Harpers Ferry

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 bombarded with heavy artillery, flames, and murder, Father Michael’s sanctuary remained a sanctuary. So he volunteered it as a hospital.

The hardheaded young priest still offered mass, confessions, and he allowed anyone through the doors regardless of creed. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and war criminals.

On Sundays he would offer mass. After mass, Father Michael would remove his stole, roll up his sleeves, and care for wounded men.

There’s no telling how many dying soldiers breathed their last in this building. Many were teenagers with bloodsoaked palms and guilty consciences. Father Michael would have been beside their beds, holding their hands, praying.

My moment of reflection is interrupted when I see a young couple climbing the church steps. They wear hiking boots and enormous backpacks. They both make Signs of the Cross when the reach the chapel.

The couple says they have been hiking the Appalachian Trail for three months.

“We’re from Texas,” says the young woman.

Her husband merely nods. He sits slumped on a bench like it’s the first time he’s stopped walking since the Hoover administration.

His wife tells me that he used to weigh 239 pounds. Today he’s down to 182. She’s lost nearly 30 pounds herself.

“People said we were too big for this trail,” she says. “Our friends thought we were crazy for hiking it.”

But the couple began training despite their critics. They started going for short walks. They would count telephone poles along the roadside to measure their progress.

“We’d get to one pole, and say, ‘Okay, tomorrow we’re gonna do two more poles.’ And we always did.”

The Appalachian Trail is not for wimps. It crosses 14 states, climbs steadily uphill, winding through the most remote places on American soil. From start to finish the elevation changes are the equivalent of hiking Mount Everest 16 times.

Sixteen.

“That first day, hiking in Georgia,” she says, “it was hard, we got so discouraged, almost quit.”

But they pushed forward, and you don’t get this far by accident. It takes real effort.

During our conversation, her exhausted husband closes his eyes and appears to fall asleep. Or maybe he’s dead. I see his chest rising and falling. Which is a good sign.

The woman goes on to tell me that not long after the pandemic happened, she had a miscarriage. And just when it couldn’t get any worse, she and her husband both lost their jobs. That’s when the couple decided to start walking. And walk they did.

They have covered some serious miles.

“I’m not gonna say it’s gotten easier,” she says. “But at some point, you quit thinking about pain and you keep going. You learn to just be alive out here.”

Suddenly I’m not sure whether we’re talking about hiking anymore.

When our conversation ends the couple crosses themselves once more and starts to leave. The young woman tells me that today is special for them. I ask why.

She says they’ve decided to finish the trail in Harpers Ferry, even though they are nowhere near the end. Her sister is going to pick them up in a few hours. They’re heading back to Texas to rest and, God willing, eat carbs.

But she’s quick to tell me they’re not quitting because of exhaustion. They’re going home for another important reason.

“We’ve just been approved to adopt a baby,” she says. “I’m gonna finally be a mom.”

And if her eyes aren’t getting a little pink and wet, mine are.

We share a few awkward moments beneath the church spire, a few strangers. I congratulate them, then we part ways. I watch the couple hike into the far-off, moving slowly, taking one telephone pole at a time.

I cross myself before leaving the church. Not because I’m religious. But because I think Father Michael would be glad to know this place is still a hospital to some of us.

24 comments

  1. Christina - September 18, 2020 6:44 am

    Safe places are harder to come by nowadays with all the finger pointing and judgments. Father Michael would be glad to know you are offering this space for many of us.

    Reply
  2. Lucretia Jones - September 18, 2020 6:54 am

    Thank you Sean for putting life in perspective.

    Reply
  3. Lucretia Jones - September 18, 2020 7:04 am

    Thank you,Sean for helping to put life in perspective.

    Reply
  4. Steve Winfield (Lifer) - September 18, 2020 7:27 am

    My Gr. Gr. Grandfather took a bullet & died in that war somewhere near Dothan. He’s buried at Barrancas in Pensacola. I don’t think there was any medical aid available for him.
    Happy to hear that young couple got such good news.

    Reply
  5. Shelton A. - September 18, 2020 8:37 am

    Sean, I am up at almost 4:30 because my dog is sick. She can’t go and won’t eat anything. She’s had five dogs treats since we got up yesterday. She’s only peed once or twice since I woke up at 8:45 yesterday. She was crying and whimpering earlier. I was pretty down because if she can’t sleep, I can’t. I was pretty down until a few minutes ago. Another new family looking towards the future! Very moving little story you have there. Thanks, man! I really needed that uplift. God bless.

    Reply
  6. Toni - September 18, 2020 9:09 am

    I love your posts Sean, thank you. What an incredibly rich history your South has, that you write about so heartwarmingly, and sometimes so heartbreakingly.

    Have visited many beautiful US states and places, from Downunder, but your posts about yours and your wife’s lives and travels are so warm and true. You do brighten so many lives.

    Reply
  7. Jackie - September 18, 2020 11:02 am

    Beautiful. Thank you. I have been following you for a year. I look forward to reading your next piece daily. You are a gift to many. I start my day either laughing, or crying or both and have your rich and inciteful words to ponder and often reread the rest of the day. Thank you.

    Reply
  8. eliz - September 18, 2020 11:41 am

    Oh Sean, what a blessing you are! Thank you for this story and for all your stories, especially now when it is so hard to find reasons to look up!

    Reply
  9. Pamela Williams - September 18, 2020 12:18 pm

    ❤️

    Reply
  10. Penn Wells - September 18, 2020 12:48 pm

    I so agree with you about respecting the sacred places. A few years ago, my wife and I made a “scouting mission” to Colleville-sur-Mer, the US Cemetery in Normandy that we are determined to take our grandchildren to see. It was as beautiful and well planned as advertised, but my lasting impression was the solemnity of the hundreds, maybe thousands, who were walking the grounds that day. Most speaking en francais. They have not forgotten.

    Reply
  11. Jan - September 18, 2020 1:01 pm

    Precious stories about life in all its intricacy and all its simplicity! Thank you, Sean!

    Reply
  12. Melinda E Ratchford - September 18, 2020 1:16 pm

    What a lovingly written and lovingly told story.

    Reply
  13. Jo Ann - September 18, 2020 1:25 pm

    When people tell me about all the negative things they read & that they worry so, I tell them to read your blog every day. You remind us that there are lots of good, ordinary folks all around us. So many untold stories, some of which you share with us. Thanks every day, Sean. You are now in our neck of the woods. We’re in Maryland, not far from the Appalachian Trail & the C&O Canal path. Beautiful country. May God continue to bless you & Jamie on your trip.

    Reply
  14. Jane Elder - September 18, 2020 3:20 pm

    What a wonderful story. Gives us all incentive to travel on. We may not be hiking the Appalachian Trail…but in these times we need to choose a goal…and keep on moving.

    Reply
  15. Linda Moon - September 18, 2020 3:40 pm

    The Appalachian Trail will be hiked for six months by someone I know and love. He’s been on family ranch trips in Texas, too. And, he’s flung himself out of an airplane… so he’s not a wimp! I believe churches and trails and sky-diving can heal us, Sean…..just by Stayin’ Alive, one telephone pole at a time. Beautiful story.

    Reply
  16. Elizabeth - September 18, 2020 4:01 pm

    That’s a really lovely meeting, what courageous people! I have been reading you a while and if you ever talk about the Catholic church you seem to also say ‘I am not religious’ but I wonder why you say this, I don’t mean this question with any harshness but rather because I see your writing as full of hymns, churches and God-haunted (as they say) moments. I am not sure what ‘religious’ means but I live, myself, with the understanding of the prayer in the Orthodox church, ‘O Heavenly King’ which speaks of the Comforter being ‘everywhere present and filling all things’ and I don’t feel that you are far from that in your writings, and that to me speaks of just the reality of things. I really really appreciate your essays and look forward to each new one you write 🙂 And that is a really cool story about a very brave priest!!! 🙂

    Reply
  17. Liza Sama - September 18, 2020 4:08 pm

    Beautiful. I’m thinking Fr. Michael should be recognized as another American saint, because I’m quite sure that in heaven he already is.

    Reply
  18. Katherine Kempf Jones - September 18, 2020 5:10 pm

    Once again, Sean, you’ve made me blink back years! What a gift your sharing your journey is! THANK YOU again. Please keep it up for as long as you can. – All Best – DiAn

    Reply
  19. MAM - September 18, 2020 6:53 pm

    That’s probably the most tear-filled eyes I’ve had in weeks. I’m a writer, but I cannot find the words to tell you how special you and your writing are to a world that hurts too much. And even if you think you are not religious, God is with you!

    Reply
  20. Dave Conkle - September 18, 2020 8:09 pm

    Welcome to God’s Country . Born in West Virginia 1941 . Now in Pensacola where I have lived since the 70’s . Thanks for visiting the greatest state in the nation . Long time reader and look forward to your articles daily . Enjoy our Country Roads .

    Reply
  21. frances simon - September 18, 2020 9:46 pm

    Courage

    Reply
  22. Pilgrim - September 20, 2020 11:14 am

    Blast it Sean! My eyes got wet also.

    Reply
  23. Tammy S. - September 20, 2020 12:26 pm

    One of these days I’m gonna send you the bill for all the Kleenex I buy and keep on hand to read your writings!! Some hilarious tears, some reverent or sad tears. These were rejoicing tears! Some of the best kind. Congrats to this courageous couple! Some little one is gonna get awesome parents!! Thanks for sharing with us another beautiful life story! You’re reads are simply the best, better than all the rest!!

    PS…just added Harper Ferry to our list of must-see.
    I may have suggested this already, or you all may have done this one, but The Creeper Trail is a bike trail, in Virginia. Check it out.

    Reply
  24. Tammy S. - September 20, 2020 12:27 pm

    *Your 🤣☺️

    Reply

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