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SOUTH CAROLINA INSIDER

 

Hallowed Ground: Church built by Civil War refugees

Posted 1/19/2014 6:44:00 PM

One of the oldest churches in Florence is also one of the prettiest. St. John’s Episcopal Church was established in 1865, serving mostly Civil War refugees from the coast. The town then was little more than a railroad junction and had been home to a POW stockade during the war.

The church got its start in a classroom offered by schoolteacher Frances Church as a meeting place for Episcopal services.

Church history says the name St. John came after the death of the Rev. Walter C. Guerry. Guerry had been ordained on St. John the Baptist Day and took the text for his first – and only – sermon from the Gospel of John. But Guerry became ill and died within weeks of that sermon, and the church chose the name St. John in his honor.

The church’s first building was a few blocks away on the other side of what would become downtown Florence, but that structure was damaged by an earthquake in 1886.

The current building on Dargan Street between Evans and Palmetto was designed by Silas McBee and built with stone from Anson Quarries in Wadesboro, N.C. The first service was held in the building just before Christmas 1889, though the building was not completed for another year.

In the early 20th century, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Harold Thomas, set about creating missions within the parish to minister to railroad workers and children living in East Florence. Thomas left St. John’s, then returned a few years later and shocked the congregation by using a motorcycle to get to various far-flung missions within the parish. His missionary zeal was infectious, and the church congregation grew to more than 250 by 1911.

Thomas stayed at St. John’s until 1917 and was followed by Wilmer Poyner, who served nearly 30 years and had such an impact on the community that a local school was named for him. Now the Poyner Adult Education Center in Florence, the school can be seen from the churchyard.

During Poyner’s term, congregants decided to add a parish house in 1922 rather than build a new church. The parish house was dedicated to the memory of Frances Church, who offered up the first meeting space.

It was also during this time (1928) that William Guerry, nephew of St. John’s first rector, a former St. John’s rector himself and bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, was shot by an angry priest and later died.

That priest, who also shot and killed himself, was angry over Guerry’s efforts to minister to black congregants within the Episcopal Church. It was a battle that would race inside and outside the church, South Carolina and the rest of the nation for the better part of the next 50 years.

Poyner saw St. John’s through both world wars and the Great Depression. He retired in 1946.

While St. John’s building has undergone several renovations over its nearly 150 years, the church today retains its 19th century beauty.

The church holds Sunday services at 7:45, 9 and 11 a.m. It is located at 252 S. Dargan St. Click here or call (843) 662-5585 for more information.