By the banks of Opequon Creek, near the little colonial village of Middleway, West Virginia, lies a tract of land known for generations as Priest Field. Despite its unassuming aspect, it boasts an extraordinary history, which unfolded with the beginnings of the Catholic Church in the U.S. All the ecclesiastical records were destroyed by the clergy, but many well-documented accounts by contemporaries survive. Among these witnesses was the famous Russian convert, Prince Dimitri Augustine Gallitzin, who was the first priest to receive all his orders in the new man-made nation, and who as Fr. Demetrius A. "Smith" became the Apostle of the Alleghenies.
There is a solemn promise attached to the field: BEFORE THE END OF TIME THIS WILL BE A GREAT PLACE OF PRAYER AND FASTING AND PRAISE. But this is getting ahead of the story, which began in the late 1770's, when a God-fearing, propertied German Lutheran named Johann Adam Liebenstein settled his numerous household near the creek on 70 acres inherited from his father, within the triangle formed by Charles Town, Martinsburg and Winchester— in those days all part of Virginia. He hoped to escape the mysterious disasters afflicting him at his former homestead in York County, Pennsylvania, where horses and cattle kept dying, crops withered and barns burned down for no reason.
Alas, the move afforded no relief. Not only did the livestock continue to die, but the legs and heads of the poultry began dropping off unaccountably, and the house itself was infested. Furniture and crockery flew about, balls of fire rolled from the fireplaces across the floors, and deafening sounds of galloping horses could be heard day or night. All this was accompanied by the sound of incessant clipping which seemed to belong to phantom scissors bent on attacking any available piece of cloth or leather.
Linens, clothing, even boots and harness fell prey to the invisible frenzied shears, which especially liked to snip things into distinctive crescent shapes. Not even the clothing of guests was spared. A Presbyterian lady from Martinsburg, calling on the Liebensteins (now called Livingston) to enquire about the happenings, took the precaution of doffing her new silk cap and wrapping it up in her pocket to avoid decimation. When she took her leave, however, pulling out her cap, she found it cut to ribbons.
Needless to say, tales of the Wizard Clip spread like wildfire. Middleway was called Clip-town, and to this day the natives are known as "Clippers". The distraught Mr. Livingston turned to his Bible, where he read that "Christ had given to His ministers power over evil spirits." He journeyed to Winchester to ask his minister for help, but the latter acknowledged no such power. Concluding that his parson could be no true minister, he applied to others, who "came, prayed and read, but they prayed and read in vain." Three were routed by a giant whirling stone, and the Episcopalian divine's prayer book was whisked away to be discovered later in the bottom of a chamber pot.
"A Roman Catholic peddler" eventually chanced to spend the night at the Livingston's, and being "much disturbed by the noise which prevailed almost the whole night in the house, tried to persuade Livingston to send for a Catholic priest, but Livingston answered quickly that he had tried so many of those fellows, he was not going to try any more of them!" Not until, that is, he had a dream wherein, climbing a high mountain with great difficulty, he saw at the top in a beautiful church "a minister dressed in robes" and a voice told him, "That is the man who can relieve you."
An Italian acquaintance, Giuseppe Minghini, erstwhile valet to Major General Charles Lee, told him that could only be a Catholic priest, and directed him to the estate of a wealthy Catholic, Richard McSherry. Told that Holy Mass would be celebrated in a private home in Shepherdstown the following Sunday, there he met the Irish missionary Fr. Dennis Cahill from Hagarstown, Maryland. On seeing him vested at the altar, Livingston exclaimed, "That is the very man I saw in my dream!"
He related his misfortune to Fr. Cahill, who scoffed loudly, but was finally pressured by Minghini and McSherry into going to say some prayers and sprinkle holy water. As he left, money which had disappeared from a locked chest was suddenly placed by invisible hands at his feet, and the noxious Clip was quiet for several days. Only much later, after Holy Mass had been offered on the premises, did the manifestations cease entirely.
Fr. Gallitzin investigated all this for his superiors in 1797. In a letter to a McSherry daughter dated April 11, 1839, he writes, "My view in coming to Virginia, and remaining there three months, was to investigate those extraordinary facts at Livingston's, of which I had heard so much at Conewago, and which I could not prevail upon myself to believe; but I was soon converted to a full belief of them. No lawyer in a court of justice did ever examine witnesses more strictly than I did all those I could procure." He also says elsewhere that Adam Livingston "soon after became a most edifying member of the Catholic Church."
Fr. Gallitzin wrote a complete history, but apparently it perished with the official church records. Why? The reason seems clear. Until the Revolution, no Catholic priest was permitted in Virginia, where Bishop Carroll estimated there were hardly 200 Catholics. Many had never seen a Catholic church, and until then had no possibility of Mass and the Sacraments. They were still engulfed in Protestants, among whom their new freedom of religion remained precarious. For fear of rousing anti-Catholic sentiment, the Americanist John Carroll would have been careful not to publicize the Wizard Clip in any case, but especially in view of the alarming sequel:
For some 17 years after the manifestations, a mysterious Voice instructed the Livingston household in the truths of the Faith. It assumed the spiritual direction of the entire family, guiding their every action, scolding, encouraging, warning and prophesying. In the evenings it would summon them with, "Come! Take your seats!" and proceed to catechize, always prefacing its utterances with, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost," and making them bless themselves. The Voice preached deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin, often leading them in the Rosary. For the benefit of Livingston's Presbyterian wife (a second marriage), who found Marian devotion unacceptable, they were required to render the second part of the Hail Mary as "Holy, Holy, Holy Mary, Mother of God…"
Before their reception into the Church, the family was put through a 40-day fast with three hours of daily prayer and told to keep March 4 annually as a day in thanksgiving. Often in the middle of the night the Voice would demand prayers for the souls in Purgatory. Mr. Livingston was once required to pray for three hours for the soul of "Fr. Pellins" (Fr. James Pellentz, S.J., Bishop Carroll's recently deceased Vicar-General). When one of the girls was thinking to herself that the Holy Souls could well have helped themselves, shrieks for help were heard, and the imprint of a human hand was scorched into a shirt before their eyes. The Voice constantly inveighed against worldly fashions for either sex, but on one occasion his counsel was punctuated by shattering the mirror before which the McSherry girls were admiring themselves.
But the most embarrassing characteristic of the Voice was its unecumenical intransigence towards Protestantism. It stated flatly that all ministers of false religions were of the devil1, possessing no other power than any lay person, and that Catholics under no circumstances should ever attend their services. Poor Eve McSherry, who became very saintly, was severely reprimanded for one infraction. When the hospitable Mrs. McSherry lodged two traveling Protestant ministers for the night in the room where the visiting priest usually slept, and where the vestments were kept, the family was kept awake all night by the sound of galloping horses, although the ministers heard nothing. The Voice warned her through Mr. Livingston that she should never have permitted them to use that room, and not to let it happen again!2
Whose was this unseen voice? Allegedly seen by some of the younger children, it told Mr. Livingston that it had once been in the flesh as he was. Because it sang beautifully in Latin, the family thought it was that of a priest. One day a stranger, barefoot, bearded and poorly clad, appeared suddenly in the living room. Presuming him to be a beggar, they offered him shoes and clothing, which he accepted, although remarking that these were not needed where he came from. Asked where this was, the stranger replied, "From my Father." And where was he going? "To my Father. And I have come to teach you the way of my Father." He stayed three days and nights, instructing them, and then vanished into thin air. In his fine work, The Mystery of the Wizard Clip, published in Baltimore in 1879, Fr. Joseph Finotti, S.J. says that this "Angel" informed his hosts during his visit that "Luther and Calvin were in hell, and every soul that was lost through their fault added to their torments."
Withal, the Voice was a source of abundant blessings. Admitting that Protestants who died in the proper dispositions could be saved, the Voice held small hope for Catholics who relied on a last minute repentance. There were many conversions, Mr. Minghini's Protestant wife among them, besides miraculous cures. Catholics in Virginia and Maryland were drawn to lead better lives, and fervent lay apostles were formed at a crucial time when priests and churches were very scarce.
Once when Mrs. McSherry saw with horror her infant son's cradle rocking violently of itself, she received word from the Voice that "it was the devil who was trying to destroy the child, knowing that he would one day be his enemy." That child, whose cradle was preserved at Georgetown University, turned out to be Very Rev. William McSherry, a Jesuit Provincial. His mother is said to have died in the odor of sanctity. Staying home one Sunday to nurse a sick child, she saw "a beautiful person standing before her in a light cloud, with one hand up and the other down, and a nail running through each hand, who said to her, 'Whatsoever you do for one of my little ones, you do it for me.'" She told no one, but the Voice related the vision to Mr. Livingston, and when she died the Voice declared that "her soul did not even pass through Purgatory."
Not all fared so well. Mrs. McSherry's brother, studying for the priesthood, spurned a warning and died obstinate. Mrs. Livingston never truly converted. Frequently falsifying the Voice, she referred to herself as the Judas of the family, and died in regrettable circumstances. Fr. Gallitzin believed that some of the children also "care very little for the Church," but this did not apply to Henry, who lived a holy life after being punished for over a year for refusing to do the reaping without being paid for it!
Before returning to Pennsylvania in 1802, Adam Livingston deeded the 34 acres comprising Priest Field to the Catholic Church. One well-substantiated explanation is that during exorcism, the Wizard Clip identified itself as a previous incumbent who had acquired the parcel by murdering its owner, and declared that restitution must be made. Presumably no rightful heirs could be found, whereupon Livingston made the customary disposition of such stolen property by giving it to the Church, obtaining his wife's consent with great difficulty. It was then the Voice foretold that the Field would become a great place of prayer.
The deed specified that "said land is to be rented and the profits are to be applied towards building and repairing a church or chapel thereon." For many reasons this was not feasible, but the land was used as a Catholic cemetery for many years. Finally, in 1922, the Bishop of Richmond obtained a ratification of the will, and in 1923 a little wooden chapel was built, which became the scene of frequent pilgrimages, with Mass said there on All-Souls' Day, and later on the feast of the Assumption.
In the chaos following the Council, the chapel was gutted of its old wooden altar, which some pious ladies saying the Rosary on the property were horrified to see had been used to construct an outdoor latrine to accommodate campers, the letters IHS plainly visible on the back of the stalls. The tabernacle was discovered at a distance by the creek, its top used for cutting bait.
In 1974 Priest Field became part of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, and four years later was turned into an extensive Pastoral Center with a resident priest, a huge parking lot and a welter of modern buildings housing a new well-upholstered chapel devoid of images or kneelers. (The old chapel now serves as a conference hall.) A brochure informs visitors: "A special mission of Priest Field will be to foster the principle of religious freedom in America."
Perhaps the Voice will let us know what he thinks of this.
1. Whether consciously or unconsciously, since such ministers, though they may be of good will, preach error and dissimulate the truths that Our Lord Jesus Christ taught and gave to His Church. (Ed. note)
2. Her charity is to be commended, but perhaps those ministers were bad men, or because she considered them on the same level as a Catholic minister, that the Voice reprimanded her. (Ed. note)