Nestled within the confines of a low brick wall surrounding this historic church and cemetery, St. Helena’s Episcopal Church (505 Church St., 843/522-1712, Tues.–Fri. 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.–1 p.m.) has witnessed some of Beaufort ’s most compelling tales. Built in 1724, this was the parish church of Thomas Heyward, one of South Carolina’s signers of the Declaration of Independence. John “Tuscarora Jack” Barnwell, early Indian fighter and one of Beaufort’s founders, is buried on the grounds.
The balcony upstairs in the sanctuary was intended for black parishioners; as was typical throughout the region before the Civil War, both races attended the same church services. After the entire congregation fled with the Union occupation, Federal troops decked over the second floor and used St. Helena’s as a hospital—with surgeons using tombstones as operating tables. The wooden altar was carved by the crew of the USS New Hampshire while the warship was docked in the harbor during Reconstruction.
While the cemetery and sanctuary interior are likely to be your focus, take a close look at the church exterior—many of the bricks are actually ship ballastones. Also be aware that you’re not looking at the church’s original footprint; the building has been expanded several times since its construction (a hurricane in 1896 destroyed the entire east end). A nearly $3 million restoration, mostly for structural repairs, was completed in 2000.