Robert Harper's 1782 Will and
Wagers' 1831 Deed for St. Peter's Church Parcel

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1782 Last Will & Testament

Robert Harper was born in Oxford Township, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1718. His grandfather, John Harper, was a Quaker who was baptised in Noke Church in Oxfordshire, England, in 1634. John, his wife and children, immigrated from England to William Penn's colony in 1682. They purchased 500 acres of land just outside Philadelphia and named the surrounding township Oxford, where Robert was born two generations later. Robert became a skilled builder, and was hired in 1747 by a group of Quakers to construct a meeting house near Winchester, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. While traveling to fulfill that contract, he crossed the Potomac River at a small ferry operation run by Peter Stephens. Recognizing the potential investment value of Stephens' ferry equipment and associated buildings, Harper purchased the property, and later expanded it with parcels bought from the Fairfax family, developing the settlement and ferry service which would eventually be named Harper's Ferry (Gilbert 1995:59).

The property on which St. Peter's Church stands was first set aside for donation to the Church by Robert Harper's last will and testament in 1782. That will provided:

I Robert Harper by this present Co[dicil] do ratify and confirm [said] last will & Testament, and it is further my Last will that four acres of Land most Convenient round my Grave yard Shall be laid off By my Executors & be . . . Appropriate to the use of a grave yard and all my Debts due by Bond or Back Debt and all the rents now due from my ferry Be By my Executors disposed of in the best manner Towards Erecting a graveyard and building a Church on [said] four acres of Land . . . . (Smith 1959: 1, quoting Last Will & Testament of Robert Harper, Berkeley County, Virginia, Sept. 26, 1782, National Archives)

Wagers' 1831 Conveyance

In 1831, Robert Harper's great grand nephews, James B. Wager and Gerard B. Wager, and his great grand niece, Sarah Ann Wager, implemented this desired bequest. They donated the land to the Catholic Church through a "Deed of Bargain and Sale" conveyed from the Wagers to Reverend John Gildea, the first pastor of St. Peter's. This Deed provided:

This Indenture made and concluded this 10th day of May, 1831, by and between James B. Wager, G. B. Wager & S. A. Wager of Harper's ferry of the one part and John B. Gildea of the other part
Witnesseth that the said Wagers for and in consideration of the sum of One dollar of current money of Virginia to them in hand paid by the said John B. Gildea at or before the sealing and delivering of these presents the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged have granted sold aliened and conveyed and by those presents do bargain sell alien and convey unto the said John B. Gildea his heirs and assigns a certain lot or parcel of land lying and being in the county of Jefferson and State of Virginia at or near Harpers ferry - Beginning at a pile of stone on the side of the hill on which is situated the house wherein the said Wagers now reside & in the line between the said Wagers & the U.S. thence due east seventy feet to another pile of stone on the side of the same hill thence due south fifty feet to another pile of stone, thence due west to the Govt. line thence along the said line to the beginning corner containing by estimation about ___ square feet, together with all and singular the rights improvements and appurtenances whatsoever thereunto belonging and the reversions and remainders rents issues and profits thereof to have and to hold all and singular the premises with the appurtenances hereby granted unto the said John B. Gildea his heirs and assigns forever. Upon trust nevertheless for the exclusive use, benefit, and behoof of the members of the Roman Catholic Church at Harpers ferry by them to be used and appropriated exclusively for the worship of Almighty God, and if at any time the said lot or parcel of land should be used and appropriated otherwise than is hereinbefore mentioned then and in that case this indenture is null and void and of no further effect . . . . (Magri & Dittmeyer 1930, app., quoting Jefferson County, West Virginia, Deed Book 17, pp. 6-7, May 10, 1831)
The conditions of this donation were satisfied, and the Catholic Church has retained ownership and possession of this land to the present.

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by Christopher Fennell
Last Modified: May 8, 2003