On Jan. 11, Hilton Head Island’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Church officially marked 50 years with a special celebration service and anniversary event.
Although the Pope Avenue church has officially marked 50 years of services, its local heritage is closer to 250 years old. St. Luke’s is a name that has been associated with faith in the Hilton Head Island and Bluffton areas since the 1700s. Back then, the Church of England officially managed church life in South Carolina, and our present-day counties were known as parishes. In the year 1767, St. Luke’s became its own parish name, carved out of St. Helena Parish. It covered what is now southern Beaufort County.
The first St. Luke’s Episcopal Church building was erected in 1786 near Pritchardville. A group of cotton plantation owners and their families from Hilton Head Island were among the original parishioners.
Wearied by their weekly back-and-forth Sunday trek of more than 20 miles by flat-bottom boat and horse-drawn carriage, the Hilton Head planters built a mission church for St. Luke’s in 1788. They called it Zion Chapel of Ease – a simple wooden structure raised on a brick foundation. It briefly fell into disuse, but in 1833 was re-consecrated, and its legacy was affirmed the next year by the acquisition of two expensive silver chalices crafted by one of England’s most celebrated silversmiths, Edward Bernard & Sons.
The chapel shared ministers with the mainland St. Luke’s for several decades. Later, the Rev. James Stoney, rector at the Church of The Cross in Bluffton, began serving both congregations. Zion Chapel of Ease parishioners, however, were forced to flee in 1862 when Union troops invaded and occupied the strategic island.
Five years later, when Stoney returned to see what had become of the chapel, he found nothing left except the Baynard Mausoleum and gravestones beneath the majestic live oaks, which stand today near the intersection of Mathews Drive and Highway 278.
All of the island plantation homes were razed during the war, and Stoney learned Zion Chapel had been dismantled board by board to provide material for homes for newly freed slaves. Pillaging by Union troops had been rampant, and the church’s beautiful silver chalices had disappeared. St. Luke’s on the mainland also barely survived the post-war years. The dispersed congregation could not support it, so the remaining parishioners joined Church of The Cross, and in 1875 sold their St. Luke’s building to the Methodists. That church is still in use today on Highway 170 near Sun City’s back gate.
With the revitalization of Hilton Head Island as a vacation/retirement destination in the 1960s, the first developers, much like the first settlers 200 years earlier, realized churches would be critical to establishing a permanent community. Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser, who owned most of the island’s southern acreage, donated several sites for churches along Pope Avenue leading to Coligny Beach, and a group of Episcopalian families began organizing to build the first church structure.
The islanders convinced the bishop in Charleston to grant a new parish for Hilton Head. A chapel fund committee was formed and $70,000 was raised. The renowned St. Luke’s Tour of Homes fundraiser was inaugurated to help raise initial funds.
Architects were hired. A battered bell from a church in the Florida Keys that was destroyed by a hurricane was donated, as was the cherry wood for the chancel and altar rails and the giant clamshell baptismal font from Africa. Graves Construction Company built the sanctuary and the Rev. Henry Sizer was selected as first vicar of the new mission church.
On Christmas Eve 1964, 51 local residents filled the pews for St. Luke’s first service. The original chalices from Zion Chapel of Ease were used to serve Holy Communion for the first time in more than 100 years since disappearing in 1862.
According to one of St. Luke’s original parishioners, the chalices had been discovered in the 1940s by parents of a new bride as they searched a Philadelphia flea market for a wedding gift of silver goblets. When the decades of tarnish was finally removed, it was disclosed the goblets were actually chalices engraved “Zion Chapel of Ease, 1864.” A family member drove south from Philadelphia hoping to return them to their rightful altar, but finding the original chapel gone, he entrusted them to St. Helena’s Church in Beaufort to await a time when a successor to Zion Chapel of Ease would emerge. The chalices are now used each Sunday at St. Luke’s.
The Rev. Greg Kronz, pastor of St. Luke’s for the past 22 years, says the growing church is entering a new phase of expanded ministry and is looking to launch a capital campaign “to better serve our community.”
From the first dozen or so families that came together in 1964, St. Luke’s now has nearly 1,000 members on its rolls plus a vibrant pre-school and numerous outreach ministries. Memory Matters started at St. Luke’s, and the first Habitat for Humanity grew up at the church before launching on its own.
“The very nature of ministry has changed,” Kronz said. “We live in a day when many people in our society have moved away from the Lord and from the Bible, and we must be reaching out to them in different ways.”
Looking forward, Kronz said he prays that “St. Luke’s will continue to be effective in helping the community keep its bearings … to continue being a light for Jesus and the Gospel on an island known for its lighthouse.”