BEAUFORT -- Three times each week when Elsie Holmes Mollison was a little girl, she and her neighbors on St. Helena Island's Coffin Point packed into a white, one-room building no more than 10 feet by 15 feet.
They crammed together -- 10, 20, 30 or more people at a time -- to clap their hands, stomp their feet and extol Jesus in a melding of Christian and African rituals. They also gathered there to share news and settle disputes, as the island's blacks did at 30 or so other praise houses scattered about St. Helena.
But that was decades ago.
Progress has brought bigger congregations and more lavish church buildings. Meanwhile, the wooden praise houses around Beaufort County are crumbling or being demolished faster than they can be preserved. Those still standing seldom host regular religious ceremonies, let alone the kind of community meetings that made them a focal point of daily life.
"There's something missing today," said Mollison, 88. "We don't have that same close community anymore."That's why Mollison and a handful of others hope for the preservation of the few remaining praise houses and the way of life they symbolize.Once, when the church bell rang, the flock gathered.
The sound could mean worship was about to start. Or it could mean a baby had been born, a neighbor had died or the community needed to tend to important business. Praise house elders wielded the bells and much power -- a power that was both spiritual and secular."The praise house leader was much respected," said Mary LeGree, president of the Coffin Point Community Association. As a child, she attended the Coffin Point praise house with her grandmother. "The praise houses were really the center of the community. That's where the people came together, not only to worship but to make decisions.
"Back then, the people helped each other and depended on each other. There was a real bond."The praise house tradition traces its origin to antebellum times, when slaves seldom were allowed to attend services with whites or to congregate in large numbers because of plantation owners' fears they might hatch a rebellion. Instead, slaves were allowed to assemble in a modest house or cabin on a plantation's row of slave quarters, according to Kitty Green, who has researched the religious practices of Lowcountry blacks and who owns Gullah-N-Geechie Mahn Tours.
White ministers -- particularly of the Baptist and Methodist denominations -- sometimes visited to lead services, but the slaves were left mostly to themselves. Thus, worship in the praise houses became an amalgam of their old African rituals and their newfound religion, Green said.
The praise house tradition did not end with slavery. Indeed, it flourished well into the 1930s, when as many as 25 operated on St. Helena Island, according to several histories.
Worship there remained spartan and uniquely shaped by the conditions of the black communities they served.For instance, entire congregations sometimes shared a single hymnal and a lone Bible, which was just as well since a majority could not read, according to Robert Ralph Middleton, 83, who still worships at the Croft Plantation praise house on St. Helena Island's Eddings Point Road. That gave power and status to the literate and shaped the method of worship -- for example, songs usually were performed in call-response fashion, with the leader singing the words and the congregation repeating them.
Among the praise houses that have either deteriorated beyond recognition or been demolished is the Eddings Point praise house, which remains on the National Register of Historic Places. Three other Beaufort County praise houses in that registry remain -- the Coffin Point, Mary Jenkins and Croft Plantation houses, all on St. Helena Island.
At least three other structures still standing in Beaufort County have been used as praise houses as well.LeGree said praise houses are difficult to preserve because many sit on private land owned by people who cannot afford their upkeep or who live elsewhere and don't appreciate historic value.