Saving Trinity, Part I


The Decades Astonish & Steal

By Tom Poland

Author’s Note: This three-part story portrays a church in danger of collapsing and the people who love it. France’s Gothic cathedrals inspired architect George Walker’s design for Abbeville’s Trinity Episcopal Church. The church contains rare 19th-century American stained glass and a chancel window attributed to William Gibson, America’s father of stained glass painting. A rare John Baker “tracker” organ was in use for a while. Among Trinity’s illustrious members and clergy were Rev. William Porcher DuBose, founder of the University of the South’s School of Theology, John A. Calhoun, nephew of U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun, and Armistead Burt, former Speaker of the House in the U.S. Congress. The outlook is bleak, but determined people are fighting to save this treasure of a church. If you’d like to donate to Friends of Trinity Abbeville visit http://friendsoftrinityabbeville.org/donate-now/

May, but don’t call her Miss May (Photo by Bill Fitzpatrick)

August 31. Rain from Harvey’s remnants made the driving tough along Highway 34. The wipers met out a metronome-like beat as log truck after log truck slung sheets of water across my windshield, a clattering collision of water against glass. My destination? Abbeville, South Carolina to meet photographer-writer-historian Bill “Big Sky” Fitzpatrick. A gusty, gray rain seemed fitting for a mission to see who and what might halt the crumbling of historic Trinity Episcopal Church.

I met Bill at the Belmont Inn and we made our way to the home of a woman who understands the importance of saving landmarks. May Robertson Baskin Hutchinson. Later May, daughter, Jean Robertson Hutchinson, and Bill and I would walk the grounds at a church, beautiful still, but crying for salvation.

May, Abbeville’s matriarch, turned 95 April 5. Her 95th birthday raised $11,000 for Trinity Episcopal Church. “Seems like the whole town came,” said May. “It was amazing.” 

August 31 amazed, too, a day when passing decades astonished me. I’d see a circa 1840 coastal redwood, Sequioa sempervirens (California redwood) that came from a nursery in Pomaria, Summers Nursery. Nine Hutchinson cats sleep beneath this West Coast monarch with its candy-cane-twisting cedar-like bark. Each Christmas, Jean’s grandmother would send a box of fragrant redwood boughs for decorations. Her mother, opening the box, would say: “The Christmas spirit jumped out of the box into the house.” Even though Trinity’s structure has been closed since January due to the steeple’s instability, boughs will grace the church’s doors. May will make them—as she has every year.

Tom Poland examines May’s California redwood (Photo by Bill Fitzpatrick)

The tree towers over what may well be South Carolina’s oldest cast iron fountain in the United States. As Jean and I walk toward it, beautiful music drifts our way. Falling water sets metal to ringing and a pealing suffuses the air. I stop, arrested by this unearthly music.

“High, note, low note, low note,” says Jean. “Do you drink Starbucks coffee?”

“I do.”

“See the figure on top of the fountain. That’s Melusine, goddess of freshwater, and the same figure in the Starbucks logo. She had human form everyday except Saturday when she took the form of a dragon. Saturdays, she wouldn’t let her husband see her bathe. One Saturday he bored a hole in the bathroom door. An angry Melusine flew away, a dragon forever.”

Sure enough, the gargoyle resembles Starbucks’ logo, a mermaid, if you will, holding twin tails.

Bill walks over to the fountain, drawn by the melodic cascades spilling into three metal basins and a catchall basin where water flows up anew. “That is exquisite,” he says in a hushed tone of reverence. This fountain is beyond extraordinary. The foundry that built it also helped build the United States Capitol dome. It built as well the fountain (1858) in Savannah at Forsyth Square. Colonel Jehu Foster Marshall, the major benefactor of Trinity’s church building, placed the fountain in his garden in the mid-1850s.

The country’s largest cast iron fountain (Photo by Bill Fitzpatrick)

You’d think the beautiful music that flows from this fountain would be too much for kids to resist. Well, they do. “Most people don’t come into this yard because it’s scary,” said Jean. I took in the yard … around and beneath that towering sequoia grow magnolias and crepe myrtles: a profusion of greenery that shuts out the world and that’s preferred. Privacy.

From Loathing To Loving

From mist-shrouded greenery onto stepping-stones and up four steps to the fine old porch we go. We pass between a pair of cast iron greyhounds; family tradition holds that you have your photo taken sitting on a dog. Inside, I sit on a sofa, circa 1825, in a parlor with 13-inch brick walls made of roughcast bricks that May says wick out moisture. It’s quiet. Just a bit of an echo when we speak.

I ask May if I could call her Miss May. “No. May. Miss May was my great aunt, a formidable woman who was already a school principal in the 1920s. Miss May should be retired like a football jersey.” It was Miss May and May’s mother, Eugenia, who helped reopen Trinity almost 70 years ago. Now May and her daughters are trying to follow in their footsteps.

May takes measured pauses as she recounts the history of how she came to live in a house she once loathed. She married her husband “because his name fell in the middle of the alphabet.” They were married 60 years and long lived in Charleston. “This house was our getaway for a while. We decided this was where we’d retire.” Surprising because May hated the house. “When I was growing up, every time I wanted something it was ‘Oh, no, the house in Abbeville needs a new roof … a new water heater.’ I couldn’t get anything because the house in always needed something.”

And then she makes an earthshaking pronouncement. “I was the only child in the United States who never had a teddy bear.” She had a monkey. Well, that’s all right. In time she would live in a home soaked to the beams and joists in history. May’s house, designed by architect Gustavus Theodore Berg, was built in 1880. Berg also worked on designs for the South Carolina Statehouse some 76 miles distant as the crow flies. About that teddy bear. Time was on May’s side, not so the church she loves.

Visit my website at www.tompoland.net
Email me at tompol@earthlink.net
Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.”

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