One of the most prominent and beautiful landmarks in Harpers Ferry (WV) is historic St. Peter’s Catholic Church, perched atop the highest point in Lower Town. For many visitors driving on U.S. Rt. 340 across the Shenandoah River, the spire atop St. Peter’s seems to beckon them to the special village.
Upon arrival, such visitors ascend the steps from Washington Street, hand-carved into bedrock nearly 300 years ago. The climb is a bit of a challenge, but the effort is rewarded by
the breathtaking and magnificent views that await. The street along the side of the church building is part of the Appalachian Trail. A short path leads from the church to Jefferson Rock and Harper Cemetery.
The historic chapel is constructed on property deeded to the church by descendants of Robert Harper, as per Harper’s will. The original church was erected largely by the Irish canal workers who donated their time and efforts on their days off. Construction took three years, from 1830-1833. It was the third (or possibly fourth) church in the frontier town.
During the era of John Brown’s raid through the end of the Civil War, St. Peter’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Michael Costello, worked heroically to protect his church and parishioners. He provided spiritual guidance as well as medical help to all in need: black/white, free/slave, North/South. Costello had many conversations with John Brown while Brown was incarcerated in Charles Town, and attended his spiritual being at his hanging. Costello is buried in the Catholic cemetery visible from U.S. 340.
Reverend Dr. Costello was an Irishman sent to America as a missionary. He is credited with saving his church by nailing the British Union Jack to its steeple. The South was courting the British to join the Confederate side; the North did not want international involvement. Hence, neither side fired on the building. St. Peter’s remained an active church throughout the War years, as well as a meeting place, safe haven, and medical station. When Costello was told that occupying anti-Catholic Union soldiers were planning to destroy its interior, the priest confronted the Union Commander, Sheridan, and disapproved in unambiguous terms.
Sheridan posted guards at the church. St. Peter’s was the first Catholic church on the Virginia frontier. Through its efforts, several Catholic missions, now full parishes, were established.
In recognition of being the premier parish, the original plain church was disassembled in 1895, and the current church was constructed on the original foundation. The new church is Gothic-fantasy style with Tiffany-style windows and a Carrara marble altar. The Church was closed as an active parish in 1995, but remains an active church and holds Mass on Sunday and special occasions.
St. Peter’s Church is a mission church of St. James in Charles Town. It is opened for visitors on weekends and holidays. Trained volunteers, often in period attire, are on duty Saturdays and holidays from 10am–4pm, and 12–3pm on Sunday (Memorial Day through October).
— Submitted by Patricia CowanBy Staff Contributor