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St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church

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1896, T. J. Collins and Son. Church St. and Jefferson Rock Trail (southwest of Harper House and Marmion Row)

Visually one of Harpers Ferry's most important landmarks, this Victorian Gothic church, which postdates the Brown raid, occupies an extraordinary cliffside site above the town. Priests from Baltimore were responsible for the predecessor church, which was built in 1831 and dedicated in 1833. An early Gothic Revival building, it was likely inspired by Maximilian Godefroy's St. Mary's Seminary Chapel of 1808 in Baltimore, although it was at best a provincial interpretation.

Construction accounts of the present church mention that the 1830s church was “remodeled and enlarged” or “extensively remodeled.” Although some materials may have been reused, what emerged is essentially a completely new Victorian Gothic church. St. Peter's is faced with gray stone, while red sandstone trim outlines the broad lancet windows and doors. A tower and spire rising from the southeast corner are dramatically sited at the edge of a cliff overlooking the lower town.

If the exterior is a bit somber, the interior is refreshingly light and cheery. The sanctuary is a single open space, at once broader and lower than the exterior implies. There is no actual separation between nave and aisles, although the arrangement of the ribbed vaults suggests the traditional division: where one expects piers, instead suspended vaults terminate downward with ornately carved, gilded pendants. The angles of the broad polygonal apse are also emphasized by the arrangement of ribs in the vaulted ceiling. Only the stained glass disappoints. One or two windows have figures, but large lancets in the side walls contain only colored glass in rectangular blocks. The father-and-son architects were from Staunton, Virginia. They designed St. Francis Roman Catholic Church in their hometown at the same time, and the two buildings have much in common.

The ruins of St. John's Episcopal Church stand on the hillside above St. Peter's. St. John's was begun in 1851, consecrated in 1853, damaged during the Civil War, and rebuilt in 1882. The church was sold in 1895 after the parish relocated to a more convenient site. The rectangular building, which achieved a modest degree of Gothic identity with hood molds over nave windows and an arched window over the entrance, is more romantic as a ruin than it was when whole.

Writing Credits

S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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