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What is the oldest church in Brunswick County?

Ben Steelman

It doesn’t have a roof any more, but the oldest church in Brunswick County is St. Philip’s Church at Brunswick Town State Historic Site, 8884 St. Philips Road SE, Winnabow [Map this]. This ruin was one of the largest Anglican houses of worship in the Southern colonies.

The colonial Assembly established St. Philip’s parish at Brunswick in 1741 (at the time as it set up St. James’ parish in Wilmington). Construction did not start until 1754, however, and even then the work went slowly. In 1759, the colonial government authorized a lottery to pay for the completion of the church building, and Gov. Arthur Dobbs pledged support, including the donation of a Bible and Communion plate. A storm in 1760, however, blew the roof off the unfinished building, slowing construction efforts further.

In 1765, Gov. Dobbs died and was buried somewhere inside the unfinished church. (The exact location of his grave is no longer known.)

After a second lottery, St. Philip’s was finally consecrated on May 24, 1768. The parish had a hard time keeping priests, though, and its fortunes sank as colonial Brunswick was gradually deserted. By 1781, the church was in ruins, apparently burned by British troops who destroyed the rest of the town.

The walls of St. Philip’s still stand, 3 feet thick and up to 24 feet high, with a floor plan 76 feet long and 54 feet wide. Pock marks — apparently from Civil War target practice, when the Confederates occupied Fort Anderson nearby — are still visible on the walls. A number of prominent North Carolinians are buried in the adjoining churchyard, including North Carolina Gov. Benjamin Smith and U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Alfred Moore. (Some of these notables were reburied at the site in 1899 by members of the Colonial Dames, seeking to make St. Philip’s a patriotic shrine.)

St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Southport, founded in 1851, takes its name from St. Philip’s. Members of the Southport parish occasionally conduct outdoor services within the ruins of their colonial namesake.

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