One of three octagonal churches in nation, historic McBee Chapel embraces new ministry
By Jessica Brodie
CONESTEE—On a lightly traveled street in Upstate South Carolina sits a historical gem that just happens to be one of three octagonal-shaped churches in the nation: McBee Chapel United Methodist Church.
McBee is tiny, with maybe 15 or 20 still attending the 176-year-old former mill church. But it is doing its best to revitalize, and its new pastor is hoping it will soon have a reputation as much for its commitment to ministry as for its unique shape and history.
From a once-a-month food pantry to a fledgling Kairos prison ministry to a partnership with the local fire department, McBee and its people are hoping to be the church, not just a building.
“We’re really trying,” said the Rev. Brian Underwood.
Steeped in history
“I was expecting a small basic rectangle, and wow,” he said.
Underwood has had a calling for several years to work with a small church and help build it up, re-engage it with the community. As it turned out, McBee was wanting just the same thing.
McBee was built in 1841 with funds from Alexander McBee and his father, Vandry, who owned and operated the nearby Conestee Mill. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in March 1972. The octagonal shape was a style popular in Europe and among Quakers. According to McBee records, studies showed more people can fit inside an octagonal building per footprint than any other shape—one-fifth more floor space than a square. At the time of its construction, accommodating a large number of people was a top concern; the mill employed many community members.
But the shape also provided a perfect vantage point, as every pew turns toward the pulpit. Church matriarch Helen Hendrix, the oldest member of McBee, said the building is in a remarkable state of preservation. The old bricks, once made by slaves, are still in prime shape. Handcrafted wood comprises the interior, with a white-painted circular altar rail. The bell still works in the louvered cupola, and its rope extends down the center of the church, where it can be rung. The altar table, pulpit and pulpit furnishings are in the original wood finish.
They still use the original key to the door, and even the pew chairs are old—while not the originals, they too are antiques, coming from an old movie theater in town that has since closed.
Six windows with large stained-glass panes let plenty of natural light inside. One used to be a door, which led to a balcony used by slaves, but the balcony was torn down and the congregation replaced the door with a window to match. The stove once used to heat the interior has been replaced with gas heaters.
On a two-point charge with St. John UMC, Greenville, McBee closed its doors only once in its 176 years: for one year during World War II when attendees dwindled too low to be operational. It reopened the very next year.
“It’s a family church, a second home to us,” Hendrix said. Her late husband grew up in the church, and they raised their two sons there. The sons and their families still attend each Sunday. “It’s a place that is really important to me, really important to us.”
Busloads come to tour the church sometimes, and an occasional group will come to worship in the unique setting. Hendrix typically leads the tours. She even remembers when people used to talk about the old days, when they’d come to church on horse and buggy.
Today, thanks to a new focus on mission with the local community, the church is hopeful that history can continue there for a new generation of Christians.
The food pantry, held the last Saturday of each month in a separate, newly constructed building on-campus with restrooms, serves 20-25 families. They try to connect with those they serve. While the items are handed out no-questions-asked, they make an effort to meet privately onsite with each family receiving the food, offering prayer and inviting them to church. Underwood is hoping to offer a short worship service during food pantry day, as well—a no-pressure, all-welcome sort of thing.
“So many people feel unwanted—you’re welcome here but not here—and we want them to know they’re welcome here,” he said.
McBee went through the Forward Focus process, trying to uncover a new missional direction for the congregation, and they are becoming far more aware of how society is changing right outside their door. They held a back-to-school festival in the fall, distributing school supplies and offering face painting, corn hole, balloons and more. Members held up signs at the road to invite people, and they had good attendance, Hendrix said.
They are bringing back the church Christmas musical program, they are learning about Kairos prison ministry and they have partnered with the chaplain at local fire department to help families in need through the McBee food pantry. They share a Bible study every Thursday with their sister church, St. John, and alternate locations between the two churches.
Underwood also hopes the church will be a venue for small weddings; the intimate setting photographs well.