A BRIEF HISTORY
Built in 1706, this simple, elegant church is the oldest surviving structure used for worship south of Virginia. It is South Carolina’s only remaining colonial cruciform church.
Saint Andrew’s Parish Church (commonly known as Old St. Andrew’s) was one of ten Anglican churches in South Carolina established by the Church Act of 1706. It was built the same year to serve the Anglican planters along the Ashley River, a thriving tidal waterway that connected them to the city of Charles Town and to each other.
Three worship services are held in this ancient building every Sunday. Some of its earliest counterparts are still used, but less often. None is older. Others have been replaced or augmented by newer buildings, some centuries old themselves, some modern. Still others have vanished, or their ruins stand in eerie silence to ages past. Visitors to this national treasure see a beautifully restored building, but the church hides a past that has left it for dead many times.
Rice, indigo, and slaves brought prosperity to the lands along the Ashley River, where some of the wealthiest plantations in British North America were located. The church was expanded into the shape of a cross in 1723 to accommodate a growing population. It survived a major fire in the 1760s but was quickly rebuilt inside its existing walls. But the parish declined before the Revolution and into the antebellum era. Ministering to the enslaved, at the church and at three plantation chapels, became the focus of the clergy. From 1851 to 1891, the Rev. John Grimké Drayton, the renowned horticulturalist at Magnolia-on-the-Ashley just north of St. Andrew’s, served as rector.
The church was one of the few buildings along the Ashley that Union troops did not burn to the ground at the end of the Civil War. It became a polling place and did not reopen until 1876, eleven years after the war ended. The parish found itself at the epicenter of two of the most important events of late nineteenth century Charleston: the phosphate mining boom along the Ashley and the Great Earthquake of 1886, which caused significant damage to the church. After Reverend Drayton died in 1891, St. Andrew’s lay dormant for the next fifty-seven years.
In 1948 Episcopalians moving to the West Ashley suburbs reopened the dilapidated church, even though it was far away from new residential developments. Dogged perseverance brought slow but continual improvements. A parish house was built, then expanded twice in quick succession. Hurricane Hugo (1989) caused major damage to the graveyard. Into the twenty-first century, the church undertook the most extensive restoration in its history and celebrated its tercentennial. In 2013, after undergoing a deliberate process of discernment, Old St. Andrew’s aligned with what subsequently became the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina and left The Episcopal Church.
For more than 300 years, St. Andrew’s Parish Church has survived, indeed has thrived, against all odds.
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