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Historic chapel at Mont Alto rededicated

May 22, 2000|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Waynesboro

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859 is part of the American story, and a little country church at Penn State Mont Alto shares in that story, the president of Penn State University said Monday.

Graham Spanier's visit - with two busloads of new Penn State teachers in tow - happened to coincide with the local campus' rededication of Emmanuel Chapel.

The rededication followed $325,000 in renovation work to the 146-year-old stone church.

The cornerstone for the chapel was laid in 1854. It was built to serve workers at an iron-making operation on land that is now the Mont Alto Campus. More than 500 workers were employed by the furnaces and most were of English descent and belonged to the Anglican church.

In the late summer and early fall of 1859, John Brown was a frequent Sunday School teacher at the church. He went by the name of Isaac Smith to hide his real identity because he was a fugitive from justice for plotting the murders of five pro-slavery men in Kansas in 1855.

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Brown lived in a Chambersburg rooming house at the time. He set up a saw mill in Mont Alto and sold charcoal to the iron furnaces. He also began to receive heavy wooden crates, which he told local residents contained mining equipment, according to local historians.

Peggy Russo, an English teacher at Mont Alto and an amateur historian who is studying Brown, said her theory is that Brown was not teaching about God, but was using the chapel to teach blacks to read.

He was also storing arms in a Chambersburg warehouse in preparation for his Harpers Ferry raid.

"The arms were being brought to Chambersburg by train," Russo said.

She said the campus wants the state historical society to install near the church a historic marker describing Brown's activities there. "We'll have to do some more research to verify everything," Russo said.

Among the 17 whites and five blacks who accompanied Brown to Harpers Ferry was John E. Cook, a New York farmer. Cook was one of eight raiders who escaped from Harpers Ferry following the raid on the arsenal.

He was captured two weeks later near the chapel when he was recognized by some iron workers after he tried to trade his rifle for food.

He was tried and hanged in Charles Town in what is now West Virginia on Dec. 16, 1859, according to a state historical marker on Pa. 233 across from the campus.

His execution, along with that of four other raiders, came 14 days after Brown was executed. A sixth raider was hanged the following March in Charles Town. Ten of Brown's men were killed in the raid.

Penn State Mont Alto, which opened as a forestry school in 1903, bought the chapel from the Episcopal Diocese for $1 in 1992. It had not been used for more than a decade.

The renovations, funded through donations, include new walls, windows, doors, carpeting and pews. A new addition in the rear holds a kitchenette, restrooms and a storage area.

It will be used for spiritual services, speaking programs, art exhibits and theater productions. For years it had been a popular site for weddings and will be available once again for that purpose.

David Goldenberg, chief executive officer at Mont Alto, said the "quest for knowledge is freedom from slavery."

"Our chapel should be a reminder that ignorance and prejudice bring about the conditions that led John Brown to violence, and then a nation to Civil War," he said.

"Our chapel should be a reminder that from the work of universities comes knowledge, understanding and respect for human dignity."

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