Charleston, South Carolina is known as the “Holy City” because, from the time it was founded in 1670, it has been tolerant of the various religious beliefs of the citizens. The Holy City has a deep connection to “America’s Oldest City”, the City of St Augustine, founded in 1565. Several churches in St Augustine can trace their roots back to Charleston, including Trinity Parish. The Episcopal Parish is recognized for being the oldest Protestant church in the state.
As Historic City News reporters learned, in 1821, leaders of the various religious denominations decided to start their St Augustine churches. They wrote to the established churches in Charleston, asking them to send three people: a schoolteacher, a librarian, and a missionary.
“We have no idea if the schoolteacher and librarian showed up, but Andrew Fowler immediately got on a boat and sailed the three days south to St Augustine. The Episcopalians just happened to come first,” pointed out Reverend Matt Marino, rector at Trinity Parish, now celebrating its bicentennial. “I think that every church in St Augustine has some sort of tie back to Charleston.”
As the missionaries traveled from Charleston to St Augustine, in 1821, the yellow fever epidemic was forming in our city. In 1921, just 100 years ago, St Augustine found itself defending against the ravages of the Spanish Flu. Now, 200 years since the Charleston missionary visit, we are fighting once again — this time it is the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
Marino was eager to tell the story of the founding of his church during an interview that was produced by a local television station in Charleston to be broadcast for Easter. Charleston is a beautiful city any day, but right now at Easter, with the azaleas and other flowers blooming, it is stunning. Dr. Roger Smith also participated. As the museum director at the Ximenez-Fatio House, he knows his St Augustine history as well.
Marino went on to give a glimpse into the Charlestonian’s character.
- “When he arrived, they refused to let Fowler off the boat because they were in the middle of the Yellow Fever epidemic,” Marino explained. “Yellow fever was spreading rapidly through town, but Fowler’s faith compelled him to help.”
- According to Marino, the 61-year-old Fowler insisted, “You take me in or I’m going to swim ashore.” Call it luck or divine intervention, the minister never contracted yellow fever. “It was at a time when catching yellow fever was very easy to do — and, Fowler escaped,” Dr. Smith reflected. Reverend Fowler stayed in St Augustine for about a month.
- Reverend Marino and Dr Smith told reporters how Fowler ministered to any Christian after he arrived in St Augustine. In his way of working with everyone as he could, he gave last rites to over 90 Catholic parishioners. Fowler later wrote that even though he was Protestant, he wanted those victims to die with peace of mind and comfort.
After they got the yellow fever under control, Fowler started preaching and gathering a congregation. Those were the roots for Trinity Episcopal Parish on the town plaza across from the Catholic Basilica.
Dr. Smith added, “This was the first time that an American Protestant church had been founded in what we know as the entire state of Florida, it had always been Spanish and therefore Catholic, or when we were British, it was the Church of England.”
“We were started in an epidemic and the church always is at its best under pressure and struggle,” Reverend Marino said, realizing the irony of his response. “I know that is also true in Charleston, given conversations I’m having with other pastors here in St Augustine.”
Dr Smith was asked about the irony between the Yellow Fever, 200 years ago, and the COVID-19 pandemic today. He talked about how history is stranger than fantasy, then his eyes lit up.
“We found at the Ximenez-Fatio House, an authentic Caravaca Cross, which the Catholic Church commissioned in the 1660’s. It was produced to celebrate the end of the plague that had ravished Europe, Smith said. “Believe me when this pandemic is over, we’re having a “Caravaca Cross Party” here at the Ximenez-Fatio house!”