Monday, January 2, 2017

Hauntingly Imposing--Sheldon Church Ruins of Prince William's Parish

The sky was blue and the air was crisp on this late December day. A slight breeze playfully shuffled the fallen leaves laying about the sacred grounds. The bright early afternoon light lazily trickled down through the twisted limbs of the numerous aged oaks scattered about. The shadows cast unto the old structure by the tree's were as distinct as its illumination from the sun. The combined setting embodied a sense of serenity and solitude overshadowed by an unmistakable aura of desolation. Denuded of anything flammable, the time-stressed bricks of the old church bore the erosion marks of passing time indelibly etched over some 265 years into their sandy red grains. Just beyond its four singular pillars and mounted at its gaping entrance, an engraved stone plaque identified the antiquated edifice as the Church of Prince William's Parish known as Sheldon.

The historical record etched unto the stone plaque was brief, yet concise. It stated the church was built between 1745-1755, burned by the British Army 1779, rebuilt 1826, and burned by the Federal Army 1865. On Old Sheldon Church Rd, located at its street entrance, the historic marker supplemented a few more details to the narrative. In addition, it related the church was Anglican, primarily paid for by Lieutenant Governor William Bull I, and named after the ancestral home of the Bull Family at Sheldon Hall and Parish of Warwickshire, England.

William Bull was a land owner and politician in early South Carolina. His father was Stephen Bull, who was also Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper's deputy and one of the leaders of the expedition which came from England in 1670 and settled Charles Town. In 1733, William assisted James Oglethorpe in the founding of the new Province of Georgia and assisted General Oglethorpe in establishing the physical layout of Savannah, Georgia by surveying the land to form the basic grid pattern of the streets and squares. As a land owner, his Newbury Plantation bordered the church grounds where he is buried along with other South Carolina leaders.

The South Carolina Department of Archives and History gives a detailed description of what the
original church looked liked. It is said to be the first conscious attempt in America to imitate a Greek temple. Completed by 1753, Sheldon Church's walls were three-and-one-half foot thick and built along a row of seven Tuscan columns (six engaged, one outstanding). The western facade had an elegant portico, crowned by a triangular pediment with bulls-eye window and cornice with dentils. The large front doorway had a fanlight above and two round-headed windows, symmetrically spaced, on either side. On the north, five bays between the engaged columns were filled with a single tier of tall, round-headed windows; the other bay was left open for a portico. At the eastern end, above the alter, was a Palladian window, with a round-headed window to each side.

The Archives also mention the two crucial events pertaining to its burning. Sheldon Church was burned by General Augustine Prevost's British troops in May of 1779. General Sherman's 15th Corps under General John Logan burned it on January 14, 1865. A recent discovery has presented an alternate view as to what happened at the end of the Civil War. In a letter dated February 3, 1866, Miton Leverett wrote that "Sheldon Church not burn't. Just torn up in the inside, but can be repaired." It is possible the inside of the church was gutted to reuse materials for the rebuilding of homes burnt by Sherman's army. Either way, it was never repaired and was abandoned to the merciless rigors of time, but not forgotten.

Visitors from all over the country come to the Sheldon Church ruins to photograph its majestic remains and solemnly stroll its sacred grounds. One visitor wrote these well chosen words describing his visit: "It's hard to find the right words to describe the feeling that washes over you as you walk up to this place. Even writing this review I can feel a flood of emotions rushing back as I remember the time I spent here just taking the life of this place in. The ruins carry their own self being the projects upon its visitors as they walk the grounds."

Wedding ceremonies have been held in the ruins of Sheldon Church, but since 2015 it was no longer available to the public for such ceremonies. The day I visited, which was on a Friday, there was a steady flow of visitors, but never more than ten people.

Photographs from 1940 shows Sheldon Church Ruins overgrown
People have inquired whether there are any ghost stories associated with the Sheldon Church Ruins. Like most historic southern ruins with long and tragic histories, one would presume it to be the perfect candidate. The most well-known tale tells of a woman being seen dressed in a Pilgrim style brown dress and other accounts of strange activities, such as heavy footsteps being heard, and unexplained flashing lights. Ensuing investigations have been made and nothing out of the ordinary has been found. It definitely is a place where ones imagination could run wild, especially on a hot, humid evening when the sun slips below the mossy old oaks and darkness wistfully creeps through their branches and slowly smothers the dampening grounds.

Take in the setting, contemplate the history, photograph the architecture, the feeling of reverence and awe inspired by the Sheldon Church Ruins is hauntingly imposing. It is worth your consideration as you travel the Lowcountry taking in its colorful and illustrious history dating back to the beginnings of the United States.

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