Note: The Bethesda Evangelical Church is on private property. Please respect it and no trespassing.
Tucked away on a small dirt road, deep in the countryside between Penns and Brush Valleys, is a small church that maintains its pastoral setting despite the world modernizing around it. Though it is still open for special services and occasions, the Bethesda Evangelical Church remains empty for most of the year.
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.
What drew me to the church are the legends about the church being haunted. The stories of phantom lights, ghostly whispers, and the bell ringing on its own are all part of the lore involving the historic church. Yet these claims are not unique to Swamp Church – these same stories surround a number of old, rarely used churches in Central Pennsylvania.
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. I parked in the lot across from the building on a warm May evening, on the date most seem to agree the ghost visits the church — May 3. To be honest, the date the spirit visits the church depends upon who is telling the story.
As I sat there, watching for any sign of her arrival, I reflected upon the legend of the lady who haunts the area and the church. According to most, the shadowy form of a woman dressed in black has been seen walking along the road with her baby cradled in her arms. Her appearance is usually marked with a noticeable decrease in temperature as she approaches the church. Her form slips into the building and her arrival is marked with the church being filled with a dim light that illuminates the whole interior. Her ghost is seen walking toward the front of the church, pausing before each pew as to introduce her baby to a ghostly congregation that can only be seen by the phantom visitor. Once the ritual is completed, she turns and walks back the aisle and slips out the door as 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.
I didn’t see them that evening, nor did I see them on the two subsequent trips I made to watch for their arrival. Maybe they finally found the peace they were denied while alive. I certainly hope so.