St. Michael’s: An Historical Overview
St. Michael’s Church is the oldest church edifice in the City of Charleston, standing on the site of the first Anglican Church built south of Virginia. In the 1680’s a small wooden church, the first in the new town of Charles Town, was built on this spot for the families of the Church of England, and named St. Philip’s. By 1727, the town had grown too large for the small church and a more spacious one was built of brick on Church Street, later destroyed by fire in 1835.
By 1751, St. Philip’s had again proved too small for the increasing population, and another church as authorized by the General Assembly of the Province, to be built on the old site and to be known as St. Michael’s. The cornerstone was laid in 1752 and in 1761 the church was opened for services. Except for the addition of the sacristy in 1883 on the southeast corner, the structure of the building has been little changed.
Although the architect’s name is unknown, the type of architecture follows the tradition of Sir Christopher Wren, generally used during our Colonial period and up to the Gothic revival in 1841. The design carries out worship according to the Book of Common Prayer, where the service is to be heard and all the worshippers are to participate. The altar is close to the congregation in a shallow recess, the apse, with the choir and organ in the rear. A gallery on three sides brings more people closer to the center of worship. St. Michael’s is one of the few city churches in America that has retained this original design.
In the main vestibule, a table on the west wall gives an historical outline of the church. To this may be added the tornado of 1938, which struck the building with such severity that services had to be held in the parish house for many months while repairs were being made.
The steeple is 186 feet in height; the weather vane is 7 ½ feet long. The entire steeple sank eight inches as a result of the earthquake in 1886. The font was imported from England in 1771.
The large, long double-pew in the center of the church, No. 43, originally known as “The Governor’s Pew,” is the one in which President George Washington worshipped on Sunday afternoon, May 8, 1791. General Robert E. Lee also worshipped in the pew some seventy years later. The pews, of native cedar, are very much the same as they have always been except for the addition of ten, filling up what was once an aisle from the south door to a north door (now filled by the “Annunciation” window), thus originally making a cruciform design with the main (east-west) aisle.
The chandelier, ordered form London in 1803, now electrified, was first lighted with candles and later with gas.
The pulpit is the original one, remarkable for its height and the massive sounding board supported by two Corinthian columns. Its prominence bears out the fact that at the time the Church was built, the center of interest in the service was the sermon, conflicting with the central place planned for the altar. The panel with the ΙΗΣ was taken as war booty following the War Between the States and then later voluntarily returned and replaced. Although the present reading desk was given in 1892 as a memorial, it is in the location of the original desk, and together with the pulpit above it make sup what is called a “double decker”.
In 1865 during the Federal bombardment of the city, a shell burst near the chancel. A scar is still to be seen at the base of the pulpit.
The Altar is Victorian, having been presented in 1892 as a memorial. The chancel chairs were purchased by the Vestry in 1817. The chancel rail of wrought iron, dating from 1772, is a fine example of English hand work of the period. It was the first important piece of wrought iron to be imported to Charleston.
The present chancel decoration was executed by Tiffany in 1905. The design in the half-come was originally blue sky with gold stars and a golden sunburst. The ten small Corinthian columns also date form 1905. The chancel window, installed as a memorial in 1893, shows St. Michael’ casting out the dragon, after Raphael’s painting.
The two stained-glass windows in the north aisle, “Easter Morning” and “The Annunciation” were presented to the church in 1897 and 1908, respectively. The stained-glass door in the south side of the church dates from 1915. A long term restoration and preservation project for the stained glass of St. Michael’s has recently been completed as part of St. Michael’s 250th Anniversary celebration.
The original organ was made by John Snetzler in London; it was installed in 1768. The case, which was altered several times, was refinished and restored to its original configuration in 1994 by Kenneth Jones of Bray, Ireland. Jones built a new 40-stop, 51-rank tracker organ to fit in and behind the Snetzler case. St. Michael’s had one of the first choirs of surpliced boys in this county. The Vestry records mention them as early as 1794.
The clock and ring of eight bells were imported from England in 1764. The clock originally had only an hour hand for each face. In 1849, City Council asked permission to add a minute hand, which was granted. The Ainsworth-Thwaites clock was restored by Smith of Derby, London, England, in 1993. It is thought to be the oldest functioning colonial tower clock in the country.