St. Cyprian’s Episcopal

McIntosh County
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Org 1876
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Photography by Wayne Moore

The church you see above is St. Cyprian’s Episcopal which was dedicated in 1876. Located in the quaint little village of Darien, St. Cyprian’s is one of those rare Episcopal churches that serve the African American community. It has a very interesting story that starts with Darien itself. The story of Darien is a fascinating one and has its beginnings in 1735, shortly after Oglethorpe established Savannah in 1733. Oglethorpe was concerned about protecting Savannah from incursions from the French and Spanish and consequently, the Salzburgers were brought in from Austria to protect the northern approaches and established the town of Ebenezer, 30 miles north of Savannah, in what is now Effingham County. To protect the more vulnerable southern approaches he sent two of his lieutenants to recruit “warrior farmers” from the west coast of Scotland, and they did just that. These Highlanders and their families set sail from the west coast of Scotland on October 18, 1735 on the Prince of Wales for the three month voyage. They disembarked at the mouth of the north branch of the Altamaha river on January 19, 1736 and thus began the settlement of Darien, named in honor of the Scots who attempted the ill-fated colony at the Isthmus of Darien in Panama.

One would never guess that the little village of Darien – population less than 2,000 – is the second oldest settlement in Georgia outside of Savannah. It also has five, yes five, very historical churches. The oldest of the churches in terms of founding date is the First Presbyterian Church of Darien, the “Cradle of Presbyterianism” in Georgia, having been established by Scottish Highlanders who settled this town in January, 1736. It was many years before any other denomination began to flourish as the Highlanders were all staunch Presbyterians. The St. Andrews Episcopal church was established in Darien in the early 1840’s, and by the late 1840’s the Rev. Thompson Smith worked much among the colored people, giving them afternoon services on Sundays at the different plantations. By 1856, the communicant strength at Darien rose to 37 white, 54 colored, total 91. The Episcopal church was well represented by both whites and blacks but the Civil War would soon change all of that.

On June 11, 1863 a catastrophic event occurred that was to change Darien forever. According to the local history ‘Darien was invaded, looted, and burned to the ground on June 11, 1863 by Union troops, which consisted mainly of black soldiers commanded by two white officers. Col. James Montgomery is blamed for the pointless destruction and was later relieved of his responsibilities. The other officer was 25-year-old Col. Robert G. Shaw, who died about a month later during a famous assault on Battery Wagner on Morris Island, which guarded the southern approaches to Charleston harbor. The movie “Glory” tells the story of Shaw and the burning of Darien. Because of this unnecessary conflagration, most of Darien’s records were lost, and very little of the antebellum Darien exists. The Civil War devastated the South, and ended the plantation culture that depended on free labor from slaves and access to capital’.

After the war the famous Butler Plantation across the river came under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Leigh who had married the daughter of Pierce Butler, the founder of the plantation. According to the history,’ Soon after his arrival at Butler Island in 1873, the Rev. Dr. Leigh also began a project which would provide a colored church in Darien. He obtained plans for the construction of the new black church and called it St. Cyprian’s for the martyred African Bishop. The blacks from Butler’s Island and Darien did the work themselves, and it was completed in 1876?. One of the features of this beautiful sanctuary is its construction of tabby, a common lowcountry building material used extensively in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The church is believed to be one of the largest tabby structures still in use in Georgia. There are not many black Episcopalian churches in Georgia and certainly not one with a storied history and tabby construction. A visit to St. Cyprian’s and the quaint village of Darien should be high on your list of low country destinations.

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