Sitting at the edge of a curvy, narrow,country road that bisects the marshes of St. Helena Island, is a tiny, whitewashed building with “Praise House” lettered in black over the door. St. Helena Island, just east of Beaufort, SC, is one of the many Sea Islands dotting the Lowcountry coastline of South Carolina and Georgia.
For three years we have been researching and photographing some of the church ruins, Methodist Campgrounds, and, of course, the praise houses which are so unique to the area. These tiny houses of worship have piqued my interest. Only three remain on St. Helena. Once there were many and their stories are fascinating.
On a recent summer’s morning, we pay this praise house a second visit for more photographs. It’s always been locked up and a little forlorn looking. As I am peeking through a curtained window, Mrs. Johnson comes from across the street. It seems she and her husband look after the place. We introduce ourselves as she unlocks the door and invites us in.
For the better part of the next hour, Mrs. Johnson tells us her story – she recently moved back to St Helena from New Jersey – and the history of this praise house. This area was once a part of the Mary Jenkins Plantation. Thus, we are standing in the Mary Jenkins Community Praise House. Prior to the Civil War, slaves who were living on plantations were often allowed to build small structures for worship known as praise houses. After Emancipation, former slaves who remained in the area would build more substantial praise houses. This one was built in 1900. Mrs. Johnson tells us that the community is dwindling and services are no longer held on a regular basis. But her eyes brighten and a smile crosses her face as she tells us that the services they do have are lively affairs with much hymn singing and praising, and ending with a shout. A shout was a tradition practiced by African slaves where the worshipers move in a circle as they chant, clap their hands, and shuffle and stomp their feet.
The Johnsons are concerned about preserving the Praise House and the traditions and memories that it represents. As we part with a hug and promise to return, she reminds us to visit the Mary Jenkins Cemetery just down the road. It’s in a wooded area and quite run down. Eerily quiet except for a mockingbird’s song. As we walk among the few marked graves we can’t help but wonder how many others must rest here, forgotten with the passing of time.
Spending time with Mrs. Johnson, and listening to her stories and her concern for the preservation of the Mary Jenkins Community Praise House, was a rare pleasure. The history and traditions of church life in the Lowcountry are fascinating and we are anxious to continue our exploration, mosquitos be damned. I have posted photo essays previously on the ruins of two pre-Revolutionary War churches. You can read them here and here.