Tradition places the first trace of Catholicism to our area in Harpers Ferry in 1765, only a few years after the founding of the town by Robert Harper and almost 100 years before West Virginia became a state. In that year, we are told, a stranger visited the little community. The people of the town welcomed him because he probably had news of other places. When it was discovered that the visitor was a Catholic, the villagers were a trifle upset; but a little later when they learned he was a priest, they were really upset! After they found out that he was not only a priest but was also a Jesuit, that was just too much for them. He was escorted to the Potomac, warned never to return, and tossed into the river to swim to Maryland. The priest is said to have been the Rev. James Frambach, S.J.
In 1828, the missions of Harpers Ferry, Martinsburg, and Shepherdstown were made into separate parishes with Harpers Ferry as headquarters. A small frame church was begun near the Shenandoah River in what is now the park area. Tradition has it that before the first Mass could be celebrated in the little church, the Shenandoah River went on one of its rampages and the church was last seen floating merrily down the Potomac. This misadventure caused the pastor and parishioners to choose the present site of St. Peter Church and purchase the property from the Wager family. The cornerstone of the new church was laid on October 15, 1830.
On September 2, 1887, the Right Reverend John J. Keane, Bishop of the Diocese of Richmond, purchased a plot of land on South George Street in Charles Town from N.S. White and his wife for $350. A church was built by Rev. Thomas J. Wilson. According to a local story, James Eagan, who was a prime mover in establishing the parish, was honored by having the church named after his patron saint, St. James the Greater. The church was dedicated on May 26, 1889, at 11:00 am by Rev. A. Van de Vyver, Administrator of the Diocese of Richmond, assisted by Rev. Wilson of Harpers Ferry and Rev. John J. Murphy, President of Georgetown University.
In the annual report of St. James Church in 1890 to the Diocese of Richmond, there were 68 souls in the parish. The first marriage recorded was Thomas J. Kane to Ellie Bowler on October 22, 1891, and the celebrant was Rev. J.J. Bowler. Mass was celebrated twice monthly at St. James until the 1930s when it began to be celebrated every Sunday.
In 1954, the Catholic population had increased to a degree that two Masses were available. At that time, Rev. John Ryan relocated to Charles Town from Harpers Ferry. Eventually he purchased the Trapnell house property for use as the rectory and the lot behind the church that was used over the years as a parking lot.
From 1967 to 1980, St. James Church was placed under the pastoral care of the religious community known as the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity. St. James was transferred to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia in 1974.
In 1977, the Van Metre residence and lot, located next door to St. James, were purchased by the Diocese to serve as the parish rectory and offices. This house had previously been the home of John Peale Bishop who was a famous author, poet, and editor of Vanity Fair who lived from 1892 to 1944. He was also the best friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Later, the church was renovated and an addition was built to provide more needed space.
In 1995, at the direction of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, the parishes of St. James in Charles Town and St. Peter in Harpers Ferry were merged to form the new Parish of St. James.
From the 68 people who celebrated two Masses a month in 1890, St. James Parish grew to over 1,000 families celebrating seven Masses each weekend in the tiny church located at 311 South George Street in downtown Charles Town. With more future growth expected, a planning process was implemented, capital campaigns were conducted, and a building project was launched. As a result, our new church facility at 49 Crosswinds Drive was dedicated on July 25, 2006, appropriately on the feast day of St. James the Greater.
The parish now encompasses the central and southern portions of Jefferson County and maintains the parish facilities located at 49 Crosswinds Drive in Charles Town, the rectory located at 311 South George Street, our historic chapel of St. Peter located within Harpers Ferry National Park, and St. Peter Cemetery on Route 340 in Harpers Ferry.