Chapels of Ease

by Lyman Wooster

When the Anglican Church in colonial South Carolina authorized the establishment of Chapels of Ease in St Luke’s and St. Helena’s Parishes, both in Beaufort County, they were following what had been for centuries a common practice in Great Britain. Chapels of Ease were intended to provide for the ease and comfort of parishioners living some distance from the main parish church.

And in this country there were apparently four chapels of ease that existed briefly in Beaufort County in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Zion Chapel of Ease was built on Hilton Head in 1788, although it had been authorized by St. Luke’s Parish about 20 years earlier.

Zion accommodated the planters who lived on the island and who were at some distance from St. Luke’s Parish Church located on the road between Coosawhatchie and the Savannah River crossing, now Route 170.

The Zion Chapel was a rectangular structure of 30 by 40 feet built of wood on a brick foundation, and it completely disappeared immediately following the Civil War. The sanctuary was emptied of its alter, pews, prayer desks, pulpit, and silver chalices by 1867 and the following year the building itself, its lumber and its bricks, were gone.

St. Helena’s Chapel of Ease was built in the 1740s to accommodate the planters who lived on St. Helena’s Island, which was some distance from the parish church in the town of Beaufort. The chapel, constructed of tabby and brick, is now in ruins…four thick walls remain with no roof or flooring…having been damaged in a forest fire on February 22, 1886. Tabby is a highly-textured cement made of oyster shells, lime, and sand, and its whiteness gave the chapel the nickname “White Church.”

Another chapel in St. Luke’s Parish was dedicated in 1820; missing from its name was the term “ease” but almost certainly it filled the role of a chapel of ease. It was the Chapel of the Holy Trinity in the community of Grahamville, which is now in Jasper County but which was in Beaufort County until 1912.

Moreover, it left St. Luke’s Parish in 1835 and became a separate congregation. Today, the communicants of the Church of the Holy Trinity worship in a charming sanctuary, architecturally described as “carpenter gothic,” built in 1858.

At a service in June 1954 commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Church of the Cross, the Rt. Rev. Albert Sidney Thomas, retired Bishop of South Carolina, spoke in his “historic sermon” of a Chapel of the Cross that had preceded the founding of the Church of the Cross. He did not use the term “chapel of ease” but it would seem appropriate to assume that the Chapel of the Cross, which was consecrated in July 1842, was in fact a chapel of ease, just as the Chapel of Holy Trinity probably was.

The Bishop noted that the minister of the St. Luke’s Parish Church was also the minister of Bluffton’s Chapel of the Cross and Hilton Head’s Zion Chapel of Ease. He also pointed out that within a decade the capacity of the Bluffton chapel had become “insufficient”; in other words, a church was needed to accommodate the growing population. Thus, construction on the Church of the Cross was begun in 1854 at a new site, and the first services were held in July 1857.

Two incidents associated with the Civil War occurred in Zion and the Church of the Holy Trinity that are worthy of note. Among the items in Zion that disappeared during the time that Union forces occupied Hilton Head were two eucharistic chalices made by a London silversmith and delivered to Zion in 1834. Many years later, a Philadelphian purchased in a pawn shop two heavily tarnished goblets, which upon being polished revealed engraving that read “1834 Zion Chapel Hilton Head.” The purchaser subsequently sent the chalices to the parish church in Beaufort with the proviso that once an Episcopal church was established on the island they should be sent there. The two chalices are now in the possession of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Pope Avenue, Hilton Head Island.

A somewhat similar incident occurred in Grahamville. When Union forces occupied the town, General Sherman is said to have used the Church of the Holy Trinity as a stable; more to the point, the church’s large Bible disappeared at that time. Many years later a Bible containing enough inscriptions to reveal where it had come from was found in a New York City attic, and in due course it was returned to the Church of the Holy Trinity.

The Anglican and Episcopal Churches and the Roman Catholic Church grant parishes the authority to restrict the functions that chapels of ease may perform. Stated another way, parish rectors may give permission to chapels to perform such functions as baptisms and marriages. All four chapels mentioned here clearly had the right to conduct funeral services for all four had cemeteries. We know from parish records that the Zion chapel performed baptisms and marriages as well as burials and we assume that the other three had similar authorizations.

The progression of chapels of ease into churches is not uncommon. St. Helena’s took that step after the War for Independence, the Chapel of the Holy Trinity in 1835, and the Chapel of the Cross in 1854. The Zion Chapel of Ease disappeared, another casualty of the Civil War; now the two eucharistic chalices at St. Luke’s are the only physical connections of the islands current Episcopal churches with the past.