From the corner of the churchyard, you can just see the river. If it’s morning, there might be a bit of fog in the air, giving everything a slightly surreal feel. Then you step into the cemetery at the Parish Church of St. Helena
, and you feel like you have stepped back in time.
And, don’t kid yourself, you have.
Completed in 1724, the Episcopal church just a couple blocks off the Beaufort River is one of the oldest in the country in continuous use. The congregation was founded a dozen years earlier but construction was delayed by the war between European settlers and the local Indians, including the Yemassee. The Yemassee War nearly destroyed European settlement in the South Carolina Lowcountry
St. Helena’s graves tell the story of those early years and include Col. John Barnwell (1671–1724), a famed fighter in early Indian wars in the Carolinas who tried to establish better relations with the Yemassee after the war.
During the Revolutionary War, two British officers were killed in a battle near Port Royal and are buried in the churchyard. Most days, small British flags adorn these graves. Also buried there is Declaration of Independence signer and judge Thomas Heyward Jr. (1746–1809).
During the Civil War, the interior of the church was gutted and turned into a hospital for U.S. troops occupying Beaufort. After the war, sailors from the USS New Hampshire, which was anchored in Beaufort during the war, donated an altar to the church that is still used today. Confederate Gen. Richard Anderson is also buried in the cemetery.
The church, 505 Church St., still has a thriving congregation and regular services on Sunday and during the week. The church is also open to visitors 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1-4 p.m. Thursday. Admission is free. Call (843) 522-1712 for more information.