St. Michael's Church

1761 –

(Charleston). In 1751 the General Assembly divided Charleston into two Anglican parishes and authorized construction of a new church on the southeast corner of Broad and Meeting Streets, at the center of the civic square platted on the Grand Modell plan of the 1680s and opposite the site selected for the colony’s first statehouse. Royal governor James Glenn laid the cornerstone in February 1752. The exterior was largely complete by 1756, and the church opened for services in 1761. Modern historians consider St. Michael’s Church to be one of the most sophisticated ecclesiastical buildings erected in the American colonies.

The design of St. Michael’s was influenced by contemporary English churches and is reminiscent of the London designs of Sir Christopher Wren and James Gibbs, but it cannot be definitively attributed to a single source or an architect. Samuel Cardy, an Irish builder, oversaw construction. The church is built of brick finished in stucco and fronted by a monumental portico. Its dominant feature is a 186-foot steeple that rises from a rusticated base in three octagonal sections before tapering to a peak, where it is surmounted by a weather vane with a gilt ball. Tuscan pilasters and arched windows with rusticated surrounds run the length of the side elevations. The congregation hall is richly ornamented. Suspended from a pendant in the center of the cove ceiling is a forty-two-light brass chandelier imported from England in 1803. The case of the original Snetzler organ, which was installed in 1768, occupies the rear wall of the gallery. The box pews, columns, gallery facings, and soffits are carved from red cedar. Placed on the walls in various locations are marble memorial plaques. The chancel is trimmed with Corinthian pilasters supporting a full entablature with a modillion cornice and foliated frieze moldings. A Tiffany stained glass window modeled on Raphael’s painting of St. Michael slaying the dragon is surrounded by eight small plaster columns. The English wrought-iron altar rail was installed in 1772.

The bells of St. Michael’s were imported from England in 1764. They were stolen by the British in 1782 and later returned. The church was damaged by Federal shelling during the Civil War. The bells were sent to Columbia for safekeeping but were severely damaged when that city burned in February 1865. After the war they were shipped to the Whitechapel Foundry, the original manufacturer, to be recast.

St. Michael’s is one of Charleston’s most enduring landmarks. It has inspired artists and writers for centuries, and its bells are featured in the musical score of the opera Porgy and Bess. The church was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1960.

Lane, Mills. Architecture of the Old South: South Carolina. Savannah, Ga.: Beehive, 1984.

Poston, Jonathan H. The Buildings of Charleston: A Guide to the City’s Architecture. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

Severens, Kenneth. Charleston Antebellum Architecture and Civic Destiny. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title St. Michael's Church
  • Coverage 1761 –
  • Author
  • Keywords Grand Modell plan, bells of St. Michael’s were imported from England in 1764, design of St. Michael’s was influenced by contemporary English churches and is reminiscent of the London designs of Sir Christopher Wren and James Gibbs, one of Charleston’s most enduring landmarks
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date September 23, 2020
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update September 16, 2016
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