine for the town, attracting admirers of Southern history and architecture. Since Trinity’s doors closed in January 2017, visitor traffic hasn’t stopped, but it’s noticeably slowed, said Bowser, whose business had benefited from her proximity to the church.
Though the parish and community have tried many times over the years to maintain and restore it, the magnitude of the project and the grandness of Trinity's structure have made that goal almost insurmountable.
"This is bigger than we are," Bowser said.
That's where Preservation South Carolina hopes to help, Bedenbaugh said, by harnessing statewide resources and connections to help save what he calls a "South Carolina treasure."
Standing on a layer of dirt, dust and downy feathers, Bedenbaugh looked up into the kaleidoscope of wooden supports running up Trinity’s 125-foot steeple. Light filtered in — more light than there should have been, because of missing shingles and a fallen shutter.
“This is incredible,” Bedenbaugh said as he negotiated his way up a precarious wooden ladder to point out the heart pine beams that have rotted and contracted from water damage.
The integrity of the steeple, which has started to noticeably lean, is the reason why Trinity’s congregation closed the church two years ago. An assessment completed by Charleston-based contractor Meadors Inc. concluded the steeple posed a serious structural risk.
The congregation never stopped holding services. It moved first to a nearby Catholic parish and then, after one year started to stretch into two, into a small parish house behind Trinity. The congregation is anxious to come home to its sanctuary, Hartsfield said.
“Try carrying a processional cross under a ceiling fan,” he said.
After two years of seeing Trinity’s doors closed, the wider community, too, is seeing the need to restore the church — and soon.
One day when Bedenbaugh was working inside, water started pouring down on his head, he said.
"Water is one of the worst things that can happen to a building," he said.
He was pulling back the layered paint from the walls as he spoke, and they fell off easily in chunks, like skin off an orange.
Bedenbaugh said the first priority is to fix the church’s internal gutter system to prevent any additional water damage. Then the work will begin to stabilize the steeple, which will also be re-roofed. After that, he envisions gradually restoring the paint, windows, pews, exterior and other details to their original appearance.
The cornerstone of Trinity Episcopal Church was laid in 1859. By the time the church was consecrated the following year, its doors opened to a different Abbeville, one that was busy preparing for Civil War.
On the day of the consecration, an account of the ceremony in The Abbeville Press didn’t hint at a coming conflict. The church was “crowded to its utmost capacity,” according to the 1860 article, and the structure was declared “one of the handsomest edifices in the upper country.”
“On either hand are the large Gothic windows of stained glass, through which the dim, religious light falls in rays of many a fantastic hue,” it read.
Ann Waigand heads the group Friends of Trinity and has done extensive research on the church’s history. She calls the building a “veritable library of 19th century American-made stained glass.”
The church holds the second-largest collection of windows made by William Gibson, known as the “father of glass painting" in America. Gibson had one of the earliest American glass painting businesses.
Though Waigand now lives in Maine, she has maintained her connection to Trinity Church, where her grandparents were members. The church had captivated her imagination as a child and still does today, she said, as she continues to research its past.
Waigand's research also has detailed the strong connections between Charleston and Trinity.
The church was built at a time when wealthy Charlestonians flocked to Abbeville to escape the coast’s oppressive summer heat.
Charleston shipping company owner George Trenholm, who is said to be the real-life inspiration for Rhett Butler's character in "Gone With the Wind," contributed over a tenth of the costs for the entire church, along with his business partner.
The church’s founder was Charlestonian Thomas Parker, and its architect was George E. Walker of Charleston. Walker trained under architect Edward Brickell White who designed several iconic Charleston buildings, including the U.S. Custom House, Market Hall and the French Huguenot Church. Walker himself designed the College of Charleston’s Towell Library.
The sanctuary’s organ also came from a Charleston maker, John Baker. Only three of his organs still exist. The others are about 40 miles away in Edgefield, and in New York. None of them work — at least for now.
“That’s going to be the voice of this place,” Bedenbaugh said, who eventually hopes to have the instrument restored.
Reverend Deacon d’Rue Hazel of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina sees Trinity’s restoration as a potential model for other parishes struggling to preserve their valuable, but complex, structures.
“This goes well beyond bricks and mortar,” said Hazel.
It was crucial, too, Hazel said, that the restoration preserve its initial purpose as a sacred space.
In Bedenbaugh’s vision, once the restoration is complete, it would look and feel and sound much like it did the day it was consecrated more than 158 years ago.
“It’s powerful to come in here, amid the silence," he said, "and know we’re going to be able to touch this in a way that it will reverberate through the next generation.”