Historic churches and cemeteries around every corner
By Deborah Burst
Looking out my 12-story corner suite in the heart of downtown Charleston, a perfect rainbow stretches from the bay to the sea forming a halo above this sacred city. It was truly a magical moment and a sign of things to come with churches and cemeteries around every corner.
Much like New Orleans, Charleston is a walking town, and offers a complimentary trolley car that tours the downtown district. Another plus is the historic Francis Marion Hotel conveniently located downtown with panoramic views of the city. The historic décor fits perfectly with your stay and everyone from the bellhops to the concierge, are all eager to please. Be sure to get a trolley guide with the churches, historic homes and museums mapped out with locations and names.
Our first stop was the Circular Congregational Church, one of the oldest continuously worshipping congregations in the south. Located at the corner of Meeting and Queen Street, our stroll along the sidewalk came to an abrupt stop. Worn headstones stand at attention just beyond the black fencing bordering the sidewalk. I look up and stare in awe, like a castle from medieval times the church rises from a garden of tombstones shaded by oak, cedar and palm trees. Stout squirrels scurry about perching themselves on top of faded stones stained with years of wear. It’s a forever home for a faithful congregation, one that began in 1681, and the oldest burial ground in the city with graves from the 18th century. The oldest is a brick grave structure from 1685 that holds the Simonds family on the south side of the property.
As I examine the intricate detail, my senses are heightened with the sweet aroma of blooming ligustrum and the damp air growing stronger with an encroaching storm. It is here inside this gothic graveyard that the dead continue their story. The funerary architecture brings to life the religious and artistic history of a young and struggling colony. Slates of the Peronneau family offer a storyboard of death in colonial America, from the skull and crossbones to the skull with wings, then portrait busts from primitive to classical. According to the church’s website, the cemetery has endured many hardships with a fire, earthquake, vandalism and even a cannonball from the British during Sunday services in 1780. Recently restored by the Historic Charleston Foundation, it is a stunning portrait of southern art.
A telling video on their website paints an eloquent story of a strong-willed congregation that loaned the Continental Congress 17,000 pounds toward the revolution and freedom of America. In 1804 the circular church was built to accommodate its 2,000 members including black & white, slave and free. Today’s church grew from the ashes of a fire in 1861 and welcomes people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds promoting racial progress, gender equality, economic justice, environmental stewardship and support for public education.
Inside the church arched beams flow from the curved ceiling in a web across the sanctuary. The curved pews gather around a simplistic altar dressed in solid wood and a Celtic cross. Narrow stained glass windows follow the curved walls while the organ resides in the loft. It is a masterpiece, perhaps the only highly decorated piece in the entire church. The brass pipes are painted with olive and cinnamon colored designs encased by amber wood. It is an exceptional tracker organ built for a church in Boston in 1890 then moved and restored in 1987.
As we exited the church, a deafening clap of thunder greeted our journey back to the hotel. The heavens seemed to christen us in our most sacred discovery. I caressed my camera under a small umbrella while my husband and I scurried from one shop to another for temporary shelter.
Our salvation was Nick’s BBQ restaurant, the original Nicks as they have franchised across the south. We toasted our trail with local craft beer and pulled pork and beef brisket sandwiches. As we walked back to the hotel, the sky began to clear and then the rainbow. It was a sign, a sign of redemption, and the beginning of many more tales of Charleston churches and cemeteries.
Francis Marion Hotel, 843-722-0600, www.francismarioncharleston.com
Circular Congregational Church, 843-577-6400, www.circularchurch.org
Charleston Visitor Center, 800-774-0006, www.charlestoncvb.com
Nick’s Original BBQ restaurant, 843-577-0406, www.jimnnicks.com
Deborah will continue her journey sharing the beauty of Charleston’s sacred places in the next several issues of Louisiana Road Trips. Learn more about Deb’s latest projects and her current book, “Louisiana’s Sacred Places: Churches, Cemeteries and Voodoo,” in this month’s author highlight. Order print and eBook via Amazon or signed copies from www.deborahburst.com