Note: The Bethesda Evangelical Church is on private property. Please respect it and no trespassing.
Among the first stories I can remember hearing as a child involved a haunted church located deep in the countryside between Penns and Brush Valleys. I could see the church from a distance and turned onto a narrow dirt road towards the church that retains its pastoral setting despite the world modernizing around it.
In the late afternoon on May 3, I arrived at the Swamp Church and pParking in the stone lot opposite the church, I stepped out to study the historic building. I was immediately overtaken by the smell of freshly cut grass and on the Penns Creek side of the road, I could hear the sound of crickets and frogs. The call of the animals from the swampy area gave the area a creepy feeling.
The Bethesda Evangelical Church has served the community of Farmer’s Mills and the surrounding countryside since 1855, when it was dedicated and five generations have worshiped in the sanctuary since it opened its doors. Erected on the banks of Penns Creek, the building took its name from the Bethesda Pool in Jerusalem which, according to Scripture, had healing powers. Despite the reverent name, most people know it by its other name, Swamp Church, a name that derived from it being built on the swampy grounds along the headwaters of Penns Creek. Though it is still open for special services and occasions, the Bethesda Evangelical Church remains empty for most of the year.
According to the lore of the region, the church is one of the most haunted places in Centre County. Many stories have been told about phantom lights, ghostly whispers, and the bell ringing on its own. These claims are not unique to Swamp Church as many old, rarely used churches in Central Pennsylvania have similar stories associated with them.
However, there is a story that is unique to Swamp Church.
The church and the area around it are supposedly haunted by a mournful female spirit who regularly makes her appearance every spring. According to word of mouth, the mournful spirit visits the church on May 3, but the date the spirit visits the church mostly depends upon who is telling the story.
According to the legend, the shadowy form of a woman dressed in black has been spotted walking along the road with a baby cradled in her arms. Her appearance is usually marked with a noticeable decrease in temperature before she appears walking along the dirt road. As she approaches the church the air becomes even colder. When she arrives at the building, she slips inside and the building is instantly filled by a spooky, dim light.
The shadowy figure is spotted walking toward the front of the church, pausing at each pew as to introduce her baby to a ghostly congregation that can only she can see. Once the ritual is completed, she turns and walks back the aisle – as she slips out the door the building goes dark again. The ghostly figure retraces her footsteps down the dirt road before disappearing once again into the darkness.
Some versions of the story claim she is heard calling out softly “Will…, Will…” as she walks along the road.
The identity of the young woman and her baby are not known – their names have been lost in the fog of time. Most versions agree that the young woman was a member of the congregation during the Civil War. Some claim she was an unwed mother, whose lover died May 3 during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Being an unwed mother, the congregation shunned her and her baby, driving them from the church. Whatever became of them is not known as they disappeared into history never to be seen again while alive. Yet the ghost of the young mother and her child return from time to time, still searching for the love the congregation denied them so long ago.
In the handful of trips I’ve made to visit the area, I can say I’ve never spotted the ghostly figure. Maybe they finally found the peace they were denied while alive. I certainly hope so.