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.
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.
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.