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Chapels of Ease

The name sounds soothing, peaceful, an apt description of the many crumbling ruins of abandoned small churches that dot the Lowcountry, most of them hidden in isolated wooded sites that were once bustling with activity. These surviving chapels of ease served as houses of worship for plantation owners and workers who lived far from their parish's main church, saving them hours of travel over muddy, rutted paths on a Sunday morning.

Pon Pon's Front Facade

Closest to us is Colleton County's Pon Pon Chapel, between Jacksonboro and Walterboro along what was once the main road between Charleston and Savannah. ("Pon Pon" is thought to be adopted from Native Americans' name for the Edisto River.) Built in 1725 as a wooden structure and rebuilt thirty years later in brick, it's said that Washington himself stopped here to worship during his 1791 Presidential tour of the Lowcountry as he traveled toward Walterboro, then the county seat. Other famous visitors included John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, who gave two sermons here in 1737. Pon Pon survived until 1832 when, after a series of fires, it fell into disrepair. What remains is the front facade, stabilized and restored in 1975, along with the graveyard where locals continued to bury their dead long after the chapel had fallen to ruin.

St. Helena's Chapel of Ease

Somewhat more intact is the chapel of ease on St. Helena's Island, some twenty miles from downtown Beaufort. Constructed between 1742 and 1745 using the mixture of oyster shells, lime and sand known as tabby, the chapel served as a house of worship for members of downtown Beaufort's St. Helena's Church who lived and worked on the surrounding rice and cotton plantations. Its walls shone so brightly on sunny days that it became known as The White Church. During the Reconstruction period, it was used by Northern educators who came to the Sea Islands to teach reading and writing to freed Blacks at the nearby Penn Center. The chapel was abandoned after extensive fire damage in 1886.

The Fripp Mausoleum

But it survives with a whiff of the supernatural, from events during the Civil War when invading Union troops broke open the door of the graveyard's mausoleum containing the remains of chapel founder Edgar Fripp and his wife, hoping to find treasure. Workers after the war bricked up the entrance again, but returned the next day to find the bricks removed and neatly stacked. Convinced that "haints" had been at work, the workers never returned and the empty vault stands today with its entrance still gaping.

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1 Comment

Aldrich Boss
Aldrich Boss
Sep 01, 2023

There is one even closer. There is a Chapel of Ease on Wadmalaw Island in Rockville. Grace Chapel, erected in the late 1830's, is a Chapel of Ease owned by St. John's Episcopal Church. A small, beautiful chapel that still holds summer and other occasional services.

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