Church of the Week: St. John’s Episcopal Church, Part 1
By Bill Segars
Sometimes the churches that I feel the closest to are because of the uniqueness or the beauty of the building itself. Very often this closeness is derived from the local people that love their church or the individuals that are working diligently to save a particularly building. Those are the groups that deserve the credit for saving a building for us to enjoy today. I see many groups of “History Savers” that may have never attended the church they are trying to save. They work tirelessly in the attempt to save it out of love and appreciation for it and what it stands for.
Few, if any, of the people who gave of their time and money to save St. John’s Episcopal Church in Walhalla ever attended a religious service in it. It was deconsecrated in 1957 when the congregation disbanded. From this point in time is when St. John’s building and rescuers began to shine.
The story can’t start in 1957; we must start our story at the time of St. John’s establishment, a story that includes a Darlington County native. In 1875 The Rev. Thomas F. Gadsden traveled from Anderson to Walhalla to meet with several families interested in forming an Episcopal Church in their hometown. By 1887, a lot on Short Street was obtained for $600. Interest in erecting a building ensued very quickly, due to a couple of very important individuals. Among the many Germans that settled in Walhalla was Master Builder John Kaufmann. He had proven himself as a qualified builder, having built many buildings in the new town of Walhalla. Kaufmann was chosen to construct the St. John’s building for the cost of $1,000. The building was completed, without pews, in time for its first service on September 12, 1889.
The first pastor to lead the new St. John’s twenty communicants was none other than Society Hill native, Rev. John DeWitt McCollough. I can, and will someday, write an entire article on his accomplishments in Religious Carpenter Gothic architecture in S.C. It’s an understatement to say that after designing some tenty Episcopal churches in S.C., McCollough was a Godsend to Walhalla and the perfect person to lead St. John’s with their building experience. Rev. McCollough and his family become a very important part of the growth of not just the church, but the entire town of Walhalla. After serving St. John’s for over ten years, Rev. McCollough died in Walhalla on January 26, 1902. He is buried at another of his churches, Episcopal Church of the Advent in Spartanburg.
Several pastors served St. John’s for the next 40 years. In the strong Lutheran German community of Walhalla, St. John’s Episcopal continually struggled with gaining membership. With a very small congregation in 1941, St. John’s was closed and the members were encouraged to join with the Church of the Ascension in neighboring Seneca. Oddly enough, Ascension’s building was also a McCollough building. St. John’s not only closed its doors, the doors and windows were boarded up and the building was abandoned, at least for the next ten years.
Rev. Jack W. Cole, then deacon, assumed charge of St. Paul’s in Pendleton in 1951 and immediately assumed the challenge of reviving the congregation at St. John’s. Unfortunately, the previous ten years had not been kind to the abandoned St. John’s structure. The roof was leaking, and the walls were sagging. Rev. Cole and six members tackled the process of raising funds and repairing the building; the task was completed for a September 28, 1952 re-opening service. However, an Episcopal church in Walhalla was just not meant to be; in 1957 it closed yet again, this time for good. After a deconsecrating service in 1957, the ownership of the building passed to the Ballenger Law firm.
The little building sat unused again for 25 years. Due to the fact that it had been repaired with a new roof in 1952, its stability survived this abandonment better that its first period of neglect. When Walhalla resident Jack Kelley got wind that the building could be for sale in 1982, he bought it and had it moved to his property at a personal cost of over $8,200. I did not know Mr. Kelley before he passed away, but he must have been related to my Kelley ancestors. He and I have the same love of heritage with a desire to save history. He had no real purpose for the building other than a desire to have it remain accessible to the public. After the tall, steeply pitched Gothic roof was removed and wheels placed under the structure, it was moved to its new location. Mr. Kelley completely restored the building and welcomed anyone to come visit.
As I did research on churches in South Carolina, the name of a St. John’s Episcopal Church in Walhalla kept surfacing, but in 2004 and 2005 I couldn’t find it. At that time, I had not met anyone in Walhalla that knew anything about this congregation or what happened to its building. I’m one that can accept the fact that a building is gone, but don’t tell me you don’t know where it is. A building can’t be lost, its somewhere, I just hadn’t talked to the right person or looked in the right place yet. I needed to keep searching.
Late on the afternoon of September 23, 2006 I found it in Jack Kelley’s back yard on Pine Street, a little side street in Walhalla. The lighting was not very good for photography that afternoon, so I went back several times for a better picture of this little lost, at least to me, jewel.
While I spent more time with St. John’s, I began to discover more people that knew about the building and its history. They were able to fill-in some blanks for me and I was able to supply them with information concerning the establishment of St. John’s.
One bit of troubling information that I was able to obtain was the fact that the building was being considered for yet another move. This time out of Walhalla, even out of South Carolina. Oh my goodness, what could be done? You’ll need to read next week’s Church of the Week article to learn more about St. John’s next life.
Bill Segars has a strong love and appreciation for history, having grown up on a farm in Kelleytown on land that has been in the family since 1821. He uses his 40-year building career to combine with his love of history to develop a passion for historical restoration. Segars was able to find, photograph and research more than 750 religious edifices throughout the state. If you have comments or questions, please feel free to contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.