It sits off the side of a two lane country road in Beaufort County, South Carolina. Upon approach, you immediately notice the massive canopy of oak trees that shade it from the blazing subtropical sunlight. As you walk through the old gates and enter the churchyard, you notice the quietness. A suiting final resting place for some of the earliest settlers in this area.
Prince William Parish Church, now known as Old Sheldon Church, first welcomed parishioners in 1757. The building of the church was funded by the very prominent Bull family who owned a nearby plantation. William Bull, who is buried in the churchyard, helped found the new Province of Georgia and assisted in laying out the street grid for the city of Savannah. He went on to be lieutenant governor of the Carolina colony. His father had arrived to the low country as part of the original expedition from England that would found the city of Charleston. These were adventurers, men of vision – who made their mark in the backwoods of South Carolina amongst the swampy, mosquito infested woodland.
Today the church sits in ruins. It was first destroyed during the Revolutionary War when it was burned by British troops in 1779. Rebuilt about fifty years later, it served the area until Sherman came through during his infamous March to the Sea. There is some discrepancy about whether the church was actually burned by the Union army or simply stripped by residents to rebuild their own homes after Sherman’s troops left a path of destruction in their wake. Regardless, the end result was the same.
Hopefully when you visit there won’t be anyone else around. It will late in the afternoon on one of those perfect summer days when the air is thick with heat and the smell of countryside. Walk around. Stop to feel the warm breeze on your face as it rustles the elegant old oaks, causing ghost moss to sway slightly. Imagine friends and neighbors gathering here on Sundays long ago. Imagine the site of flames beginning to lick the rafters as men in red coats circle around, their torches glowing in the night sky. What must this place have looked like in its prime – before war and fire robbed it of its finery?
All that remains today are the solid brick walls and elegant columns. They are no less beautiful in their starkness for they remind us of what once was. They are a lesson in dreaming, seeing dreams become reality, survival, loss, and restarting. They stand as a testament to the history of the area and the perseverance of its population.
All photos by the author.