AUGUSTA, GA (WJBF)- Spring is here and Easter, one of the biggest Christian holidays of the year, is on Sunday. On this month’s Hometown History, Kim Vickers takes a walk through the oldest church in Augusta.
The church is older than the United States. St. Paul’s Church was Established in 1749, more than 25 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. It is on the National Register of Historic Churches.
Close your eyes and imagine what Augusta must have looked like back then. A very small town. Lots of towering trees. A great flowing river. And a tiny church building on the corner of, what was known then, as Fort Augusta.
“I think what stands out to me from the history of St. Paul’s is the long devotion from generation to generation,” said Rev. Eric Biddy, the new rector at St. Paul’s Church.
St. Paul’s Church has a fascinating history. It has survived a lot including several wars and the great Augusta Fire of 1916.
It’s had 5 buildings since it began. The Colonial church was the first.
Historian, Erick Montgomery, explained that when Augusta was founded in 1735, settlers conducted their own prayer services. Finally, they decided they needed a real church.
“But they started bringing wives and having children and they thought there needed to be a more civilizing influence in the wild and wooly… this was the wild, wild west,” laughed Montgomery.
Two years after settlers requested a priest, Father Jonathan Copp arrived. When he got to Augusta, he brought a gift from the Church of England. A marble baptismal font that is still displayed at the church today. Montgomery said Copp was not a fan of the settlement and left 5 years after arriving.
“Jonathan Copp hated Augusta with a passion, because he was not used to the wild and wooly areas. He thought he was going to be killed at any minute either by the Indians or by the settlers, one or the other.”
The colonial church house was destroyed by refugee vandals in 1762. A new building was put up in 1764, but was destroyed during the American Revolution in 1781. In 1789, a third church building was constructed and was used until 1819.
“When that building was moved over to Broad Street and converted into a store. And they built the brick church that we call the 1820 church on the site,” said Montgomery.
The brick building stood until March of 1916, when it was destroyed by the Great Fire of Augusta. One story about the fire is the bell being rung until the fire consumed it.
“The sexton was ringing the bell on the rope, pulling the rope, hoping that people would come to help and try to save the church,” Montgomery said. “And so finally the rope burned off and so the bell stopped and then shortly after that the bell tower caved in. It caved in to the church and it was just all over.”
Before the church building caught fire, they held a service to pray the fire wouldn’t reach them. When it became apparent it would, they began to take important items out.
Father Biddy claims the quick thinking of the people of the church is the reason they have some of the artifacts they have today.
“There are stories of members and the priest running in to the burning church to save the Holy things. To get out as much stuff as they could,” he said.
The church grounds are home to the oldest cemetery in Augusta with graves that date back to the 1730’s. there are only a couple of graves there dated after 1818 because Magnolia cemetery was created and became the main graveyard in Augusta.
The American Civil War brought war to Augusta once again. When Georgia seceded from the Union in 1861, Bishop Leonidas Polk called for a meeting of all the Episcopal Diocese in the Confederacy. In 1862, the first General Council of the Episcopal Church in the Confederate States met at St. Paul’s Church.
After the war, St. Paul’s rejoined the Episcopal Church of the United States. Bishop Polk was buried under the present day altar after his death in 1864. His remains were moved to New Orleans in 1945.
Many people of note are buried at St. Paul’s, including Colonel Ambrose Gordon, Grandfather of Juliet Gordon Lowe, who founded the Girl Scouts. The remains of Colonel William Few, one of Georgia’s signers of the Constitution, rest at St. Paul’s.
Perhaps most interesting, the remains of a man named Robert Forsyth.
“The one on my left is Robert Forsyth who was a Federal Marshal. And he was the first Federal Marshal who was killed in the line of duty in the United States,” said Montgomery.
An urban legend is also associated with one of the graves in the churchyard.
“The myth about this is that there was an Indian Chief buried on his horse, sitting up on his horse under this stone. School children loved to come and see that,” Montgomery laughed.
Kim Vickers: “Any idea how that rumor got started?”
Montgomery: “No telling. You know, I have to dispel a lot of rumors in Augusta’s history that I don’t know how they got started. But I don’t know about that one. It just sounded like a good story and someone just made it up to entertain their children probably.”
The grave actually belongs to Joseph Ashton, a mason, fire master and tavern keeper. The marker that now is mostly just brick, used to be covered in stucco with masonic symbols, but most of it is gone now.
Judge Ashley Wright grew up in this church. She said she has very fond memories of her childhood there.
“We used to take pennies out and put them on the train tracks when we got done at the end of the time. And we would climb over the levy and slide down to the river and get dirty and get in trouble,” Wright smiled.
There was recent conflict in the church about some of its Confederate history, but Wright said there is one thing that is helping them move past it.
“The people here are all trying to live according to God’s will and God’s word and that none of us are perfect. And that we might have made some mistakes in the past, but we are here to try to do better each and every day.”
Kim Vickers had one really important question for Montgomery and Wright.
Kim: “Are there any ghosts?”
Montgomery: “You know I do historic preservation and I’ve been in millions…well not millions, but thousands of historic buildings and I never see ghosts. I don’t know, some people say they see ghosts.”
Kim “Do you guys have any ghosts?”
Wright: “I wish we did. I don’t know of any. But I wish that we did. I think that that would be very interesting and I think that it would hopefully be a good spirit.”
With all that history you would think there would be ghost stories.
Wright said St. Paul’s Church is Augusta’s church. Doors are open during the day on most days for people looking for a place for self reflection and prayer. The grounds are always open to those people as well.
Wright said anyone is welcome to attend church services as well. You can find the Church schedule HERE.
CLICK HERE for Holy Week and Easter Service information.
There is so much more to learn about St. Paul’s Church and for those interested there is a full timeline and a guided walking tour available on the Church’s website.
Hey, Augusta! That’s just part of your Hometown History.
Hometown History airs the second Thursday of each month.
Photojournalist: Reggie Mckie.
Read more about your Hometown History.