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.
“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.