The boxy, simple building was originally constructed of hewn logs, and many years later, in 1928, the log structure was covered with clapboard wood siding painted white. The church was dubbed St. Colman.
A large, unadorned wooden cross rose above the roof level at the chapel’s front. Inside, the white altar and some of the benches for the congregation were constructed in 1904 by Father J. J. Swint, who was a carpenter as well as priest, and later became Bishop of Wheeling.
Outside, the chapel’s cemetery contains the graves of several dozen of the area’s Irish residents, marked with granite and marble upright gravestones. It also has what is known as a "Lost Corner,” located in the cemetery’s rear, which is a small plot of unconsecrated ground where the unbaptized were buried. One gravestone bears the epitaph:"Remember kind friends as you pass by. As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so you must be. Prepare for death, and follow me."
Despite the area losing some of its population as a result of some of its men leaving to work on the railroad, the community at Irish Mountain continued to thrive into the 20th century, with an average of 15 to 20 families occupying the area, the nomination says. But the mission church was never given its own priest, instead always relying on the Hinton parish, St. Patrick.
At the time the Historic Places register nomination was written — 1984 — the author of the form described the worshipers there as “occasional."
Kelli Thompson Harrison, 50, from Crab Orchard, West Virginia, told CNA that her ancestors were Irish Catholic immigrants who worshipped at St. Colman Catholic Church.
“It's just truly heartbreaking because there's so much history there,” she said. The church was a place of meaning and purpose for the immigrant community, Harrison said, and it saddens her to see it destroyed.
The chapel had attracted attention in recent years for reasons other than its Catholic history — it was visited by ghosthunters, who claim to have experienced “cold spots” and the presence of ghosts at the site. In particular, the presence of the cemetery’s “Lost Corner” appears to have captured the imagination of believers in the paranormal.
Ghosts or not, the attention given to the chapel by ghosthunters has caused it demonstrable harm. In 2012, the “windows, pews and the altar were broken and destroyed” by vandals, according to a report from the Beckley Register-Herald. The assailants also reportedly spray painted a message on the chapel’s interior: “This s*** is not haunted.”
It is unclear whether the suspected arson attack that destroyed the church this week is related to its phantasmal reputation, or to the spate of arson attacks against Catholics that have plagued the nation as a whole in recent months.
(Story continues below)
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In particular, Catholic churches, crisis pregnancy centers, and other pro-life groups have been on heightened alert in response to threats of retaliatory attacks by pro-abortion activists in the wake of the landmark abortion ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24.
Jonah McKeown is a staff writer and podcast producer for Catholic News Agency. He holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has worked as a writer, as a producer for public radio, and as a videographer. He is based in St. Louis.