History of St. Peter's Catholic Church & School,
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Christopher C. Fennell

dividing bar


St. Peter's Church, 1895

St. Peter's Church and Rectory
and Lower Town, Harpers Ferry, circa 1895.

This is an historical account of some of the events and people involved in the creation, operation and activities of St. Peter's Catholic Church and School. It is a partial account only, based on research using available documentary evidence, such as correspondence, wills, deeds, photographic records, and newspaper articles from the relevant time periods. Such documentary evidence provides only a limited view of the many past experiences, varied personalities, and dynamics of social and religious life which revolved around this place in times past. Hopefully, as we obtain additional data from other documentary sources and the archaeological record, this account will grow in detail, breadth, and in the variety of past perspectives that can be represented.

Creation of the Parish

Construction of St. Peter's Catholic Church in Lower Town, Harpers Ferry, started in 1830 and was completed in 1833 (Smith 1959: 6, 13). It was the third church built in Harpers Ferry, and the only church not located on government land (Theriault 1996). Before 1830, the nearest Catholic Church was located in Martinsburg, several miles to the northwest of Harpers Ferry. Reverend John Gildea was the first pastor of St. John Catholic parish, which was established in Martinsburg in 1825, with Harpers Ferry assigned to him as a mission (DWC History: 1). In 1830, Church officials decided that the number of persons seeking to attend Catholic services in Harpers Ferry had increased to a sufficient level to justify construction of a new parish there (Magri & Dittmeyer 1930: 6). By some accounts, Father Gildea had arranged for an earlier Catholic church to be built in the late 1820's along Shenandoah Street in Lower Town, but it was promptly destroyed by a flood.

Several churches of different denominations were established in Harpers Ferry over the period of 1825 through 1852. The Free Church was Harpers Ferry's first, built in 1825 on property adjacent to the location of St. Peter's. It was destroyed by fire in 1845, and St. John's Episcopal Church was built on the same property in 1852 (Shackel 1996: 166; Null 1983; Snell 1959d: 2-4). Other churches established in Harpers Ferry included a Methodist Episcopal church in 1828, St. Peter's in 1833, a Presbyterian church in 1841, Methodist Protestant in 1843, and Lutheran in 1850. Before the establishment of these churches, Armory managers complained about the lack of a focal point for maintaining the moral and religious discipline of Armory workers and their families, and residents often met in assembly areas such as workshops for Sunday services (Snell 1959d: 1, 3-7; Shackel 1996: 166).

A May 5, 1830, notice in the Virginia Free Press sought financial contributions for the building of the new St. Peter's parish: "'Subscriptions have been opened at Harpers Ferry, for the erection of a Roman Catholic Church at that place; and it is stated that liberal contributions have been made by persons of other denominations, as well as by members of that Society.'" (Smith 1959: 6, quoting Virginia Free Press, May 5, 1830, p. 3, col. 1). A cornerstone was set on October 15, 1830, and construction started in that year, even though the property had not yet been fully conveyed to the Church (Magri & Dittmeyer 1930: 6). John Tearney, a master stone mason, supervised construction of the first Church building (Gilbert 1995: 59).

A May 9, 1833, article in the Virginia Free Press described the creation of this new parish as follows:

The new Catholic Church at Harpers Ferry was consecrated on Sunday last [May 5, 1833], by Archbishop Whitefield of Baltimore, aided by the Rev. [John] Gildea, and two other clergymen from Maryland[.] Indisposition prevented us from witnessing the ceremony, but we learn that it was interesting and imposing.
The Church is a very neat edifice, built upon ground given by the Wager family. It does great credit to the indefatigable Pastor, under whose auspices it was commenced and finished, and to the community who contributed to its erection, - It stands upon the western hill, and adds much to the village by way of ornament. (Smith 1959: 7, quoting Virginia Free Press, May 9, 1833, p. 3, col. 1)
During the years of construction, services had been held in halls and private homes in Harpers Ferry (Magri & Dittmeyer 1930: 6). The parishes in Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg were included in the Diocese of Richmond, until the creation of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston under a decree of Pope Paul VI in 1974 (DWC Background: 1; DWC History: 2).

diamond Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston Web Site
diamond History of the Diocese of Richmond
diamond Diocese of Richmond Web Site

From 1833 through 1896, the structure of St. Peter's Church was 39 feet wide, 75 feet long, and had an interior height of 25 feet to the eaves. It was one story tall, built with brick walls over a stone foundation, an oversized front facade of brick, and a central steeple made of wood (Smith 1959: 7; see 1861, 1865, 1890 and 1895 images above and below). There were four arched windows on each side wall, and one window in the Vestry room at the rear of the Church (the west end). The front facade had three arched windows and two round windows, along with the entry door, and four stone steps leading up to that entrance.

The interior included arched ceilings, a marble pulpit, and an image of the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus (Smith 1959: 7-8). Samuel Kercheval's 1833 History of the Valley of Virginia stated: "The Roman Catholic Society have erected several chapels in several places. They have built a superb edifice at Harper's Ferry, with a beautiful pulpit, with the image of the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus in her lap" (Kercheval 1850: 318).

Maintenance and improvements were undertaken in the following decades, often with the help of funds raised through local fairs and festivals organized by parishioners. The Church received a new altar, made by an artisan named "Mr. Vilwig" of Winchester, Virginia, in 1877. A new pipe organ was installed in 1882 (Virginia Free Press, Oct. 6, 1877, p. 3, col. 3; Sept. 23, 1882, p. 2, col. 2). A local newspaper noted that the Church had received a fresh coat of paint in 1877, and new frescoes were planned for completion by the Christmas of 1881 (Virginia Free Press, Oct. 13, 1877, p. 3, col. 3; Spirit of Jefferson, Dec. 6, 1881, p. 3, col. 1).

St. Peter's Church, 1890

St. Peter's Church and Rectory, 1890.
© Leib Collection, York, Pennsylvania.
Click on the image above for a larger view.

Robert Harper and his great grand nephews, James B. Wager and Gerard B. Wager, and his great grand niece, Sarah Ann Wager, had donated the property on which St. Peter's stands (Magri & Dittmeyer 1930: 20). Harper's last will and testament in 1782 set aside approximately four acres for use in establishing a Church. The three Wager siblings implemented his desire in 1831 by conveying the land on which St. Peter's is now located to the Catholic Church (Magri & Dittmeyer 1930, app., quoting Jefferson County, West Virginia Deed Book 17, pp. 6-7, May 10, 1831). These conveyances provided that the land could only be used for establishment of a religious institution. Those conditions were satisfied, and the Catholic Church has retained ownership of this land to the present.

diamond Harper's 1782 Will and the Wagers' 1831 Deed
diamond Chronology of Pastors & Clergy at St. Peter's

St. Peter's Church was the focal point for a variety of religious and social activities over the years. Marriages, funerals and mass services were held regularly. The Bishop for the local diocese officiated at Confirmation services at St. Peter's nearly every year. Fairs, picnics and festivals were held to raise funds for a variety of causes, including charity efforts and improvements for the Church and its congregation.

St. Peter's was also a focal point for a growing temperance movement in the 1840's. John H. Hall, an inventor from Massachusetts who operated a local rifle works, had undertaken an earlier effort to organize and operate a "Temperance Society" at Harpers Ferry in the 1830's. However, this society apparently became inactive by the early 1840's, as other abstinence societies were forming.

Hall was not alone in attempting to promote temperance in such manufacturing communities. The managers at the Springfield, Massachusetts armaments factory prohibited the consumption of alcohol on factory grounds and would terminate the employment of anyone found violating this rule. In contrast, James Stubblefield, the second Superintendent of the government-run armory in Harpers Ferry (from 1815-1829), did not promote temperance. Ever an entrepreneur, Stubblefield owned a part interest in a local distillery and had relatives who owned a tavern in the town. Along with Armistead Beckham, the first master armorer (from 1815-1830), Stubblefield also owned shares of the firm of Wager, Beckham, which operated a retail store on the armory grounds. Rather than condemn consumption of alcohol by armory workers, Stubblefield tended to encourage it as long as no one became disruptive (Smith 1977: 150-51; Shackel 1996: 114).

diamond Chronology of Temperance Movements, 1830-1850

At the same time that Hall's efforts declined in the early 1840's, a number of "Total Abstinence Societies" were organized in Harpers Ferry in conjunction with local churches. The activities of these societies gained momentum throughout the 1840's and 1850's. The Catholic Total Abstinence Society of Harpers Ferry was organized in association with the activities of St. Peter's Church. That society had enlisted 383 members by 1843, and continued to grow thereafter (Virginia Free Press, Jan. 19, 1843, p. 3, c. 1).

Many temperance and abstinence societies were organized in other manufacturing towns in the early 1800's. This trend was motivated in part by reformist sentiments earlier created by the evangelical movement called the second great awakening. It was also motivated by the concerns of proprietors and industrialists who relied upon a productive work force (Wallace 1978: 296-97, 322; Johnson 1978: 60-61, 79-84). The activities of many temperance societies were eclipsed during the Civil War. However, they again gained momentum in the late 1800's, particularly through promotion targeted at members of the working middle classes, and resulted ultimately in the national prohibition of alcohol in the 1920's (Mrozowski et al. 1996: 71-74).

The First School House & Rectory

The Church acquired additional adjoining land by lease in 1854, on which it built a school house, which is today part of the existing Rectory building on the west side of the Church. The Church first requested that this parcel be provided under a lease, as reflected in a December 16, 1853, letter from Superintendent Benjamin Huger of the Harpers Ferry Armory to Colonel Henry Craig of the U.S. Ordnance Office:

The catholic Church at this place are desirous of erecting a school house near their church which by reference . . . is situated on the S.W. corner of the Six Acre [Wager] Reservation. The body of the church is on the reservation, but the Vestry room on the West end, projects over on the Government land. The trustees of the School wish to have the strip they now occupy, and an additional piece to the West of it granted to them as a school lot to build a house upon . . . . (Snell 1959c: 8, quoting Dec. 16, 1853 letter from Huger to Craig, Microfilm Reel 26, vol. 2, p. 134)
The Government granted this request in 1854 by granting a leasehold for a 20-year term, and later conveyed full title in these parcels to the Church on December 15, 1868. Government land records referred to this parcel on the west side of the Church as Lot 9, Block I, of the Camp Hill section (Snell 1959c: 9-11).

A school house was built on that parcel between 1854 and 1857, and was later converted into the existing Rectory in 1889 (Smith 1959: 14; Snell 1959c: 8-9; Theriault 1996). This school house was built as a two-story stone structure, and the exterior was covered in plaster and scored to resemble the outlines of cut stones. The building had a cupola centered on the ridge of the roof, and a large two-story porch on the south side, both of which were later removed (Snell 1959c: 9; Theriault 1996).

This first school was open to Catholic and non-Catholic students alike, and was operated until approximately 1886, when a second school house was built for St. Peter's on Shenandoah Street (Snell 1959c: 9; Magri & Dittmeyer 1930: 20). The Church building was originally 60 feet to the east of this first school house, but is now closer after the 1896 reconstruction of the Church. The Catholic Church has retained ownership and possession of these additional parcels and improvements to the present day (Smith 1959: 2, 9, 13).

1857 landscape rendering
View Artists' Renderings
of Harpers Ferry in 1857 and 1859

1859 landscape rendering

Restoration work on the Rectory in 1971 and 1972 revealed details of the construction of this first school house. The original dimensions of the building were 40 feet in length and 22 feet in width. A later addition of 10 feet extended off the west end. This addition is evident by the existence of an original exterior bearing wall, which is 24 inches thick and made of stone, located 10 feet inside the current west facade (Gavin n.d.: 3-4). The building sits directly on an out-cropping of Harpers Ferry shale, which intrudes into the space of the basement. The original walls appear to be made of the same type of stone used in the dry-stacked retaining walls on the north and south sides of the Rectory grounds (Gavin n.d.: 4). Those retaining walls were likely built by Armory personnel as part of general landscaping work undertaken around the time the school house was constructed (Snell 1959c: 10).

The Church and School in 1865.
Click on this image to see
enlarged portions of an 1865 photograph.
1865 Church Photograph

The privy off the west end of the Rectory is also made with a stone base, which was unusual for such an outbuilding. Most privies in the area were built of wood frames (Gavin n.d.: 4). It was likely constructed at the same time as the first school house. This privy is visible in a photograph made in 1865, shown above (Snell 1959a: 112-13; Harpers Ferry Archive Photo No. HF-361), and in another taken between 1892 and 1896 (Snell 1959a: 116; Photo No. HF-99).

A timber frame bell tower was added to the grounds in approximately 1880, and stood just north of the northwest corner of the school house. This bell tower served the Church until a year or two after completion of the 1896 Church renovations, which added a new stone bell tower on the southeast corner of the Church. In 1890, an earlier bell weighing 400 pounds was replaced with a new bell weighing 1,400 pounds. The new bell, made by the McShane firm of Baltimore, was 3 feet 6 inches tall and cost $430.00 (Virginia Free Press, June 4, 1890, p. 3, col. 1; Spirit of Jefferson, July 29, 1890, p. 3, col. 4). This tower is visible in photographs taken in 1886, 1890 and 1895 (above).

1865-1900 map excerpt
St. Peter's Church and Rectory, 1865-1900.
Click on the image to the left for a detailed
map of the site's structures and features.

The Second School House

A second school house was built in 1886 on the north side of Shenandoah Street, on a lot at the base of the slope off the south side of the Church (see 1865-1900 map above). This second school house was one and half stories tall, and was made of brick. It was open to Catholic and non-Catholic students alike, and was operated from 1886 to 1899, when school operations ended due to a shortage of students (Snell 1959c: 9). The reduction in the number of school-aged children likely resulted from a general trend of families moving out of Harpers Ferry to other towns and cities in the region that offered greater employment opportunities (Magri & Dittmeyer 1930: 20).

Second School House, 1895.
Click on this image to see
the second School House
in an 1895 photograph excerpt.
1895 Photograph excerpt

This school building was slightly damaged by fire in 1896, and promptly repaired (Spirit of Jefferson, Nov. 24, 1896, p. 3, col. 3). It fell into disuse after the school was closed in 1899. Eventually, the ruins of this building were removed from the lot in the mid-1950's, after the State of West Virginia acquired the property from the Church (Snell 1959c: 12; Jefferson County, Deed Book 191, pp. 259-60, Jan. 7, 1953, Harpers Ferry Archive, Doc. No. HFD-174).

The Parsonage Unbuilt

The Church had earlier considered building a parsonage on another lot on the south side of Shenandoah Street in Harpers Ferry. On August 13, 1852, Reverend Joseph Plunkett, the pastor of St. Peter's, wrote a letter to Colonel Benjamin Huger, the Superintendent of the Armory. He stated that the "'Bishop of Richmond asks for a parsonage for his church at this place,'" and he observed that "'Vacant Lot No. 2, on Block D, Shenandoah St.'" would be suitable (Snell 1959b: 13, quoting letter from Plunkett to Huger, Aug. 13, 1852, Microfilm Reel 26, vol. 2, p. 141). In June 1852, Secretary of War C. M. Conrad had issued a directive stating the government's desire to encourage the establishment of churches, schools, and other public institutions in Harpers Ferry by reserving lots for such use (Snell 1959b: 13-14).

1815-1865 map excerpt
Lot 2, Block D, Shenandoah Street.
Click on the image to the left for a
map showing the unused site for a parsonage.

This Lot 2 was part of a tract purchased by the U.S. government from John Wager, Sr. for use in establishing the Armory. The Armory sold these parcels in Block D at private and public auctions in August and September of 1852, but reserved Lot 2 for the Church to use as a parsonage (Snell 1959b: 1, 13-14). St. Peter's obtained a lease for Lot 2 in 1852, and the Government conveyed full title in that parcel to the Church in 1868.

However, Church officals never built a parsonage on that lot, likely due to the frequency with which Shenandoah Street was flooded by storms and the overflow of the river (Smith 1959: 6; Snell 1959b: 2, 13-14). Instead, the Church pastor and support staff lived elsewhere in the area until 1889, when the first school house next to the Church was converted into a Rectory. For example, the 1860 census indicates that Reverend Michael Costello, the pastor at that time, lived with William Stephen's family in their house in Lower Town (Snell 1959b: 15).

Houses were built on the parcels adjoining Lot 2 in the early 1800's, and those houses were likely used as residences for Armory workers and their families. These neighboring properties were damaged frequently by the floods that flowed through Shenandoah Street during this period (Snell 1959b: 2). Lot 2 contained four houses, all made of wood and ranging in size from one to two stories tall, in the period of 1811 through 1852 (Snell 1959b: 11). Those structures were dismantled by the time the lot was conveyed to the Church. Lot 2 later remained largely vacant, except for a livery stable maintained there after 1859 (Snell 1959b: 15-16). The State of West Virginia eventually acquired this parcel in the 1950's.

Surviving the Civil War

Harpers Ferry changed hands between Union and Confederate control fourteen times during the years of the Civil War (Hearn 1996: 290). St. Peter's was the only church in the town that was not severely damaged or destroyed by the heavy bombardments and destruction leveled on Harpers Ferry by both northern and southern forces. The Reverend Michael A. Costello is credited with this feat of preservation. Born in Ireland in 1833, he became Pastor of St. Peter's in 1857, and was in his late 20's during the War (Barry 1903: 148; Smith 1959: 9; Virginia Free Press, Dec. 17, 1857, p. 2, col. 4). Rather than accept an invitation from Bishop McGill to travel to Ireland during the War, he stayed at the Church throughout the hostilities and even during severe artillery bombardments from the surrounding heights (Magri & Dittmeyer 1930: 12; Hearn 1996: 288).

Father Costello witnessed the dramatic events of John Brown's 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry first hand. After one of the Harpers Ferry residents was shot by a member of Brown's company, Father Costello was summoned to give last rights to the dying man. Later, after the United States Marines stormed the Armory firehouse in which Brown and his company had barricaded themselves, Father Costello was summoned to give last rights to two wounded soldiers, one of whom died. Costello later visited Brown in his jail cell in Charles Town. He related these events, experiences, and his views on slavery, the hazards faced by free African Americans, and the dangerous prospects of a coming war in the following letter to a fellow priest at All Hallows College.

Harper's Ferry
Jefferson Co., Va.,
February 11, 1860

Dear Father Harrington,

You must look upon me as one of the most ungrateful children of All Hallows, as one who has forgotten all he owes to his "Alma Mater" in having allowed so long a time to elapse without writing; but such is not the case. On the contrary, it is only when separated by time and distance that a person can fully realize how strong and endearing is the chain that binds him to the hallowed place where his mind was nurtured in piety and in learning; and as trials, dangers and difficulties encompass the young and inexperienced minister of the sanctuary, the more affectionately will he turn to his college home.

You know that I was appointed shortly after my arrival in Richmond to take charge of my present mission. I have two churches which are thirty miles apart, to attend, besides several small stations that I visit occasionally. At Harper's Ferry, where I principally reside, I have a very pretty little church, capable of holding between 400 and 500 persons; and, as it is too small to hold all the congregations at the same time, I have leave to say two Masses on Sundays. The church is literally built upon a rock, and it is one of the first things that strike the visitor's view as he approaches the town. Harper's Ferry is situated in the north-east part of Virginia, two hundred miles from Richmond, and eighty miles from Baltimore. The waters of the Potomac river wash its banks on one side, while the Blue Ridge confines it on the other. The scenery at this locality is most picturesque and romantic. Nature has been lavish indeed in her gifts, so as to render it one of the most beautifully wild scenes in the United States. Truly worthy is it of the artist's pencil and of the poet's dream; and the author of "the declaration of American Independence", the great and illustrious Jefferson, has but done it justice when he declares that "it is worthy of a trip across the Atlantic to see the scenery at Harper's Ferry". The population is about 4000. Of this number there are between six and seven hundred Catholics. Harper's Ferry is chiefly remarkable for its scenery, and for an armoury where arms are manufactured for the United States. Latterly it has become famous throughout the Union as the theatre of war. I suppose you have heard about the invasion made by Northern abolitionists to liberate the slaves of Virginia, and as an account from me may not prove uninteresting to you, I shall give you a short sketch of it.

On the night of the 16th of October last, a party of abolitionists came to Harper's Ferry, and while the citizens peacefully slept, they took possession of the United States' Armoury, Rifle Works, and Arsenal. Next morning, when the inhabitants awoke, they were surprised to see parties of armed men patrolling the streets, and as some of them attempted to pass to their employment they were taken prisoners by the insurgents and marched into the Armoury, where they were placed under guard. As soon as the object of the insurrection became known, the citizens prepared to defend themselves and drive away the invaders. Accordingly, armed with any old guns they could find, they shot at the enemy who appeared in the streets, and the invaders returning their fire mortally wounded one of the citizens. The wounded man being a Catholic, I was called to attend him, and as I had to pass through the insurgents on my way, when I started I had very little hope that they would allow me to pass, as they were making prisoners of all they could catch. However, they allowed me to attend the dying man. I administered to him the last Sacraments, and he died soon after. During the day volunteer companies came from every direction to the aid of the inhabitants, and the firing continued without intermission, several of the invaders and four of the citizens losing their lives. At night, I attended another member of my congregation who was dangerously wounded. Meantime a company of the United States' soldiers arrived from Washington, and were immediately drawn up in front of the engine-house, into which "Osswattomie" Browne and his followers with their prisoners were finally driven.

On the morning of the 18th a white flag was dispatched to Brown with a command to surrender, which he refused to do, unless he was allowed to pass in safety to Maryland, taking with him his prisoners until, he reached there, when he would give them their liberty and then the soldiers might attack him and his party if they liked. Of course those terms were not listened to, and the order was given to storm the engine house, and take all the invaders at the point of the bayonet, in order that the prisoners might be rescued in safety. Soon after, the door of the fortress was battered down, and in a few moments "Ossawattamie" Brown and his deluded followers were secured. In the final attack on the insurgents two of the soldiers were wounded, one of them mortally. As both were Catholics, I was summoned to attend them. As private Luke Quin fell, pierced through with a ball, his first exclamation was to Major Russel, of the United States Marines, who seeing him fall, went up to him. In pitiful accents he cried out: "Oh! Major, I am gone, for the love of God will you send for the priest". I administered to him the holy rites of the Church; he died that day, and was buried with military honours in the Catholic graveyard at this place. The invaders who survived were tried at Charleston [i.e., Charles Town] in this county, and were convicted of treason against the commonwealth of Virginia, murder, and attempt to excite slaves to rebel. Five of them, have been already executed, and two more are under sentence of death. The abolitionists calculated, when they invaded Harper's Ferry, that the slaves would immediately flock to their standard, and for this purpose they came provided with over 1000 pikes and 200 Sharps rifles, to arm the Negro population to free their coloured brethren throughout Virginia. They were, however, sadly mistaken, for they could not get a single slave in Virginia to join them, and the first man shot by them was a free Negro who refused to take arms and join their standard. I have seen the slaves, trembling with terror, hide themselves, for fear the insurgents would come and take them, though the boon offered was liberty. The fact is that the slaves are much better off than the free Negros, and they know this to be the fact, hence it is that they prefer to remain as they are, and it is better for them, I am sure. The invasion against the rights of the south by northern abolitionists has created the greatest excitement throughout the country, and it does not require a prophet to predict that if a dissolution of the union of the States ever takes place, it will be on account of the question of slavery. I hope, however, that such a misfortune will never happen to this country, for no matter how high political excitement may be carried, I believe that there will always found good and sound men in the north and in the south who will rally round the constitution and preserve it inviolate. I visited "Old Brown", who was the commanding general of the invaders some time previous to his execution, and he informed me that he was a congregationalist. He said that he would not receive the services of any minister of religion, for he believed that they as apologists of slavery, had violated the laws of nature and off God, and that they ought first to sanctify themselves by becoming abolitionists, and then they might be worthy to minister unto him. Let them follow St. Paul's advice he said, and go and break the chains of the slaves, and then they may preach to others. I told him that I was not aware of St. Paul's ever giving any such advice, but that I remembered an epistle of St. Paul to Philemon, where we are informed that he sent back the fugitive slave Onesimus from Rome to his master. I then asked him what he thought of that, and he said that he did not care what St. Paul did, but what he said, and not even what he said if it was in favour of slavery!

I hope you enjoy good health, and that all the directors are well and happy. Remember me to them very kindly. Will you kindly send me two latest Annual Reports of the College; I am always pleased to hear news about it. I hope that you do not forget to pray for me. Wishing every happiness to you, and continually increasing to my dear Alma Mater, I remain, dear Father Harrington,

Your devoted and affectionate child in Jesus and Mary.

M. A. Costello.

During the War, Father Costello reportedly raised a Union Jack flag over the Church to dissuade the Confederate artillery from aiming their guns at it. If true, this would make sense given the Confederate forces' view of Britain as a potential ally. The Confederate forces' artillery fire from the surrounding School House Ridge, Maryland Heights and Loudoun Heights in September 1862 was particularly heavy and destructive. They targeted their fire at Union forces located on nearby Camp Hill and Bolivar Heights (Hearn 1996: 172-75). Colonel William H. Trimble of the 60th Regiment from Ohio described the barrage of fire leveled at the Union troops as so fierce that there was "'not a place where you could lay the palm of your hand and say it was safe'" (Frye 1998, quoting Trimble).

St. Peter's Church, 1861
St. Peter's Church, 1861 and 1862. Click on the image to the left to see a larger view of Harpers Ferry in 1861, and the image to the right to see a panoramic view of the Church and Town in 1862.
St. Peter's Church, 1862

The Lower Town of Harpers Ferry came under artillery fire at other times, including June and July of 1863, and July of 1864, when the Union artillery on Maryland Heights was targeted at Confederate forces that had made incursions into the town (Hearn 1996: 247-48). Many buildings were damaged in the course of these various hostilities. Remarkably, all bombardments missed St. Peter's, even though it was located close by other buildings that were destroyed. For example, St. John's Episcopal Church, located on an uphill lot adjacent to St. Peter's (see 1895 image above), was heavily damaged (Null 1983). The undamaged St. Peter's Church and the school house were used as make-shift hospitals at various times during the War, and Father Costello held services and administered the sacraments as much as possible throughout its duration (Hearn 1996: 288). He died of an illness just a few years later, at the age of 34, and was buried in St. Peter's cemetery (Virginia Free Press, Feb. 21, 1867, p. 2, col. 4).

diamond 1861 Map of Harpers Ferry with Union Artillery Batteries

The drama of the War left St. Peter's with a number of local legends. Two ghost stories are applied to the Church. In one, the ghost of a priest walks the path along the north exterior wall of the Church, reading a book, and then turns abruptly, disappearing into the wall, at a spot where the original 1833 Church's front facade likely stood. In another story, the stone steps leading into the east entrance of the Church are haunted by the cries of a baby who was killed there by a falling mortar shell. Archaeological excavations in the summer of 2000 dispelled a third belief. A large capstone from the Armory wall rests in the ground just outside the west, exterior door of the old School House. Some speculated that the School and Church were used as temporary hospitals during the War, and that this capstone was hauled to the School yard as a marker to cover a burial of limbs amputated from unfortunate soldiers. No such remains were found beneath the capstone by the archaeologists.

St. Peter's Church, before 1896
St. Peter's Church, before 1896.

Renovations in 1896

A visiting priest conducted the last mass service in the original Church building on July 2, 1896. That structure was replaced in the following year by the current neo-Gothic structure, built with granite walls and red sandstone trim (see 1983 image below). Those materials are not native to the Harpers Ferry area, and were brought in for this project. The granite was obtained from Loudoun County, Virginia, and the sandstone from Seneca, Maryland (Spirit of Jefferson, Aug. 31, 1897, p. 2, col. 1).

John Tearney's son Edward was a supervisor in this construction project (Gilbert 1995: 59, 62; Theriault 1996). The main construction contract was awarded to "Mr. Withrow" of Charleston, and the brickwork to George Armentrout of Charles Town (Spirit of Jefferson, Aug. 26, 1896, p. 2, col. 4; Sept. 8, 1896, p. 3, col. 1). William Phillips' Sons handled the finish work, including wood trim, door frames, window frames and sashes (Farmers Advocate, Jan. 23, 1897, p. 3, col. 1). This construction project overall cost approximately $12,000 (Spirit of Jefferson, Aug. 31, 1897, p. 2, col. 1).

The renovation enlarged the Church's footprint to 39 feet in width and 90 feet in length. The piazza on the front (east) side of the Church was enlarged, and the front facade of the Church, with a new recessed portico, was built several feet further to the west. The central steeple was replaced with a larger bell tower located at the southeast corner of the new front facade. An original lean-to of brick on the west end of the Church was similarly replaced with a cut-stone apse. Heating stoves were replaced with a central heating system. A slate roof was also added in this renovation, but has since been replaced with a roof of composite shingles (Smith 1959: 9; Theriault 1996; see image below).

St. Peter's Church and Rectory, 1983.
St. Peter's Church, 1983

More Recent Developments

An expanded St. James Catholic parish was established in Charles Town, just six miles to the west of Harpers Ferry, in 1967. Charles Town was assigned as a mission to St. Peter's Church from 1899 until that time (DWC History: 7). Due to the reduced size of its congregation, regular services at St. Peter's were curtailed in 1995, as part of a reorganization and revitalization plan of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. This plan called for the preservation of St. Peter's Church in view of its historical significance, and anticipated that occasional liturgical celebrations would be held there each year (DWC History: 13). St. Peter's remains open to the public, and receives hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, many of whom come to tour the surrounding Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Reverend Brian Owens, pastor of St. James Church, maintains responsibility and oversight for the activities at St. Peter's.

Reverend Owens is working to coordinate substantial restoration work on the Church, Rectory and surrounding grounds. This work will include improvements of the landscape and repairs to the stone retaining walls that surround the grounds. Archaeological investigations have been conducted to coincide with these efforts in order to preserve the record of artifacts located on those grounds.

Archaeological Investigations

From the 1950's through the mid-1990's, the National Park Service conducted extensive archaeological and historical research on many properties located throughout Lower Town, Harpers Ferry and nearby Virginius Island. However, due to their location on private property, no such archaeological investigations of the grounds of St. Peter's Church and Rectory were conducted in the course of those efforts. The Church and Rectory grounds offered a potential wealth of archaeological data on the daily lives and material culture of the Church pastors, support staff, teachers, students, parishioners, and neighbors, for the time period of 1830 onward.

1865-1900 map excerpt
St. Peter's Church and Rectory, 1865-1900.
Click on the image to the left for a detailed
map of the site's structures and features.

In the summer of 2000, the author of this article organized excavations on the grounds of the Church and School. A team of sixteen volunteers, including participants who travelled from as far away as California, Louisiana and England, undertook these efforts. They surveyed the site and excavated three-foot-square units and one-foot-wide shovel test pits along a grid of survey lines (called transects) laid out along the cardinal directions. This team excavated 26 units and over 50 shovel test pits in the areas surrounding the Church and School House. We uncovered thousands of artifacts, including an array of nineteenth-century ceramic types, iron hardware, two religious artifacts, and various materials from later time periods as well.

diamond Tour the Excavation Site and Features

The soil layers on this site proved to be notably shallow. The Church and School were built on a ridge of rock on a steep hillside overlooking Lower Town Harpers Ferry. This bedrock, called Harpers Ferry Shale, often lies just twelve to sixteen inches below the grass surface at the site. The soil layers extend deeper along portions of the southern, downslope edge of the property. In his Strange Story of Harpers Ferry, Joseph Barry applied his usual poetic license in describing the landscape of St. Peter's: "There can be no doubt that this church, at least, is 'built on a rock,' for there is not soil enough anywhere near it to plant a few flowers around the House of Worship or the parsonage, and the worthy Fathers have been obliged to haul a scanty supply from a considerable distance to nourish two or three rosebushes" (1903: 6-7).

As a result of such a shallow space for soils on this shoulder of bedrock, the grounds surrounding the Church and School House have been extensively disturbed and churned up over time by erosion and the impact of past construction and landscaping work. Almost all excavation units contained artifacts which had been jumbled, with some older artifacts higher in the soil than more recent ones. When archaeological sites exist in an undisturbed state, they possess more orderly layers of sediment and soil that contain artifacts, with the earliest found at the deepest layers and the most recent found closest to the surface.

There are three general causes of such deposition of soil and artifacts onto the site, and their disturbance over time:

  1. the artifacts were discarded and deposited into the soil on-site, and the soil and artifacts were later mixed and disturbed by landscaping and construction work;

  2. portions of the soil and artifacts may have washed onto the Church and School House grounds from neighboring sites upslope during heavy rains; and

  3. other portions of the soil and artifacts may have been hauled onto portions of the Church and School House grounds, for use as fill, from nearby sites in Harpers Ferry.
All three of these depositional processes likely occurred. The extensive amount of construction and landscaping work at the site appears to have caused extensive disturbance of the grounds. Such building projects included construction of the School in 1854, the new Church in 1896, and installation of a large cistern and plumbing and drainage lines in the grounds in later years. The areas surrounding the north and west sides of the School House may have received artifacts contained in fill dirt coming from nearby residential sites. The area to the south of the School House contains some ceramic and iron slag which may have been contained in fill dirt coming from more commercial sites elsewhere within Harpers Ferry.

Works in Progress

An array of parishioners, students and scholars are continuing efforts to learn more about the history of St. Peter's Church and School, and about the lifeways of the many people who shaped and enlivened these social, educational and religious centers over time. The past documents that should reflect the daily events and operations of the Church and School likely exist in private archives, which are the focus of ongoing research efforts. Additional documents may be available in the public archives of historical societies in the region as well. For example, substantial gaps exist in some collections of the local nineteenth-century newpapers, which researchers hope to fill in future work. Oral histories provide valuable and varying perspectives on St. Peter's past events and present importance. Archaeological excavations have been completed. Some additional excavations may be undertaken in the future, but the disturbed character of the layers of soil and artifacts at the site makes documentary and oral history research a greater priority in future efforts. By comparing and contrasting the varying stories and facts yielded from the documents, oral histories and archaeological record, we hope to obtain the richest view possible of the many pasts and individual stories that played out at St. Peter's Church and School.

This archaeology project was supported by the West Virginia Humanities Council, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This web site has also been featured as a lesson plan by Education World, The Study Web, and Bigchalk Education Network, among others.

References Cited

  • Barry, Joseph, The Strange Story of Harpers Ferry. Shepherdstown, West Virginia: Shepherdstown Register, 1903.

  • Berkeley County, Virginia, Last Will & Testament of Robert Harper, Sept. 26, 1782, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

  • Caplinger, Michael W., Bridges Over Time: A Technological Context for the Baltimore and Ohio Raildroad Main Stem at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Morgantown, West Virginia: Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology, 1997.

  • Costello, Michael A., Letter to Father Harrington, All Hallows College, February 11, 1860, Archives of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond.

  • DWC Background: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, About the Diocese, http://www.dwc.org/webpage/about.htm.

  • DWC History: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Milestones of History, http://www.dwc.org/webpage/history.htm.

  • Farmers Advocate, newspaper available on microfilm at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Archives.

  • Frye, Dennis E.: Stonewall's Brilliant Victory: The Siege and Capture of Harpers Ferry, published in the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park web site, http://www.nps.gov/hafe/jackson.htm, 1998.

  • Gavin, William G.: The Old Rectory Civil War Museum at Historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Archive, Doc. No. HFB-510, no date.

  • Gilbert, David T.: A Walker's Guide to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Harpers Ferry Historical Association, 5th Edition, 1995.

  • Gilbert, Cathy, Maureen D. Joseph, and Perry C. Wheelock (editors): Cultural Landscape Report: Lower Town, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., 1993.

  • Hearn, Chester G.: Six Years of Hell: Harpers Ferry During the Civil War. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1996.

  • Jefferson County, West Virginia, Deed Book, Vol. 17, 1831.

  • Jefferson County, West Virginia, Deed Book, Vol. 191, 1953, Harpers Ferry Archive, Doc. No. HFD-174.

  • Johnson, Paul E.: A Shopkeeper's Millenium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837. Hill & Wang, New York, 1978.

  • Kercheval, Samuel: A History of the Valley of Virginia. J. Gatewood, Printer, Woodstock, Virginia; 2d ed., 1850.

  • Magri, Rev. F. Joseph and Walter Dittmeyer: History of St. Peter's Church, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and Missions, Centenary 1830-1930. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Archive, Doc. No. HFB-3.

  • Mrozowski, Stephen A., Grace H. Ziesing and Mary C. Beaudry: Living on the Boott: Historical Archaeology at the Boott Mills Boardinghouses, Lowell, Massachusetts. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1996.

  • Null, Druscilla J., St. John's Episcopal Church (Ruins), Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, Historic American Building Survey, National Park Service, HABS No. WV-231, compiled August 18, 1983.

  • Shackel, Paul: Culture Change and the New Technology: An Archaeology of the Early American Industrial Era. Plenum Press, New York, 1996.

  • Smith, Philip R. Jr., National Park Historian: History of the St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, 1830-1868, Harpers Ferry National Monument, March 11, 1959. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Archive, Doc. No. HFR-279.

  • Snell, Charles W.: History of Lots No. 1 to 11, Block C, Shenandoah Street, 1796-1865, January 23, 1959. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Archive, Doc. No. HFR-328 (cited as Snell 1959a).

  • Snell, Charles W.: History of Lots No. 1 to 7, Block D, Shenandoah Street, 1796-1865, January 30, 1959. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Archive, Doc. No. HFR-329 (cited as Snell 1959b).

  • Snell, Charles W.: History of Catholic School Lot, Presbyterian Church Lot, and Jefferson's Lot, Shenandoah Street, 1796-1868, February 11, 1959. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Archive, Doc. No. HFR-215 (cited as Snell 1959c).

  • Snell, Charles W.: History of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1818-1868, and the Free Church, 1818-1845, May 14, 1959. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Archive, Doc. No. HFR-282 (cited as Snell 1959d).

  • Spirit of Jefferson, newspaper available on microfilm at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Archives.

  • Theriault, William D.: Explorer: The West Virginia Database, Jefferson County Module, compact disk published by West Virginia Division of Culture and History, Charleston, WV.

  • Virginia Free Press, newspaper available on microfilm at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Archives.

  • Wallace, Anthony F. C.: Rockdale: The Growth of an American Village in the Early Industrial Revolution. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1978.

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