Huguenot Church stands out in city of shrines

03/04/2013

French Huguenot Church

In a city noted for extraordinary churches, the French Huguenot Church stands out among Charleston’s houses of worship.

Completed in 1845, the Huguenot Church was the first Gothic Revival building constructed in the South Carolina port city. Nearly 170 years later, it is the only independent Huguenot church in the United States.

Also known as the French Protestant Church, it is a stuccoed-brick structure with three bays in the front and back and six bays along the sides. Each bay is divided by narrow buttresses topped by elaborate pinnacles, and the three front windows are topped with cast-iron crockets with a battlement parapet surrounding the top of the church.

The interior consists of walls with plaster ribbed-grained vaulting, with marble tablets etched with names of Huguenot families such as Ravenel, Porcher, de Saussure, Huger and Mazyck.

The French Huguenot Church was founded around 1681 by Protestant refugees escaping persecution in France.

“From 1680 through 1760, hundreds of Huguenots arrived in the Lowcountry, seeking religious freedom and safety from persecution. Many abandoned considerable wealth and social prominence simply for the opportunity to practice their Protestant faith,” according to John E. Cuttino, president of the Huguenot Society of South Carolina.

The influx increased with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by France’s Louis XIV in 1685. The edict had been passed in 1598 by Henry IV and had provided French Protestants with a measure of religious freedom in the Catholic-dominated country.

Interior of Charleston's Huguenot Church.

Interior of Charleston’s Huguenot Church.

The first Huguenot church was built on the site of the current structure, but was demolished in 1796 in an attempt to stop the one of Charleston’s periodic fires which often burnt significant portions of the city.

A replacement was completed in 1800 but dismantled in 1844 to make way for the present church, designed by Edward Brickell White and dedicated the following year.

The church was damaged by Yankee shellfire during the lengthy siege and bombardment of downtown Charleston during the War Between the States, and was nearly demolished by the 1886 Charleston earthquake, according to the church website.

While the current restoration effort was begun as a result of damage caused to the church by recent nearby construction projects, including a 2008 project at the Dock Street Theatre, the church was long overdue for an extensive structural upgrade.

Apparently, past restoration undertakings were really little more than patch jobs, according to one church member I spoke with outside the structure recently.

He said that as construction workers have pulled off the structure’s stucco to get at the supporting material, they have found thousands of broken bricks which have had to be replaced.

In the front façade alone, more than 4,000 damaged bricks have been found, and workers aren’t yet finished with that area, he added.

The color of the exterior stucco, for years a bright white, is now its a pale pink, in an homage to the church’s original design.

Front of Huguenot Church before it underwent renovation..

Front of Huguenot Church before it underwent renovation..

The church’s interior is as magnificent as its exterior. One of its highlights is a tracker organ carved in the style and shape of a Gothic cathedral, purchased and installed by the church at its construction in 1845.

“Its keys are connected with the pipe valves by a wooden ‘tracker’ or mechanical linkage which responds to the organist’s touch faster than any modern mechanism allows,” according to the church website. “Its tone is similar to the Baroque organs for which Bach and Handel composed.”

The Huguenot Church came very close to losing the organ at the end of the Civil War. After the fall of Charleston in 1865, Federal soldiers dismantled the organ and were loading it on a New York-bound ship when the supplications of the organist, T.P. O’Neale and some influential friends saved it, according to the church website.

The church, located on Charleston’s Queen Street, conducts a weekly service each Sunday morning in English. Since 1950, an annual service in French has been celebrated in the spring.

While almost the entire front of the church remains boarded up as workers continue to effect repairs, officials are optimistic that renovations will be complete in time for Easter services, at the end of the month.

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7 Responses to “Huguenot Church stands out in city of shrines”


  1. Read a little about this church before (according to family lore a branch of the Burdettes were Huguenots), but didn’t know about the Union soldiers attempting to take the organ. Disgusting.

    Have you seen this link: http://www.storyscape.org/2013/jan/24/charleston-part-two/

    There are some great photos of this church (you have to scroll down a bit).


    • I have seen this site; it’s full of incredible photography of beautiful churches. When I see churches such as these I find it hard to understand the contemporary church design movement that picked up steam in the 1960s.

      While deep down I know it doesn’t matter what the structure one worships in looks like, I’m also a traditionalist and will take a beautiful old church with character any day.

  2. aliceny Says:

    Wonderful pics and history of your exquisite Huguenot church. Thank God (literally) and Mr. O’Neale and friends that those ‘damn Yankees’ didn’t make off with the irreplaceable organ. I followed Mr. Burdette’s link to storyscape.org to view additional pics of more churches and cemeteries.

    All of these pics with historical narratives have convinced me to accept my grandson’s invitation to visit Charleston with him — not in Summer though. He lives in Charlotte but visits Charleston as often as he can.

    Am always intriuged by the varying use of the terms “War between the states,” “Civil War.” “Federal troops,” “Union soldiers,” “Yankees.” I’m guessing that it all depends on the writer’s point of view. Correct?


    • Charleston is a definite must for anyone who enjoys history, culture and cities that have their own unique flavor.

      Yes, definitions of the events of 1861-65 can depend on the writer’s point of view. Personally, I shy away from the term “Civil War” because I consider what happened in Spain in 1936-39, Russia in 1917-22 and England in 1642-49 to be legitimate civil wars, where two or more sides fought for control of a single state. Of course, the South sought to break from the North and become an independent nation, rather than take over the North. Also, if you write a long story, you tend to have to come up with synonyms, so that you don’t write, say, “Union soldiers” 20 times a page, which is why you’ll see “Federal,” “Yankee,” “Northern” and “Bluecoat,” in addition to Union, being used to describe troops from the North.

      I won’t even get into all the various names for the war itself, although the preferred term in Charleston remains the “late unpleasantness.”

      • aliceny Says:

        Thanks, CBC. In speaking with and knowing many people from the “deep South” especially, I notice an inate gentility about their social mannerisms and the euphemisms that they sometimes use in their speech (like the one you used above). I certainly hope that the gentility continues through generations to come.


  3. I have been past this church several times and always wanted to know more…. I really should stop in next time!

  4. aliceny Says:

    Misspelled ‘innate.’ Keyboard is getting stuck.
    No reply needed.

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