St. Helena Church; Beaufort SC
Rain showers altered my plans to finish photographing the horse-drawn carriages today, so I decided to wander about the grounds of St. Helena’s Episcopal Church in Beaufort SC instead. The church, nestled in a quiet section of town and surrounded by a cemetery has quite a history. It was established in 1712, but damage done by the Yemassee Indians necessitated its rebuild in 1724, which is the core of the current structure.
I was soon greeted by Michael McIntyre, Fletcher Sanders and Frank Fagan who play in the church’s instrumental group. They allowed me free run of the place as they practiced their music for the evening’s service, and during breaks filled me in on some of the details about the church and its grounds. Frank has been the Sextan of the property for a number of years, which means he is in charge of maintaining the grounds and the structures. (Sextan comes from Latin, and the use of the word refers to six feet - as in care-taking for people who are six feet under.)
One thing of interest is the paranoia local’s had about being buried alive. After the introduction of lead plumbing in England many people went into a comatose state from the ingestion of lead and were buried. It was discovered that many of them woke back up out of their coma only to find they had been buried. So a strategy was developed where a string would be hooked to the cadaver’s hand and attached to a bell above ground. That way if someone came to they could ring the bell and alert others. This is the origin of the term “grave-yard shift,” but whether it is the origin of “dead ringer” or not I can’t say. J
Anyway, the problem here was with yellow fever and its cure – oleander tea. Oleander is poisonous, but the thought was that in low doses it helped quiet someone enough to allow them to sleep. The problem is that the body does not break down the active ingredient in the tea, so as it accumulates it places a person into a coma. So a similar strategy with the strings and bells was employed here. There is only one known case of someone being buried alive – it was a child who was buried and dug back up after several days after the mother insisted that she had a premonition it was alive. As evidenced by finger-nail scratches on the inside of the coffin it had indeed been alive, but by the time the exhumed the body it was dead.
The occupant of the moss-covered mausoleum pictured above is said to have been so fearful that he was buried with a pick-axe, a jug of water and a loaf of bread. Some work was done on the tomb last year and the hopes were that when the bricks were removed the old story could be confirmed, but the removal of the bricks only revealed another layer of bricks.
This church, along with much of Beaufort was spared burning during the civil war, presumably because when the Union arrived the residents had already vacated. (Known locally as “The Great Skedaddle”) Sherman made Beaufort his headquarters and the church became an army hospital. They brought the large stone slabs in from the cemetery and used them as operating tables, and it was only after the war that they were returned to their rightful places.
One of the great things about a cemetery of this era is the combination of all the shapes, textures and materials that are there. I could spend years trying to get the perfect angles showing all of these elements in their best light. It is fun to just wander and absorb it all - and wonder what messages those who designed the various tombs and grave markers were trying to leave for us.
As I was wandering the grounds I was approached by a local named Nathan.
In one complete sentence, which ran for about five minutes, Nathan offered to steer me to the oldest grave o the premises, steered me there, told me he is a Vietnam Veteran who has PTSD, told me he has ten years clean from liquor, told me he is homeless, bummed a cigarette and a few dollars for a meal. I never did get a word in edgewise, but I did find out that the oldest marked grave is from 1724 and for a fellow who fought Indians, and I got to take a liking to a homeless fellow who is willing to dress up on Sunday and give a tour the best he knows how.
I couldn't help but lust after the organ that sits up in the church's choir loft. It was installed after World War I, and supposedly the company who built it is still in business, and you can still order an organ. The waiting list is 200 years though. Maybe I should order one in anticipation of a great - great - great - grandchild who shares my interest in playing organs and keyboards. I bet there would be interesting terms on that transaction.
The pulpit is elevated quite a bit, and everywhere is beautiful old woodwork. I was told that all of the pews are elevated off of the floor because a cushion of air beneath the parishioners helps to cool the place in the summer and keep it a bit warmer in the winter.
So, after several invites I decided to stay for the evening service.
I was glad I did. The spirit was in the house and I felt some spiritual connection with a number of members of the congregation. Three different members approached me and said they felt a spiritual connection with me - it was neat to be around people attuned enough to have an awareness of that energy. The service was upbeat and positive and the sermon actually contained some perspectives that are useful in day to day life.
Have a Happy Monday all.
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