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To honor St. Helena's original roots as a colonial parish of the Church of England, tricentennial planners have invited the Lord Bishop of London, the Rev. Richard Chartres, to the opening service Jan. 22. Bishop Chartres officiated at the royal wedding this summer.
"We invited him, and he accepted," tricentennial committee co-chairman Bob Barrett said. "It was one of those things where I think he, too, recognized his place in our history."
Concerts and other events are planned at the church, at 505 Church St., for almost every month of 2012, ending with a celebration Dec. 31, 2012.
It's been a tumultuous journey from the beginning, said Barbara Payne, who is heading up a committee writing a new version of St. Helena's history. Before the church was built in 1724, the parish was a vast, three-county territory serviced by a lone rector who traveled around on horseback giving sermons. The tenure of that first rector, the Rev. William Guy, was cut short by a surprise attack by Yemassee Indians, who drove Guy and settlers to Charleston.
A joint effort by the Rev. Joseph Walker and Presbyterian evangelist Daniel Baker led to the Great Revival of 1831, when the congregation doubled in size. More than 50 men became ordained, and six went on to become bishops. One went on a mission to China that the church continues to this day.
The St. Helena steeple bell rang out the warning for Beaufort residents to flee in 1861 when Union troops were on their way to capture the city, Payne said.
Like all of Beaufort, the church was occupied during the Civil War and used as a meeting house, place of worship and hospital. Almost anything that could be was burned and anything of value stolen or broken unless hidden by parishioners. Among those items is the original church bell, which was found buried on Whitehall Plantation and recently returned to the church after changing hands several times.
The new book also deals with segregation, a topic Payne said has been avoided. A rector in the 1920s through 1940s was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. A parishioner Payne interviewed said she first attempted to attend St. Helena's in the late 1940s after coming to Beaufort to work at the black high school, but a local elected official threatened her principal's job if she continued to attend services.
Payne said it hasn't been easy piecing together 300 years of church history.
Many church records were lost during the Civil War, and others burned during the great fire of 1907, when the clerk of the vestibule's downtown office was one of more than 40 buildings destroyed, Payne said.
"We had a lot of lore, and the problem with lore is sorting out the facts," she said.
However, she's confident the committee's research disproves several popular stories. Although the church was used as a convalescent hospital during the Civil War, tombstones were not used as operating tables, she said. Nor was the original building in the far northeast corner of the current church, but about 10 feet closer to the center.
The book will also cite the recently published Leverette Letters, which indicate Old Sheldon Church was not burned by Union troops, the long-standing story, but instead ransacked by locals for building materials and other supplies.
"A lot of people will hear this and say this is not true because 'that's not how I heard it,'" Payne said.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufort.