HARPERS FERRY, W. Va.—Saint Peter’s Catholic Church is an old rock building. Very old. The historic church stands on a big hill overlooking the green gorge of the Shenandoah River. The Appalachian Trail runs alongside the chapel.
This church has seen it all. It survived a Civil War. And once, it functioned as a wartime hospital.
Inside this cathedral-hospital would have been bloody young men in uniforms, moaning for relief. Nurses would have been tending their wounds, bandaging amputated limbs, and helping the boys write letters home.
I walk up the church steps. The church is locked this afternoon because of COVID, but it’s still sacred to me.
There are tons of tourists out today. And I don’t mean to be critical, but sometimes ordinary American families wander around historic American landmarks with the same reverence you’d find at Six Flags. All that’s missing are the snowcones.
Somehow this just feels impolite.
But then this is the price Harpers Ferry pays for being protected as a U.S. National Park. The town is full of touristy-type shops selling souvenirs,
hot pretzels, ice cream sandwiches, and of course tie-dyed T-shirts.
Still, this town has seen far worse than tourism in its day. During the Civil War, Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times. Troops from both sides were constantly pillaging and burning everything in eyeshot, including schools.
But Saint Peter’s was spared. Why? Churches all over the U.S. were turning to soot. How did this place cheat fate?
The answer is Father Michael.
Father Michael Costello was a wiry Irishman. Fiery, and stubborn. In 1859, when pre-war violence was erupting in Harpers Ferry, other preachers evacuated, but the young clergyman refused to leave.
They say one morning Father Michael raised a British Union Jack flag atop this chapel to show the world that Saint Peter’s was a neutral place. And it saved the church from destruction.
After that, even though Harper’s Ferry was…