2017-11-09 / Editorial Page

Saving Trinity, Part 1 The Decades Astonish & Steal

Across The Savannah

Trinity Episcopal Church, Abbeville. Trinity Episcopal Church, Abbeville. (Photos by Bill Fitzpatrick).

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/

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.

May Robertson Baskin Hutchin­son May Robertson Baskin Hutchin­son 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.

A California redwood in Abbeville A California redwood in Abbeville 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.”

Largest cast iron fountain in the US. Largest cast iron fountain in the US. 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.

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.

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