The father of Greenville, Vardry McBee, believed that in order for a city to grow successfully, it needs churches, schools, and law. This is why he gave designated land for four churches (and his son later gave land for a fifth) centrally located in downtown Greenville starting in the 1820s.
Three of these churches will be featured in this year’s Open Doors: A Walk Through History. Christ Church Episcopal, First Presbyterian Church, and Buncombe Street United Methodist Church have been in Greenville since the early to mid-1800s, and despite updates and restorations, each has maintained its original grandeur. Through wars, development, and the city’s ever-changing landscape, these three churches remain integral to parts of downtown Greenville.
The tour will take visitors through a walk of each church, showcasing some of their unique features including historic architecture, unique stained glass, and beautiful organs.
First Presbyterian Church
When First Presbyterian was founded in 1845, there were few Presbyterians in Greenville. A woman named Sarah Gant wanted to bring a Presbyterian church to the city. Despite some initial opposition, First Presbyterian Church was ultimately founded by 13 founding members, including eight women.
“We do this because we are proud of our church, but we think about all the people from 170 years ago who have come through this church for baptism or marriage or services, and the history is so important, but we are most excited about looking forward,” says volunteer Carl Evans. “It is an outreach to the people of downtown Greenville to show off what we do.”
First Presbyterian members are especially proud of their Casavant Frères pipe organ, which will be played by their organist during the tour. Visitors will also be able to hear about the changes in the sanctuary over the years and its unique stained-glass pieces.
Christ Church Episcopal
Founded in 1820, Christ Church Episcopal is the oldest church in Greenville. The church was initially founded as a mission parish for people from the Lowcountry. “It started as a summer chapel. They called us the ‘snap bean church.’ When snap beans were in season, the church was in season,” explains Emily Davis, director of adult fellowship and welcoming ministries.
Eventually, the area saw the need for a year-round Episcopal Church as Greenville grew. “We are especially excited for Open Doors because we have been closed for … [a year and a half] for restoration,” Davis says. “We felt like restoring the church was a gift to our future generations.”
Much of Christ Church’s stained glass features originate from the Mayer Studio in Munich. The window under the altar, referred to as the Ascension Window, is one of the few pieces of stained glass that depicts the Last Supper and the resurrection. “It has been through a lot. It was one of the last stained-glass windows to be shipped out of Germany before World War I,” Davis says. “We also have a Tiffany stained-glass window that has beautiful blue colors in the light.”
First Presbyterian features Gothic architecture, and the church also has a unique organ that will be showcased during the tour. “We are excited for the community to see what we have done and are proud to show it off,” Davis says. “We have been the beneficiary of Greenville’s growth because we have had so many new members come to town. Our membership is growing constantly.”
Buncombe Street Methodist Church
Buncombe Street Methodist Church, founded by four women and one man, was located on Coffee Street from 1832 to 1873 when it was moved to its current location on Buncombe Street.
The church has gone through several additions over the years, and the sanctuary was expanded to double its capacity in 1951.
“We are excited for everyone to see our sanctuary, as it is somewhat different from the other churches participating in Open Doors,” says Bill Adkins, chairman of the archives and history committee.
Adkins says the Methodist movement has a significant place in Greenville’s history. “There have been Methodists in Greenville since there were Methodists,” he says. “It is an American church, and we have been here for a long time.”
Adkins stresses that the religious community in Greenville is a key part of the city’s history and growth over the years. Buncombe Street Methodist features a distinct Greek revival style of architecture and does not have a steeple.
“It makes us unique,” Adkins says. “I don’t think there are many people that care to add one.” He says that more than any aspect of the architecture, the church’s congregation is what makes the Buncombe Street community so special.
Open Doors: A walk through history will be held 9 a.m. to noon, Saturday March 24, 2018.