St. Paul's Episcopal Church is more than a place of worship. It's a window to Augusta's past.
The 250-year-old institution, established by the Church of England during America's Colonial era, marks the city's birthplace along the Savannah River.
"It's the starting place of the story of how Augusta evolved from the 1740s and on," said Erick Montgomery, a St. Paul's member who is executive director of Historic Augusta Inc.
Some 400 area residents attend worship services each week at St. Paul's, which has more than 1,000 people on its membership rolls. The church -- listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- draws thousands of others each year. The churchyard is home to Augusta's oldest Colonial artifacts.
St. Paul's has been a tourist stop for most of this century.
"The beauty of the church has been well known since the days Augusta was a mecca for the Northern visitors," said Emma Mason, 86, a member of St. Paul's since 1933.
Although Augusta's population is no longer centered downtown, the Reynolds Street church remains vibrant because of its tradition as the city's oldest house of worship.
"A lot of myself is invested there," said Genie Lehmann, 91, a church member since 1933. "My three girls went there; all married there. The grandchildren were christened there. It's home, just like the house you live in."
St. Paul's first church building was constructed in 1750 at the site of Fort Augusta, a British military outpost. A large stone Celtic cross in the churchyard marks the location.
At the base of the cross is a cannon that British Gen. James Oglethorpe brought to the fort from England in the 1730s. The cannon and baptismal font in the church foyer are Augusta's oldest Colonial-era artifacts.
People have believed for most of this century that St. Paul's has occupied four different buildings.
The original building was captured by American soldiers during the Revolutionary War in 1781 and later destroyed. A wooden interdenominational church was built on the site but was moved after Episcopalians, upon receiving a state charter, decided to build a permanent church on the property in 1820.
That structure fell victim to Augusta's Great Fire of 1916. The present-day church building, a Georgian colonial design by renowned Augusta architect H.T.E. Wendell, was completed in 1919.
But a new twist in the church's storied past surfaced this year when Mr. Montgomery uncovered records suggesting St. Paul's underwent reconstruction in the 1760s.
That would mean the church has occupied five buildings since its inception, not four.
Mr. Montgomery's research of English documents and published letters revealed St. Paul's was in need of a new building because of dilapidation during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), when the church was used as a refuge for area settlers.
Although most of the church's records from that period are incomplete, specific quotes and passages mentioning a "new church" led Mr. Montgomery to believe one was constructed.
He brought his findings to the church a few months ago. Today, some members still have trouble believing the fifth-building theory, he said.
But the Rev. Donald Fishburne, church rector, is a believer, and so is church history commission leader Joe Lojewski, who said the newly uncovered records provide enough circumstantial evidence for him to say there was a fifth building at the site.
Whether St. Paul's had five church buildings or four has little impact on its perennial popularity with tourists and residents alike.
"I think all of Augusta considers St. Paul's its church," said Dusty Avery, chairwoman of the church's 250th anniversary celebration committee.
St. Paul's historic graveyard is a must-see for many visitors.
Sixty-five tombstones date back to 1783, but the actual number of people buried on the church's 3 1/2 -acre property may be much higher.
Many sandstone markers undoubtedly were destroyed by fires, floods and wartime fighting.
Remains of well-known people resting in St. Paul's churchyard include Georgia Gov. George Matthews, who held office in the 18th century; Col. William Few, who signed the U.S. Constitution; Commodore Oliver Bowen, whose armed schooner captured a British ship near Savannah in 1775; and inventor William Longstreet, who developed a steamboat engine nine years before Robert Fulton's Hudson River experiments in New York.
St. Paul's saw its last public burials during the 1810s. After that, two new graveyards -- Magnolia Cemetery for whites and Cedar Grove Cemetery for blacks -- were established along Walton Way in an area south of present-day Gordon Highway.
St. Paul's members plan to enter the new millennium with a 17,000-square-foot parish hall addition extending toward Riverwalk Augusta. Plans call for the second floor to be level with the Savannah River levee, providing an inviting entry to people strolling the esplanade.
The addition will feature a fireproof archive room, a 400-seat community room and staff offices. Eventually, the building used by the parish for offices will be offered to a nonprofit organization. Project backers are raising $2 million through a capital campaign to complete the project.
St. Paul's leaders anticipate they will see 100,000 worshipers, concertgoers and tourists come through the church's gates in 2000.
But the church doesn't mind being a tourist attraction, because it considers welcoming visitors to the city its secondary mission, Dr. Fishburne said.
"We don't consider it a nuisance," he said. "It's part of our reason for being."
Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486.
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