Trinity Episcopal Church

Trinity Episcopal Church

Abbeville, South Carolina

Built: 1859-60

What is its history?

The Trinity Episcopal Church was founded in the county seat of Abbeville County in 1842.  In 1858 the church hired a young, up-and-coming architect, George E. Walker, who designed the Towell Library at the College of Charleston and the South Carolina Governor's Mansion, to design a new sanctuary. Church leaders, who included two state senators, two nephews of John C. Calhoun, a Speaker of the House in the U.S. Congress, and a Bank of South Carolina President, outfitted the 400-seat sanctuary with the finest on offer. Donations flowed in from around the state, with over ten percent of the building cost paid by Charlestonians George Alfred Trenholm and Theodore Wagner.  The grand chancel window, and several other stained-glass windows, came from the studio of William Gibson of New York, touted as the “father of stained glass painting in America.” Columbia’s John Alexander & Co. crafted the massive iron church bell still hanging in the tower. A tracker organ, made by noted organ maker John Baker, was brought from Charleston.

Trinity Episcopal Church was consecrated on November 4, 1860. A little over two weeks later, on November 22, an organized mass meeting for secession from the Union was held ½ mile away in the small courthouse village. Though spirits were high in 1860, 5 years later at war’s end South Carolina was in ruins.

The town, and it’s most-recognized church, never fully recovered from the effects of the war. In 1930, the distinctive pink-colored church closed and did not reopen until 1949. In the 1970s, the small congregation invested in the stabilization of the church that unfortunately included covering the original lime stucco with a layer of Portland Cement. Today, Trinity is the only one of Walker’s remaining buildings that stands virtually unchanged. It is one of only five locations in the U.S. where William Gibson’s work has been found and contains the largest group of unrestored Gibson windows. Its organ is one of only two known Baker organs still in existence.

What are its challenges?

Trinity’s iconic 125-foot steeple, the tallest structure in town, is in danger of collapse due to the growing rot in the wooden supports imbedded in the masonry walls and is beginning to slightly lean. For safety reasons, Trinity is now shuttered and closed until the steeple can be stabilized.  The originally designed internal gutter system is starting to fail allowing some water intrusion and the exterior Portland cement coating of the structure is starting to peel off taking the original plaster and mortar with it.  With estimates of $500,000 to restore the steeple before the sanctuary can be open again, along with an additional $1.5 million to stabilize the exterior coating with the removal of the Portland cement and replacement of lime-based stucco, the challenges are more than the congregation that now numbers less than 20 active members can sustain. For an economically challenged town of 5,000, whosebusinesses depend heavily on heritagetourism, the loss of Trinity as a popular visitor attraction weighs heavily. The remaining members of the congregation have worked hard to raise funds. An independent group, Friends of Trinity, has funded a conditions assessment of the building and steeple. A little over $100,000 has been raised thus far.

What it represents:

The plight of rural churches that have lost their congregations.