Georgetown’s Prince George Winyah Church celebrates 300 years of worship
Parishioners of Prince George Winyah Church, a historic landmark in the City of Georgetown on South Carolina’s Hammock Coast, are now celebrating three centuries of worship.
The Rev. Gary Beson II, rector, and his staff welcome visitors on weekdays from 1-3 p.m. for self-guided tours throughout 2022 to commemorate the milestone. The church canceled other planned anniversary events due to health and safety concerns due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I think in this day and age when our country isn’t even 250 years old, to have a parish that has endured 300 years, it is worth cheering about and celebrating in a glorious light,” Beson said. “Prince George has existed to serve the people in this community and has been an enduring symbol of good.”
Mary Boyd, head of the archives committee for the church, agreed.
“The Prince George parish has served through every single war in the U.S., including the Revolutionary War,” Boyd said “It is just awesome to think about the thousands of people who have sat in those pews and prayed for safety in times of great danger and times of great depression. Then, to think about those people who also sat in those pews at joyful times.”
Bishop Christopher Fitzsimmons Allison spoke of “heritage” when discussing the history of Prince George Winyah Church in a recent church newsletter.
“This heritage was present through the Revolutionary War with its bloody internecine warfare. This heritage nurtured us through the Civil War’s four years of devastating and catastrophic destruction which the modern mind cannot comprehend,” Allison said. “This was followed by Reconstruction, segregation, and the Great Depression. Yet Prince George’s heritage endured and prevailed as a source of faith, comfort, and service to others.”
Allison continued, saying, “As for Prince George Parish and the coming century, we pray that our Christian heritage will become stronger and more faithful as it passes along to future generations.”
The tours of the church are usually guided, but because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the church is offering self-guided tours instead. Each visitor will receive a handout that discusses the history of the parish and church, and a docent will be available to answer questions.
“We welcome visitors to come in and experience the vast difference of a Colonial-style church,” Boyd said. “It is one of the only churches in the U.S. that has never changed inside since that time.”
The Parish of Prince George, Winyah, was formed in 1721 from St. James, Santee, Parish. It was named for Prince George who became King George II of England, for whom Georgetown was also named. The first building was on a bend in the Black River about 12 miles north of where Georgetown is now located.
As the rice plantations became more numerous along the coast and the anticipated port of entry came closer to reality for Georgetown, the parish divided in 1734. The original church fell within the newly established bounds of Prince Frederick’s Parish and therefore commissioners were appointed to build a new church for Prince George Winyah Parish. Bricks were collected as early as 1740 and the first rector, sent by the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, held the initial service in Prince George on Aug. 16, 1747.
The church was not completed until 1755 and was incorporated in 1788. It was desecrated both during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. A gallery and the chancel were added around 1809 when repairs were made after the Revolution. The steeple was added in 1824, the website states.
Some of the most striking features of Prince George Winyah Church are its box pews, which were customary in colonial churches but are rare today. Since there was no heating system available, pew owners frequently brought charcoal burners to their pews in cold weather and the box pews retained the heat.
“Most people are used to seeing rows of seats for worship in churches,” Beason said. “The Colonial-style worship boxes are extremely rare and interesting.”
Boyd said many visitors enjoy reading the “graffiti” on each of the box pews, where people inscribed names, dates, initials, drawings and more.
“The earliest date we’ve found is 1787, so at least since then people have been writing in the box pews,” Boyd said. “There are a lot of carvings that are undated, so it may be even earlier.”
Other interesting features include the stained-glass windows and the hand-blown glass windows in the church. The stained-glass window back of the altar is English stained glass, originally in St. Mary’s Chapel at Hagley Plantation on the Waccamaw River – a chapel that had been built by Plowden C.J. Weston for his slaves, the website states.
Boyd explained that Colonial-era churches did not have stained-glass windows. The windows on either side were installed earlier in the 20th century.
Beson said two of the three stained glass windows feature Mary, mother of Jesus.
“The stained-glass draws us into worshipping her son, our lord, Jesus Christ,” Beson said.
Also four old hand-blown glass windows with many of the original panes of glass remaining are located on the Broad Street side of the church.
“The four windows in the back of the church have wavy glass panes that have never been touched,” Boyd said. “Others have been replaced over the years for various reasons.”
She said that mysteriously there is a period of about 130 years, between 1734 and 1865, when the specific history of the church is unknown. She said the official governing records of the church are missing.
“We don’t have the vestry minutes until 1865,” she said, “but what we do know can fill volumes.”
For those looking for things to do in Georgetown or South Carolina’s Hammock Coast, visiting the church will make for an enjoyable and informative afternoon.
Prince George Winyah Church is located on Highmarket Street between Screven and Broad streets. The address is 301 Screven St. For more information, visit https://www.pgwinyah.com/ or call the office at 843-546-4358.
Prince George’s 2021 Plantation Tour is being held virtually in 2021. For more information on the popular event, use this link: https://www.princegeorgeplantationtours.com/
By Clayton Stairs/tourism manager for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce