A Skeleton in the Trees
About midway between Savannah and Charleston on Highway 17 ("Savannah Highway" if heading south, "Charleston Highway" if heading north), most drivers zoom right past a nondescript sideroad with no clue of the treasure that lies just two miles down that heavily wooded lane. Those who take the time to turn down Old Sheldon Church Road, though, find themselves venturing through a tunnel of ancient live oaks dripping Spanish moss overhead. In a couple of spots, the tree line on the left is broken to reveal brief glimpses of the marshlands that nearly meet the narrow road. At the two-mile mark, the real destination appears on the right--the haunting ruins of what is said to be the earliest example of classical Greek architecture in America.
Nearly 3 Centuries Ago....
The first time I visited the Sheldon Church ruins, I was enthralled by the solitude of this spot in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. I had to remind myself that was not always the case. Three hundred years ago, the area teemed with planters and entrepreneurs growing the burgeoning British colony of Carolina. With the congregation established in 1745, the church building itself was built between 1751 and 1756 on land donated by the Bull family. Nearly 25 years later, though, British troops burned the sanctuary amid rumors of arms and ammunition hidden within its walls. Sheldon lay in ruins until 1825, when Prince William's Parish restored the building and began conducting services there as part of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.
That is, until the Civil War. Northern troops once again burned the church, with abandoned slaves from nearby plantations stripping the sanctuary of any remaining timber and furnishings to build their own homes. What remained was left to the encroaching wilderness and became known as the Old Sheldon Church ruins.
Several years ago, my family and I had the pleasure of attending a rare church service on the grounds of the ruins. Sponsored by the current owners and caretakers of the property, St. Helena's Church, the traditional service included prayers, hymns, a sermon, and even special music performed by the church choir. Rather than invade the old sanctuary, the altar was temporarily placed just outside the walls (see photo at right), with the visiting congregation of about 100 people sitting on lawn chairs scattered about the grounds.
While it was a lovely experience, I couldn't help but be distracted by my surroundings. With weather-worn tombstones leaning throughout the property, visitors are constantly reminded of the lives that went before us on this sacred site. How many thousands of other worshippers had congregated on this very spot over the past 300 years? I sensed their ghosts--undoubtedly friendly ones--all around me that day, and every day since that I've visited the Old Sheldon Church ruins.
Since that inspirational service beneath the towering live oaks, there have been some changes at the old church. A couple of years ago, in reaction to vandalism at the site, St. Helena's Church installed a black wrought iron fence around the sanctuary (see photo below). While visitors were once welcome to stroll up the aisle and ponder the old brick altar inside the building's remains, that is no longer possible. It seems that some folks were taking bricks from the ruins as personal souvenirs, while others were actually hosting un-authorized wedding ceremonies and other events within the walls--all without permission of the property's owners. As they say, "a few bad apples."
But even a glance across a fence is worthwhile when it comes to this skeleton in the trees. This reminder of lives past is well worth a visit down that nondescript lane called Old Sheldon Church Road, and will assuredly leave you inspired, invigorated, and just a bit in awe. When you go, be sure to heed the brass sign now affixed to the walls of the ruins: "Please treat these sacred ruins, the graves and grounds that surround them, with the respectful reverence they deserve. Let us leave feeling Old Sheldon is not worse, but better, for our presence."