Dear Visitor to our Website,
If you have reached this point in the exploration of our website you might want to know a little more about our place of worship even before you actually come here. As Rector here I am very interested in knowing that you have a “sense” of who we are just by reading this brief history I’ve complied from a variety of sources.
Ansonborough was and is Charleston’s first suburb, and was named such after Admiral George Anson, who is said to have won the area in a card game in 1726. By the 18th century, the neighborhood was home to merchants, tradesmen, and even a few planters. The city’s “largest and most distressing fire” spread in 1838 through Ansonborough, burning more than 1,000 houses. The state of South Carolina provided loans to rebuild, but stipulated that the primary building material must be brick.
The architectural “cohesiveness” of Ansonborough today is due to the many brick homes built here in the 1840s and 1850s, and to an extensive preservation program initiated by Historic Charleston Foundation in 1958, which rehabilitated 60 of these antebellum houses. The properties vary from large single houses to kitchen houses, and range in age from 200 years old to ones built recently. Of course the Historic Ansonborough Association (HANA) and the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) carefully monitor all new construction along with any renovations that go on constantly in this part of the world.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (at 67 Anson Street) is a small early Greek Revival structure that dates back to 1836. It is easily overlooked because of its plain exterior, but it holds a unique place among American Episcopal churches as the first place of worship where pews were not rented or sold, but “free” to all who wished to worship here. The congregation, organized in 1822, met for two years in a rented room, and in 1824 built its first “free” chapel on a lot donated by Sarah Hopton Russell, wife of Nathaniel Russell, one of Charleston’s richest merchants. That building, located on Guignard Street (near the Market and horse barns of the historic district), burned in the great fire of 1835. A year later the present structure was erected for the sum of $11,285.
The Three Sarahs
Sarah Russell was an early advocate for the underprivileged. She helped organize the Ladies’ Benevolent Society, which provided home health care to the poor and led the Charleston Female Domestic Missionary Society, under whose auspices St. Stephen’s was organized. Her daughter, also named Sarah, married Theodore Dehon, the second Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, and continued her mother’s work and financial support of the church. Sarah Rutledge, daughter of Edward Rutledge, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Governor of South Carolina, founded a Church Home for the education of destitute girls. She also published a cookbook, "The Carolina Housewife," the proceeds from which went to St. Stephen’s and the poor of the city.
These “Three Sarahs” are memorialized on marble tablets that hang on the walls of the church to your right as you enter. As women dedicated to philanthropy and religious education for all, they insisted that no one would ever be turned away from St. Stephen’s, regardless of race or condition or position. Sarah Russell’s plaque reads:
“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
This tradition of warm and open hospitality continues today. In fact, it is alleged that Sarah Russell stipulated that pregnant women be allowed to attend services during their pregnancies – an unheard of alteration in the church customs of the day. In fact pregnant women were rarely seen in public, and only socialized privately in their homes
In the generations to follow the “Three Sarahs,” St. Stephen’s has undergone many changes. Besides a place of worship, it has served at various times as an orphanage and a school. In 1923 an African-American Methodist minister and his congregation joined the Episcopal Church and were assigned St. Stephen’s as their place of worship. An all-black congregation continued to worship there for 65 years. In 1987, the congregation agreed to open its doors to whites as well as blacks. The Biblical phrase that adorns the church doorway, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people,” became more than just ancient words, as the congregation re-integrated. St. Stephen’s continues to welcome all.
In 1892 the Rev. George Frederic Degen, City Missionary, wrote of the church, “The poor will be always welcome, and so will the rich, for St. Stephen’s will know no distinction of persons. All are welcome who come not to criticize but to worship God…St. Stephen’s is not a Sunday Church. It is for every day…the doors will always be open for private prayer.” This invitation, extended 123 years ago, still stands today.
A Personal Word from the Rector
Should you come to visit Charleston, visit us. By being here, if ever so briefly, you perhaps will have a sense of the unique quality of this place and, as a result, you might want to come by again. It’s been said that the average person can tell within 11 minutes whether or not a church is right for him or her. However long you might stay, we hope that you find something of the warmth of a loving community, as well as our commitment to one another and to the worship of God.
Our future will be taking us in a variety of new directions, any one of which might include you. Our Sunday School is now our highest priority, along with increasing our stewardship efforts, growing in membership, and caring for those in the community who can look only to the church to assist them. If you are interested in learning more about us, continue perusing our website or, when possible, drop by.
So, with all good wishes for you and those you love, I am
The Rev. Dr. David A. Williams