Calvary Episcopal Church was founded in 1847 as a church for enslaved and free persons of color in the Charleston community.
At the 58th Annual Convention of the Diocese of South Carolina in February 1847, Mr. Henry D. Lesesne, prominent attorney and chairman of the Vestry of St. Philip’s Church, introduced resolutions encouraging the religious instruction of Charleston’s enslaved population as well as for free persons of color. A committee chaired by Mr. Lesesne chose The Reverend Paul Trapier as the minister of the proposed congregation to be known as Calvary Church.
This committee purchased a lot at the corner of Beaufain and Wilson Streets for $1,200. There was a delay in beginning this project due to shortfalls on the pledges. The estimated cost of the projected brick building to accommodate 600 persons was several thousand dollars more than the actual cash on hand. Mr. Lesesne reported this situation to the 59th Annual Convention of the Diocese of South Carolina in February 1848.
In March 1848 Father Trapier began to hold services for the Calvary congregation in the basement of St. Philip’s parsonage. In mid-July of 1848 a committee of laymen hired a large room, known as Temperance Hall, over a carriage warehouse on Meeting Street for worship services. By early 1849 there were approximately 30 to 40 “persons of color” attending in the morning and 100 in the afternoon. There were 276 persons in the Sunday School.
To preserve the patriarchal relationship of master and slave, special seats in Calvary Church were to be set apart for whites. As laws prohibited teaching a slave to read, all instruction in the church and Sunday School was to be oral. Encouraged by this impressive beginning, the committee entered into a contract for construction of the building for the new congregation in 1849.
As this building neared completion, a series of events almost jeopardized the project. A riot broke out in July of 1849 at the Work House, the Negro Jail, and some 30 prisoners escaped. They were eventually recaptured, tried, and imprisoned. One of them, Nicholas was hanged. On Saturday night, July 14, 1849, after the trial of Nicholas and two other ringleaders, a mob gathered to destroy the nearly completed building located a short city block from the Work House. As the mob assembled, Mr. James L. Petigru, an esteemed Charleston lawyer and member of St. Michael’s Church, and several others stood on the city hall steps and addressed the mob. Their efforts saved the church from destruction, and the building was completed and consecrated on December 23, 1849 by the Right Reverend Christopher E. Gadsden.
The first building was referred by some as “a bit of old Rome.” The brick building, covered with stucco and once painted white, was of a style “purer than usual at the end of the 1840’s.” The simple but formal structure showed skillful combinations of straight and curved lines. A two-story annex, built at the south of the church in 1924, housed the kindergarten department and rector’s study. In the Charleston Museum is a picture of Calvary Church with a caption that says, “one of the buildings that Charleston is sorry is destroyed.”
Calvary - 1916 with Bishop Guerry, the Rev. Erasmus Baskervill, other black clergy of the Diocese, and members of Calvary.
But, the building that caused such a furor in 1849 came to an ironic end as a church late in 1940. A New Deal housing development, through the Charleston Housing Authority, wanted the land to expand the Robert Mills Manor housing project for white people. This housing development had practically surrounded Calvary Church and “preempted that section” from the constituency of Calvary Church. Under much pressure, the property was sold to the Housing Authority, and monies from the sale were used to build the present building at Line and Percy Streets. Services ended at the old building on November 25, 1940, and the church was deconsecrated. Ultimately, the building was demolished, but the life of Calvary Church lives on in its present building.
Although Calvary Church was a parish, under incorporation laws of the State of South Carolina, it was still recognized as a mission in the Convention of the Diocese of South Carolina until May 5, 1965, when it was admitted into the Convention of the Diocese. Father Stephen Mackey, the Vicar, became the first Rector.
Throughout its history, Calvary Church has been a beacon in the community. The kindergarten, begun by Father E. L. Baskerville, was once the only pre-school and kindergarten for African-American children on the peninsula. Many of Charleston’s African-American citizens attribute their early childhood education to Calvary Kindergarten. The kindergarten continued to maintain high educational standards and moral teachings until it closed in 2012.
The congregation is involved in activities to revitalize and stabilize the community. Its members, “once neighborhood people,” now come from all parts of the county. In 1993 a new organ was purchased to replace the one damaged in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo. The men gather quarterly for meetings. The Episcopal Church Women continue to be a strong foundation in the church through its many outreach programs and activities. What were previously classrooms will become offices for staff of the Diocese of South Carolina. The Parish Hall is used for community events and activities. The church participates in ongoing activities to strengthen the neighborhood and city.
For the past ten years, it has been associated with the HALOS program, a community support program that assists DSS services raising funds for summer camp and Christmas gifts for children served by DSS. Calvary is also a member of Charleston Area Justice Ministries (CAJM) which advocates for improvement of life in Charleston in the areas of housing, education, civic safety, health care, and environmental action.
On February 17, 2000, a ceremony was held at the cemetery yard of Calvary Church to dedicate a monument to South Carolina Supreme Court Associate Justice, Jonathan Jasper Wright (1840-1885). Elected on February 1, 1870, he was the first African-American Jurist to serve on an Appellate Court in the United States. Research reveals that he was buried in First Calvary’s cemetery on February 21, 1885.
In 2006, Calvary Church was honored as an Historic Site during the MOJA Arts Festival and again made history in 2006 when Father Terence A. Lee, Father James “Jimmy” Gallant, III and Father Dallas H. Wilson, Jr. were ordained. The ordination of three African-American priests is unprecedented in the Diocese of South Carolina.
Calvary Church is a dynamic church built on the “sure foundation” of Jesus Christ our Lord, and we welcome you to Come and See.
Calvary's Altar is the same that stood in the first Calvary Church. This detail in on the front of the Altar.