Towering over our beautiful little town is this magnificent church. I have probably taken a million photos of this iconic structure - wherever you walk in town it is there. I find that very comforting. And as lovely as it is on the outside, the inside is even more magnificent.
The original was built in 1833 on land donated by the Wager family, descendants of Robert Harper, who died in 1782. Mr. Harper had left instructions in his will that those particular four acres be designated for a church, due in part to the fact that a church had been built in 1820 - a small log cabin - on Shenandoah street, and was destroyed by a flood before services could be held.
The original building was a one-story brick structure over a stone foundation and had a wooden steeple. In 1896, the original church was torn down and the current one was built on the foundation.
Harpers Ferry was devastated by the Civil War, having been fought over and switched hands numerous times. St. Peter’s was the only church not to be destroyed or severely damaged during the conflict. This was credited to the efforts of the church’s pastor, the Reverend Michael A. Costello, who chose to stay and protect his church during the war. Allegedly he flew the British Union Jack flag over the church as a way to stay neutral and to discourage Confederate artillery from attacking it. The church and its school house were subsequently used as makeshift hospitals at several points during the war. Rumors that the amputated limbs of soldiers were buried on the property but that seems to have been disproved during archaeological digs.
Almost every day, people come in our shop and ask how to get to St. Peter's and Jefferson Rock. Going out that little road, Public Way just across the street from our shop, is much easier, especially with children, strollers, etc. I always encourage people to go that way, but to come down the stone steps. They are magnificent - and worth the experience of traversing them - but going down them is much easier than going up them! Unless you are young, way younger than me. Legend says that during the war, "blood ran down the steps" from all the injured soilders being treated in the makeshift hospital in the church.
While you are on the steps you are actually on the Appalachian Trail. The trail goes around the hill side by Jefferson Rock, down the steps - across the street then across the railroad bridge. Even if you don't plan to do the entire AT - 2175 miles - the saying goes that "every step counts" - so remember that when exploring Harpers Ferry!
Harpers Cemetery, on the hill just above the church offers one of the most spectacular views of our beautiful town. When Robert Harper died in 1782, there were only three houses in the town. Optimistic about the community's potential for growth, however, Harper had set aside this 4-acre cemetery. Records indicate that the earliest burial in this consecrated space was in 1834.
I go to the cemetery frequently to take photos. The views are different every season and I like to see the work being done to the tombstones by the Friends of Harpers Cemetery. They are a small group whose hard work is so valuable to the history of our town - as well as honoring those buried there.
Mass is celebrated on Sundays at 11:00 at St. Peter's. Docents, many times wearing Civil War era attire, welcome the public to see the interior of the church. The volunteers provide information about the Historic Chapel of St. Peter and its significant role in the history of Harpers Ferry. From Memorial weekend through October, the Chapel of St. Peter is usually open to visitors Saturdays from 10 AM to 4 PM and Sundays from 12:00 noon to 3:00 pm Group tours may sometimes be arranged by contacting the parish office or Docents@stjameswv.org in advance.
St. Peter's is an important part of Harpers Ferry. Though it witnessed so much death and destruction, it stands as a symbol of peace.....and comfort. When you visit our beautiful little town, make sure to find time to find "joy in the peace" of this magnificent structure.