Charleston is known as the “Holy City” for its impressive number of historic churches. The city’s skyline is distinctly dotted with cathedral spires dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Many historic churches open their doors and churchyards daily to visitors. (I recommend checking the church’s website for tour information.) Here’s my guide to visiting the city’s most historic and remarkable churches.
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
With the cornerstone laid in 1890, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist officially opened in 1907. It replaced an older cathedral that burned in 1861 during the Great Fire of Charleston. The interior has ornate German stained glass and hand–painted Stations of the Cross. Due to lack of funds during the building’s lengthy construction, the cathedral’s spire and bells were not completed until 2010.
Circular Congregational Church
Founded in the 1680s by a group of “dissenters” from the church of England (Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and French Huguenots), the first church on the site was called the “Meeting House.” Later Meeting Street was named for the church, and was on the western edge of the walled city. During the Revolutionary War the church was used as a hospital by the British. The Victorian structure is the fourth church on the site and dates from the 1890s. The church has the most renowned cemetery in the historic district and is a popular spot for ghost tours at night. The earliest unmarked grave dates from 1695.
Emanuel AME Church
Often called “Mother Emanuel,” this church is the oldest AME church in the south dating back to 1816. The original church was burned in 1822 by an angry mob after the Denmark Vesey slave revolt plot was revealed. Vesey was one of the church’s founders. In reaction to Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, in 1834 the city of Charleston outlawed black churches altogether, forcing Mother Emanuel’s congregation to meet secret until the end of the Civil War. The current building dates from 1891 and was designed by Charleston architect John Henry Devereux. On June 17, 2015, nine black parishioners were shot by a white supremacist while they were in Bible study. Today, the church is a symbol of strength and unity as the Charleston community has come together in the midst of tragedy.
First Baptist Church
Known as the oldest Baptist church in the South, the congregation’s first meeting house at 61 Church Street was built in 1701. The current Greek Revival structure was completed in 1822 by Charleston architect Robert Mills, who later famously designed the Washington Monument. Tours of the sanctuary are offered throughout the year, but hours are limited due to there being a school on site.
French Huguenot Church
Seeking religious freedom, French Huguenots settled in Charleston beginning in the 1680s. In 1687, a church was built on the corner of Church and Queen Streets. The Gothic Revival structure dates from 1845 and is painted a delightful shade of pink. Church tours are held in the spring and fall on weekdays.
St. Michael’s Episcopal Church
St. Michael’s is Charleston’s oldest church building, dating from 1761, though construction took approximately 10 years to complete. Lists survive naming the enslaved laborers who constructed the church. The steeple was used as a lookout during the Revolutionary War and Civil War. Two signers of the U.S. Constitution, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and John Rutledge, were buried in the cemetery. The church and cemetery are open most weekdays to visitors.
St. Philip’s Church
St. Philip’s Episcopal was the first Anglican church established south of Virginia. The building, dating from the late 1830s, is a National Historic Landmark and the congregation’s third sanctuary. The churchyard is a frequent stop for ghost tours looking for the ghost of John C. Calhoun. He was buried in the western churchyard, but during the Civil War his body was moved to the eastern churchyard near the chapel.
Unitarian Church of Charleston
Open early on selected weekends, this church provides free tours of their magnificent sanctuary. The church’s defining feature is the Gothic Revival fan-vaulted ceiling. The cemetery is eerily romantic; left in a natural state there are historic headstones intertwined with rambling wildflowers and vines.