Charleston is America's Holy City

Charleston is America's Holy City

CHARLESTON, SC - On a cool, rainy Sunday morning in America’s prettiest city, I awake to the sweet sound of church bells. When I pull back the drapes of my hotel room, I look out on a city skyline dominated by church spires. There’s small ones, big ones, lots of them.

About an hour later, while enjoying a scrumptious southern breakfast in the Belmond Charleston Place Hotel’s cozy Palmetto Cafe, a server tells me “there’s more than five dozen churches in (historic) downtown Charleston alone and 800 more in the greater Charleston area.

“There’s a church on almost every street corner in this city — that’s why they call this the Holy City,” she informs while pouring me another cup of coffee.

Compact Charleston has almost as many churches as Rome, which boasts just over 1,000.

Church is a big deal in this devoute southern community that was founded on religious freedom — heck, even the city’s signature dish, She Crab Soup, a marriage of bisque and chowder that’s simply delicious, was first made by a 17th century resident named Church.

On Sundays, everyone of Charleston’s churches are packed with worshippers — the rest of the week they’re filled with tourists. That’s because many of the churches in Charleston are really temples of history; their neighbouring graveyards filled with historic figures from America’s Colonial and Civil War periods.

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Left: St. Philips Episcopal Church holds the title of the first Anglican church established south of Virginia. Right: The Unitarian Church of Charleston and St. Johns Lutheran stand together on Archdale St.

Every city tour includes stops at the biggest and oldest churches and people of all denominations are usually fascinated by what they find inside.

Interestingly, a city ordinance passed almost at the time of Charleston’s incorporation — and still in effect today — commands that no building be higher than the highest steeple. That honour goes to St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, whose massive tapering conical rises 78 metres into the sky.

One of the most impressive of all the churches in Charleston is St. Michael’s Episcopal, which stands at the corner of Meeting and Broad streets. It’s the oldest church in the city — dating back to 1752 — and one of the finest examples of colonial architecture anywhere.

I’m drawn to the church’s massive oak doors by the angelic voices seeping out of the National Historic Landmark — many of the oldest churches here wear that title — whose giant classical portico and 57-metre-high spire are its most striking features.

Not wanting to disturb the congregation, I decide to follow a moss-covered path that meanders through the graveyard and discover two headstones bearing familiar names — John Rutledge and Charles Pinckney, two of the 56 signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

My eyes are then attracted by another massive steeple down Broad St., and when I reach the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist I’m struck by its sheer size and its brownstone exterior. Inside, I’m impressed with its collection of stained glass windows — one includes the Papal coat of arms — its three Vermont white marble alters and Flemish oak pews. Above the high alter is a five-light window copied from Leonardo DaVinci’s “Last Supper” and the rose window above it depicts the Baptism of Jesus by St. John the Baptist. The present-day cathedral sits on the 1854 foundation of the original, which was destroyed in the Great Charleston Fire of 1861.

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Left: St. Philips Episcopal Church holds the title of the first Anglican church established south of Virginia. Right: The Unitarian Church of Charleston and St. Johns Lutheran stand together on Archdale St.

Around the corner from the cathedral, on narrow Archdale St., I come upon two large churches standing side-by-side, the Unitarian Church of Charleston and St. John’s Lutheran.

In the courtyard of the Unitarian Church I find a small monument honouring “the enslaved workers who made the bricks for the church.” The statue is decorated with a Sankofa — a West African symbol. This is the oldest Unitarian church in the South, dating back to 1787.

Next door, in the graveyard of St. Johns Lutheran, a plague lets visitors know that one of its clergymen, Dr. John Backman, assisted his ornithologist friend John James Audubon in the production of one of the most important books ever produced in the United States, “The Birds of America,” which launched the naturalist movement in the United States.

In Charleston’s French Quarter, standing behind tangled Cyprus trees, I find the rose-coloured French Huguenot Church, which was completed in 1845. This section of lovely Charleston is one of the oldest, dating back to 1680 when then “Charles Towne” was a walled city.

Next to it stands the imposing St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, the first Anglican church established south of Virginia. Established in 1681, St. Philip’s is the oldest religious congregation in South Carolina and its steeple is one of the most impressive among all the churches.

My church pilgrimage ends with a visit to the Circular Congregational Presbyterian Church on Meeting St., which has become famous for its gospel concerts. Its unique circular construction is adapted from the Romanesque style and its graveyard is the city’s oldest burial ground with headstones dating from 1695. The church was founded by the city’s original settlers.

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Left: Some of the church graveyards are the final resting place for many American icons. Right: The unique circular design of the progressive Circular Congregational Church stands out against the more traditional designs.

While Charleston’s collection of churches are numerous, it also boasts two mosques and several important synagogues — Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim on Hasell St., for instance, is the country’s second oldest synagogue and the oldest in continuous use.

Other Charleston churches that fall under the “historic” category and deserve a look include:

• Bethel Methodist Church, 222 Calhoun St. — Bethel was the only Methodist church which remained open during the Civil War and survived the earthquake of 1886 intact.

• Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul, 126 Coming St. — The building was in continuous use during the Civil War, harbouring congregations from those churches nearer the strongholds of the Union forces, whose cannons bombarded the city constantly.

• Central Baptist Church, 26 Radcliffe St. — Architecturally, Central Baptist is an excellent example of a vernacular Carpenter Gothic style church and Victorian era churches such as this are rare in Charleston.

• Emanuel A.M.E. Church, 110 Calhoun St. — It’s the oldest AME church in the South and houses the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore. Unfortunately, it will now forever be identified by the killing of nine parishioners in 2015.

• First Baptist Church, 61 Church St. — First Baptist is often referred to as the “Mother Church of Southern Baptists” and is the oldest Baptist Church in the South, dating back to 1822.

• First Scots Presbyterian Church, 53 Meeting St. — It’s the fifth oldest church in Charleston, circa 1814, and was designed by Benjamin Latrobe, the man who designed the United States Capitol. The graveyard here contains more than 50 stones that date earlier than 1800.

• Grace Episcopal Church, 98 Wentworth St. — This Gothic beauty dates back to 1846 and its interior is one of the most impressive of all the churches in Charleston.

• St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 89 Hasell St. — The congregation of St. Mary’s was the first Roman Catholic church in the Carolinas.

• St. Matthews Lutheran Church, 405 King St. — Its 90-metre steeple once made it the tallest building in South Carolina.

• St. Luke’s Chapel, 181 Ashley Ave. — This popular non-denominational wedding location was originally part of a Federal arsenal built between 1825 and 1832.

There are more than 1,400 historic buildings in Charleston’s treasured Old Town but the churches there are really the Holy City’s storehouses of history.


Porter offers direct flights to Charleston. For information, go to / For tourist information on Charleston, go to




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