Church of the Week: St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church
By Bill Segars
Episcopal services were held in Darlington at the Court House as early as December of 1844. This loose knit group seemed to have problems organizing a strong congregation, but did name their group Emmanuel Church in 1849. Visiting preachers came to town several times a year to hold services for the interested citizens until the outbreak of the War Between the States in 1864. After that, very little was normal, orderly or regular; everyone seemed to be simply trying to survive.
As life in the South begin to return to some degree of normality, The Rev. John Kershaw came to Darlington from Holy Comforter in Sumter at the insistence of several local ladies in November of 1886. These ladies, true to fashion, would not take no for an answer and immediately formed themselves into a sewing society with Mrs. Snowden as president and Mrs. Thompson as treasurer. Without a building of their own in the beginning, they busied themselves to line up different church buildings that would allow them to hold weekly Episcopal worship services. Their efforts and persistence paid off as they soon raised enough money to secure a lot on Grove Street for a building. By late 1888, a nice little chapel had been built on the Grove Street lot for the cost of $625.
The original sewing society, now known as The St. Matthew’s Guild, continued to push; they held many fund raisers and worked insistently to furnish their beloved little chapel to transform it into a proper church building for its consecration service on January 17, 1892. As the congregation continued to grow, the need for more space soon surfaced and two buildings on Florence Street were bought and put together for a larger rectory.
On August 1, 1900, The Rev. Albert Sidney Thomas took charge of St. Matthew’s. Thomas was a much-respected priest, and was known in the Episcopal circles as a preacher who moved congregations forward and challenged them to improve their buildings. The timing was right for the growth of St. Matthew’s as the town of Darlington experienced tremendous growth in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Plans were immediately set in motion to build a new edifice for the Episcopal community in Darlington.
The young new architectural firm of Shand & Lafaye from Columbia was hired to design St. Matthew’s new building. Architect George Lafaye, originally from New Orleans, and engineer Gadsden Shand, a Columba native, worked together for several years at the firm of W. B. Smith Whaley & Co.; the firm designed and built many textile mills and mill towns in South Carolina. When the Whaley firm dissolved in 1903, Shand and Lafaye were naturals to partner in the new firm that would go on to develop a strong presence with many buildings still in use in South Carolina today. Shand & Lafaye stayed together until 1912, when Shand pulled out to form his own Shand Engineering Company.
Even though Shand & Lafaye were experienced professionals in their own rights, St. Matthew’s took somewhat of a chance in hiring this untested team. All concerns were put to rest soon after the cornerstone was laid on May 31, 1905 and the present impressive Gothic, cruciform structure begins to rise. As the public watched with interest, the solid brick building with concrete trim and slate roofing on Main Street begin to take shape as a church building admired by all. The building, costing $7,000, was made ready for its first service on Easter Sunday, April 15, 1906 with the consecration service following on January 23, 1912.
St. Matthew’s leadership and congregation have been very kind to their 1905 building over the last 110 years. Skilled Rectors have crafted alter furniture over the years, members have shared their talents to improve the building, and memorial windows and furnishings have been donated by church members in honor of loved ones. A new parish house was built in 1956 very architecturally sympatric to the original building. A new educational building was built after 1975, all for the expansion and service for a growing, thriving Episcopal congregation.
St. Matthews is located on 210 S Main Street in Darlington. You may reach them at: 843-393-4112 or visit their website at: www.saintmatthews.us
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 39-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 700 religious edifices throughout the state.