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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Church in the Woods

Many years ago, I started my dissertation research on Church of England missionaries in early America, using the vast collection of letters they sent to the home office in London. As I ruined my eyes reading their spidery handwriting (and on microfilm, groan!), I came to look forward to some writers in particular.

One old Scottish minister in Rhode Island, James Honyman, was wonderfully grumpy (even by the standards of the group.) Another favorite was Brian Hunt, who may have been just a teeny bit demented by the experience of being stuck out in the middle of the woods of South Carolina. And yet another was the compassionate Frenchman Francis Le Jau, whose anxiety over the treatment of slaves and wonderful descriptions were striking for the early 18th century.

After I moved to Georgia, I started tracking down what remains of the world these men inhabited. I practically wept when I walked in Charleston. Discovering the ruins of Brian Hunt's church on a backroad was awesome, and even more so was finding the chapel that was built while he was minister, which had survived while the village around it had simply melted away.

But Francis Le Jau's church, St.James at Goose Creek, SC had eluded me. Several years ago, I went looking for it: It wasn't on the map and the locals I asked seemed (honestly) to have never heard of it. The web yielded no info. When I got home, I contacted Dr. Betty Wood at Cambridge University, knowing that she and Dr. Sylvia Frey of Tulane had somehow found St. James. "Oh, I can't remember how we got there," Betty lamented. "It certainly wasn't easy." So I forgot all about it...

This weekend, having some business in Charleston, I arrived at my hotel. It was advertised as being in North Charleston, but it was actually in Goose Creek. It was already 5:30 p.m., but I got on the web, and this time, it yielded an address that was a five-minute drive from the hotel. I popped on my shoes, grabbed my GPS (called Emily, by the way) and jumped in the car.

Following Emily's directions, I passed over a small but beautiful river on the marshes, and turned right onto a heavily-wooded road. Emily announced that my final turn was on the right, I turned....And there was a double gate. My heart sank. Then I noticed that the chain wasn't tied. I parked the car right there, and pulled on the gates. I puhed on the gates. Nothing. I thought about squeezing myself through the gates, then imagined the embarrassment if I got stuck. Beyond the gate, there was a dirt road that disappeared into the woods...Was it wise to go there alone, even if I could get in? And then I realized that the gates weren't attached to a fence...

I squeezed around the gate, and nervously set off on the path, calling my husband on my cell phone in case I should be arrested or murdered. Seconds later, I came to a halt with a daft smile on my face. There it was, a small, dignified, and gorgeous Georgian church, in the classical style with shutters on the windows, and a bricked-in churchyard, surrounded by live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss.

No matter how much the church has been repainted, damaged by earthquake, and restored, it is still the church where LeJau preached, counseled, argued, and sweated. On a soupy South Carolina evening, I stood before it in awe, and alone, except for the cicadas. The road was yards away, but it wasn't busy on this Sunday evening. Only the squat ranch house a few yards from the church reminded me of when I was.

A house? Uh-oh. Time to scarper before I got in trouble. I snapped a shot with my cell phone, and retreated to my car. I was three miles away before I realized that I hadn't saved the photo, leaving me with the peculiar feeling that perhaps I had imagined it all.

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