Formal worship in the Bluffton area traces its roots to the establishment in 1767 of St. Luke’s Parish, where a church was built near Pritchardville in 1787. Services on “The Bluff” of the May River first took place in the early 1830s. The young town of Bluffton was a summer resort for area and inland planters and a stop on the ferry route between Savannah and Beaufort. By 1842, a chapel was built near the current location of The Church of the Cross.
In July of 1854, construction of the present building began. Architect E. B. White designed a structure described then as a “handsome cruciform Gothic building”, which indeed it remains today. Fanned arches with a look of palmettos top its mullioned windows that are framed by latticed shutters. The builders sent to England for the rose-colored glass in the windows. Inside, soft-pink scored plaster enhances the warm light. Exposed pine timbers evoke power and stability.
In 1863, Federal troops marched into Bluffton burning most of the town. Although the church was spared, its congregation fled. Services on The Bluff resumed in 1870, when the Rev. E. E. Bellinger arrived and oversaw repairs.
In 1892, the roof was replaced, but the deadly hurricane of 1898 damaged it and the rest of the building. By February 1900, all was repaired. Workers remodeled the chancel and fashioned from the original pulpit and desk a walnut altar with a stone top, a lectern and a prayer desk. A chapel area was created in the narthex which was easy to heat for the sparse winter congregation.
The National Register of Historic Places has listed The Church of the Cross since 1975. In keeping with the church’s rapid growth, members built the first rectory in 1986. With the continuing growth that the church has experienced in recent years, this building became the church business office in 2001.
In 1997, the narthex wall was moved back to its original location, expanding nave seating for the growing congregation. Stairs now lead up to the renovated balcony above, which is home to the choir and the beautiful English pipe organ installed in 1999.
The Church of the Cross celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2004.
The Church of the Cross has seen much during the century and a half plus it has graced the May River bluff. The historic church offers much more than a lovingly restored architecture. It shelters a fellowship of Christians — growing even more rapidly than Bluffton — with a long history of devotion to the community.
Rooted in the Past
Passing through the heavy pine front doors at The Church of the Cross seems like a step into a time long gone. It’s easy to imagine the summer congregation of island planters beginning June Sundays with worship. You can almost feel the cool morning air wafting through open windows as the harmonies of hymns float out. You might picture the small winter congregation in 1900 huddling around a potbellied stove in the narthex chapel, listening to St. Matthew's recounting of the nativity on a chilly Christmas Eve. Indeed many church members recall such days and nights until the early 1980's. They remember the leaky roof, visiting priests, and bees and squirrels nesting in the walls and crevices.
Sheltering the Present
In the two decades since The Church of the Cross grew from a mission to a parish in the Diocese of South Carolina, the number of parishioners has increased twenty fold and in excess of seventy lay-led ministries have been added to serve the parish and surrounding communities.
Members of the parish founded Cross Schools Inc. and opened with seven first graders in 1998. Land was purchased for a school campus in 2000. The school continued to grow, adding a grade each year, in rented space until the construction of its first building in 2005. Today Cross Schools serves approximately 500 students ranging from eighteen month old toddlers through eighth grade; plans are well underway to add a high school program in the near future.
The school is mentioned in the parish’s history because it functions in a Spiritual partnership with the parish to reach the families of young children with the Good News of God in Christ. Since the opening of its beautiful facilities, the parish has leased space on the campus to conduct contemporary Sunday morning worship services and mid-week youth programs.
Reaching Out to the Future
In addition to its Gospel partnership with Cross Schools, the parish is intent on maintaining its place in the vanguard of those congregations committed to reaching our ever-changing culture with the never-changing truths of Scripture. To that end the latest technological advances are embraced as welcome tools to expand the parish’s sphere of Gospel influence. A virtual campus is now being developed that will enable the parish’s influence to transcend geographical and denominational limitations to connect formerly churched believers in locations where orthodoxy has all but disappeared. The parish is also deeply committed to its partnerships for leadership and parish development with the Diocese of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh in Ireland and St. Mary and St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in St. John, Canada.
Empowered by the God of the Ages
With the Lord’s help, our growing congregation builds on tradition so rich in the Anglican Church and The Church of the Cross in particular. We know our historic church on Calhoun Street provides a scenic stop on many Lowcountry tours and that makes us proud; but we also believe the legacy of The Church of the Cross reaches much deeper than its impressive facade. Just as plain pine boards grew into an extraordinary building, we’re evolving from a simple country parish to serve a growing and changing community, locally, regionally and globally. Won’t you join us as we give thanks for our rich past, meet today’s challenges and nurture our faith in a bright future?